Activists sue Miami aquarium for captive orca Lolita's release

MIAMI (Reuters) - Animal rights groups seeking the release of Lolita, a killer whale in captivity since 1970, sued the Miami Seaquarium and its parent company Palace Entertainment on Monday saying her conditions violate the Endangered Species Act.

Lolita the Killer Whale is fed a fish by a trainer during a show at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami January 21, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity

“For more than 40 years, Lolita has been unable to swim any meaningful distance, dive, forage, or carry out virtually any natural behaviors,” said the complaint, filed in the Southern District of Florida by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Activists have long bemoaned her tank, which measures 80 feet (24 meters) long, 60 feet (18 meters) wide and 20 feet (6 meters) deep, as one of the smallest whale enclosures in the world. She has also been without another orca since 1980 when her tank mate, Hugo, died, the complaint added.

The federal government cleared a path for the lawsuit earlier this year after adding the 7,000-pound (3.1 tonne) orca to the endangered species list.

Lolita, who performs seven days a week, was captured in the summer of 1970 off the coast of Washington state when she was between three and six years old, according to court documents.

She was acquired by the Miami Seaquarium, a popular South Florida tourist attraction, later that year, the complaint said. Killer whales have no natural predators and can live up to 80 years.

The Seaquarium said in a statement on Monday it “provides first-class care for Lolita. She remains healthy and thriving after 45 years of residency.

The push to free Lolita gained momentum after the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” described how orcas were captured and how one killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

Activists hope to transfer Lolita back to Pacific waters near where she was captured. The plan calls for her to first live in a netted-off area where she can learn to hunt and communicate with other orcas before later being released.

The Seaquarium said Lolita is well cared for and has been in captivity for so long that releasing her would be “cruel and traumatic.”

Opponents of the release plan also argue she could face a fate similar to Keiko, the orca who starred in the 1993 movie “Free Willy.” That orca was released off Iceland in 2002 and died the next year after being rejected by wild killer whales.

Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler