A small victory has been scored by animal rights organizations fighting to free Lolita, a member of the endangered southern resident killer whales.
The U.S. federal government has accepted a petition from groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, asking that Lolita be included in the U.S endangered species listing.
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.
She has lived at Miami Seaquarium for most of her almost-43-years in captivity. Activists want, at the least, for her to be transferred to a sea pen in the San Juan Islands, where she could be cared for but still hear the voices of her L-Pod family.
Spokesmen for Miami Seaquarium have said previously that Lolita could not survive out of the aquarium environment.
Brian Gorman, spokesman for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, said standards for accepting the petition are not high.
“The standards for adding animals to the list are considerably higher,” he said.
“Now we have nine months to decide whether we should carry out the petition request and include Lolita in the listing,” he said.
Gorman said he could not speculate on the outcome, but, if Lolita was to be included in the endangered species listing, it would not necessarily preclude her being kept in captivity.
Endangered animals are often kept in captivity for reasons such as a captive breeding program, he said.
It is also not known whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would then insist her living conditions be improved, Gorman said.
“It is one of the questions we would have to wrestle with,” he said.
Activists have long objected to Lolita being kept in a small pool that they say does not meet federal guidelines.
Howard Garrett of Orca Network said acceptance of the petition is a step in the right direction.
“But it’s only one hurdle and there are so many still on the track ahead of us,” he said.
It seems logical that, if Lolita is eventually included in the listing, she would be freed, Garrett said.
“They can’t hold a member of an endangered species captive for business reasons,” he said.
There are only 84 remaining southern resident killer whales in the three pods that spend much of their time in Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound.
However, another petition under consideration by NOAA seeks to have southern resident killer whales removed from the endangered list.
The Pacific Legal Foundation represents two farmers in California’s Central Valley as well as the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability. The foundation argues that classification of the southern residents as a separate population is based on junk science.
A decision on that petition will be made by August.
Southern residents have been listed as endangered in the U.S since 2005.
In Canada, they were listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in 2001 and brought under the Species at Risk Act in 2003.