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In 1970, a group of hunters herded a pod of 60 Southern Resident orcas into a three-acre net pen off the coast of Washington state in Penn Cove. Seven of these whales were loaded onto trucks and transported to marine parks. However, only one of these orcas is still alive and in captivity. Her name is Lolita.
It’s estimated that Lolita was only four to six year old when she was corralled into the net pen with her family all those years ago. She eventually ended up at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida, where she has been for the last 44 years confined alone to a tank that, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) reports, is “smaller than even the minimum standard required by federal law.” In fact, it is the smallest orca tank in North America.
All of Lolita’s Southern Resident family members, whose population numbers just 85, were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005. Lolita never received similar protection.
For years, activists and even Washington governors, senators, and newspaper columnists have urged the Miami Seaquarium to transport her back to Washington waters, The Seattle Times reports, but to no avail.
However, it looks as though Lolita’s story may finally be heard as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed a rule on Jan. 24, 2014 that would grant Lolita endangered species status protection following a petition filed by ALDF, Orca Network, PETA and others. If the rule is approved, Lolita will then be retired from performing and be able to live out the rest of her days at a seaside sanctuary off Washington’s San Juan Island with the potential for eventual release into the wild.
What’s more, as The Seattle Times reports, “The move could have implications for other endangered species held by zoos and aquariums.”
The public comment period on NMFS’s proposed rule will open today, January 27, and will run until March 28. After this period, NMFS will spend months evaluating what coverage under the ESA will mean for Lolita. Lend your voice to Lolita today and speak out against her captivity. Spread the word about her chance at freedom using ALDF’s action alerts here and be sure to leave your public comment right here.
For more information on Lolita, check out the eight-minute documentary below from the Orca Project entitled, “A Day in the Life of Lolita, the Performing Orca.”
Image source: Animal Legal Defense Fund