MIAMI – The federal government has agreed to consider whether to declare Lolita, the Miami Seaquarium’s biggest star for more than 40 years, a member of an endangered pack of Northwest Pacific killer whales.
Animal rights activists hailed the decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service as a potential step toward their longtime goal of returning the oldest whale in captivity to its home waters.
“We fully expect them to conclude that Lolita deserves the same protection as her family in the wild,” said Jared Goodman, an attorney for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which petitioned the service along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Ideally and realistically, this could ultimately result in her being reunited with her family.”
But Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service in Seattle, downplayed the ramifications of the move announced late Wednesday. Agreeing to consider a petition isn’t an indicator of whether federal scientists will accept the argument that Lolita merits protection under the Endangered Species Act – or support moving the massive orca from its tank at the popular attraction on Virginia Key.
“Theoretically, it is possible for Lolita to be listed and nothing else would change,” Gorman said.
Gorman said he couldn’t predict what the agency might decide but said past efforts to return longtime captive marine mammals to the wild have often failed.
“Generally speaking, it ends disastrously,” he said. “The animal doesn’t survive.”
Russ Rector, a longtime Seaquarium critic and marine mammal activist from Fort Lauderdale, also was skeptical about PETA’s efforts, saying he believes Lolita should have been moved years ago but is now too old and unhealthy.
“All PETA is doing is trying to make noise so they can make more money from donations,” Rector said.
Andrew Hertz, Seaquarium’s general manager, released a statement saying he could not comment on the petition but defended Lolita’s care over the last 43 years. He also said the idea of returning Lolita to the wild had no scientific support and would be reckless and cruel.