The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), PETA, and three individuals filed a lawsuit this morning against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for violating the Administrative Procedure Act by excluding Lolita, a solitary orca who has been confined to a tiny concrete tank at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 40 years, from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA provides members of the wild Southern Resident orca population and other endangered animals with a host of protections, including protection against being harmed or harassed. Yet, despite being a member of the Southern Residents, Lolita has been denied all of these protections without any explanation by NMFS. The plaintiffs argue that NMFS’ regulatory exclusion from ESA listing of captive Southern Resident orcas is illegal. In the filing, the plaintiffs set out specific provisions of the ESA that expressly forbid such an exclusion.
“The government’s failure to provide Lolita with the protections enjoyed by the wild members of her pod has enabled the Miami Seaquarium to keep her in conditions that violate the Endangered Species Act,” explains ALDF’s director of litigation Carter Dillard. “Lolita must be granted the protections under federal law which she is rightfully due and which best ensure her survival and well-being, which—depending on her condition—could include transferring her to a sea pen in her home waters and releasing her back to her family pod.”
PETA and ALDF explain that NMFS listed Southern Resident orcas, who range off the coast of Washington State, as endangered in part because their capture for public display had depressed their numbers to dangerous levels. The ESA clearly prohibits the wholesale exemption of all captive members of a listed species. And even where valid exemptions exist, they apply only where the holding of such animals “was not in the course of a commercial activity.” The plaintiffs estimate that Seaquarium has made tens of millions of dollars by forcing Lolita to perform tricks over the past four decades.
In the wild, orcas live in tight family units with bonds that may last a lifetime. At Seaquarium, Lolita swims endless circles in a small, barren tank that does not comply with USDA regulations. This highly intelligent and social animal has been without an orca companion since 1980.