Federal government to review petition aimed at freeing captive orca

SEATTLE — The federal government has agreed to reconsider a petition aimed at freeing the killer whale Lolita from captivity at Miami Seaquarium.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plan to file a new petition asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to include the captive orca Lolita within its endangered species listing for Puget Sound orcas.

Lolita has been performing at Seaquarium since she was captured from Northwest waters in 1970.

Under a settlement agreement filed Friday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal government must decide by specific time periods whether protection for the captive killer whale is warranted. In return, the groups agreed to dismiss its appeal.

“This is what we wanted all along. We believe they acted illegally all along in excluding Lolita,” Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, said Monday. “Our belief is that she’ll be included (in the listing).”

When the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Southern Resident orcas as endangered in 2005 — in decline because of lack of prey, pollution and contaminants, and effects from vessels and other factors — it didn’t include whales placed in captivity prior to the listing or their captive born offspring.

ALDF, PETA and three individuals in Washington state sued the federal government in November, saying it should have protected Lolita when it listed other Puget Sound orcas in 2005. Their lawsuit alleged that the fisheries service allows the Miami Seaquarium to keep Lolita in conditions that harm and harass her and otherwise wouldn’t be allowed under federal law.

In early May, a federal judge court in Tacoma dismissed the case on procedural grounds. The plaintiffs appealed later that month.

Lolita is the last surviving orca captured from the Southern Resident orca population during the 1970s. She is a member of the L pod, or family. The J, K, and L pods ply the waters of Puget Sound and British Columbia. The whales have striking black coloring and white bellies and spend time in tight, social groups.

The Seaquarium has said Lolita is active, healthy, well-cared for and plays an important role in educating the public about the need to conserve the species.

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