MIAMI, Fla. (Reuters) - A push to free Lolita, a killer whale in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for 44 years, inched forward on Wednesday when federal officials agreed to add her to the endangered species list.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Lolita belonged on the list along with her wild relatives. She was previously exempt due to her captive status.
“Captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts,” the agency said, announcing the change to take effect in 90 days.
The 7,000-pound (3.2-tonne) orca was captured in 1970 about 50 miles northwest of Seattle, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which petitioned for her endangered listing.
The status change clears a path for activists to ask a federal court to determine whether Lolita’s living conditions violate the Endangered Species Act.
Animal rights organizations have bemoaned her 80 x 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep (24 x 18 meters wide, 6 meters deep) tank as one of the smallest whale enclosures in the world.
“She’s been there languishing in a bath tub for longer than all but one orca in captivity,” said Jared S. Goodman, PETA’s director of animal law.
Killer whales have no natural predators and can live to 50 to 80 years old.
Animal right groups support a plan to reintroduce Lolita to the open water in a netted-off area near Washington State, then release her.
“Whether or not she’s ultimately going to be released, or not, is an issue we’re not deciding today,” Will Stelle, regional administrator, NOAA Fisheries West Coast region, told reporters.
Seaquarium officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They have contended that Lolita is better off in the environment where she has lived for almost 45 years.
They caution Lolita could end up like Keiko, the orca who starred in the 1993 movie “Free Willy.” Keiko was released off Iceland in 2002 and died the following year after being rejected by wild orcas.
The push to free Lolita has grown in the wake of the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” which described the capture of orcas and how one killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
About 1,000 people protested outside Miami Seaquarium last month demanding the release of Lolita, who performs in shows seven days a week and was the subject of the 2003 video documentary “Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.”
Editing by Letitia Stein and Sandra Maler