Animal rights groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the conditions in which Miami Seaquarium is keeping Lolita, a member of the endangered southern resident killer whale pods.
The lawsuit, filed by Orca Network, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is challenging the USDA's decision to renew the Seaquarium's Animal Welfare Act licence.
The case was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, and the government has 60 days to respond, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network.
"We expect the court date, after all the predictable procedural delays, to be in early 2013," Garrett said.
The documents claim that Lolita is living in a tank that is so small that it does not meet federal guidelines and does not provide adequate protection from the elements.
Seaquarium denies that the tank fails to meet federal guidelines and says, after 42 years of captivity, the whale could not be returned to the wild.
Garrett said the aim of groups working for Lolita's welfare is to have her released to a sea pen in her home waters - probably off Whidbey Island - where she could be cared for, but could hear the voices of her family.
Lolita, also known by her Coast Salish name Tokitae, is the only survivor of seven southern resident killer whales captured in Penn Cove, off Whidbey Island, in 1970.