It’s been nearly 44 years since a young killer whale named Lolita was ripped from her family off the coast of Washington state and flown to Miami to perform tricks in a pool so small it violates federal law. Now, thanks to a surprising decision from federal officials, Lolita is one step closer to home.
On Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed to include Lolita, now almost 50, as a member of an orca population, the Southern Resident killer whale community, that is listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The fish-eating Southern Residents were classified as endangered in 2005, largely because of declining salmon stocks, and captures of orcas for public display in the 1960s and 1970s, but that protection was not extended to Lolita, the only wild-caught Southern Resident in captivity. All the others have died.
Her life performing tricks for food “may violate the ESA’s protection against harm and harassment,” argued the Animal Legal Defense Fund and PETA in a statement. In 1995, producers from “NBC Dateline” visiting Lolita in her captive tank at Miami Seaquarium played recordings of Lolita’s family for her. “She responded quickly and seemed very interested, calling back to the recorder,” writes FreeWeb. “The camera crew was forced to leave Miami Seaquarium, however, for obvious reasons.”
Lolita’s tank doesn’t meet the minimum size required by the Animal Welfare Act, according to activists and scientists who have petitioned the government to enforce the law. She has no access to shade, and her only orca companion, Hugo, died in 1980 after bashing his head against the tank. Activists have tried for years to send Lolita, also known as Tokitae, to a sea pen in Washington, without success.
But last year, the ALDF, PETA, Orca Network, and others petitioned the government to propose the rule change to include Lolita on the endangered list, a move endorsed by the federal Marine Mammal Commission. Now NMFS officials have agreed, opening a 60-day public comment period, after which it has up to 18 months to make a decision.
“The fact that [NMFS] found the petition to be warranted suggests they are inclined to include Lolita” in ESA protection, wrote Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, in an email. “But it all depends on the public comments they receive. So I really can’t speculate. But I think the zeitgeist is very different today than it was in 2005 re: captivity.”
The listing wouldn’t guarantee Lolita a ticket home. Even if NMFS approves the rule, the Seaquarium can be expected to fight against letting its lonely whale go. The aquarium could contest a ruling in court or “file petitions to make their tired old case that transport would kill her,” wrote Howard Garrett of Orca Network in an email.
If she were not completely healthy, the move might be detrimental, the Seaquarium could argue, or she might introduce new diseases into the natural environment. But Rose said the orca appears to be healthy enough to survive in a sea pen.
Orca Network has a detailed proposal for resettling Lolita in a serene cove, Kanaka Bay, off the coast of San Juan Island, Wash., that could be netted off to create a sea pen. There, she could be taught to catch live fish and could listen to the sounds of the sea, including vocalizations from her family, members of the L Pod.
But it would not be a cheap project. Transporting a killer whale by air can cost up to $500,000, including insurance, and driving her across the country in a cramped tub inside a tractor trailer is not considered a safe option. Once in Kanaka Bay, annual costs could easily reach $100,000 or more for staff, vet care, and food.
Garrett is not worried about funding. “We’ll have no problem raising the money. We’re working on a budget now,” he wrote. “[But] we can’t hire anybody until we have a time frame for the project.”
Finally, it is unclear if Lolita would stay in her pen for life or rejoin her family. “I think they will definitely ‘talk’ across the pen netting, but whether she’ll be able to go free is very much up in the air,” Rose said. “She is almost 50 years old, after all.”
Amusement parks like SeaWorld insist it is unfeasible and inhumane to return captive orcas to the sea. But what could be more humane than potentially reuniting Lolita with her pod? Orca family bonds are on par with humans’. If a human family member went missing for 45 years, he or she would surely be warmly welcomed back home.