Activists Threaten To Sue For Captive Whale Lolita's Freedom

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI, May 11 (Reuters) - Activists said on Monday they would sue a Florida aquarium for violating the Endangered Species Act if it does not improve living conditions for Lolita, a killer whale in captivity for more than four decades.

The Miami Seaquarium has 60 days to address the facility's alleged shortfalls that include a small enclosure, life without another whale, and twice-daily performances in the searing Florida sun, said activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration added Lolita to the endangered species list in early February, opening the door to potential lawsuits.

"For more than 40 years she has been unable to swim any meaningful distance, dive, forage, or carry out virtually any natural behaviors," PETA's Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman wrote in a letter to the tourist attraction.

Seaquarium officials said they could not comment until they read the letter. Federal law required the groups to warn the aquarium of a potential lawsuit by letter.

The 7,000-pound (3,175 kilograms) orca was captured in 1970 about 50 miles northwest of Seattle, according to PETA. Activists have since bemoaned her tank, which measures 80 by 60 feet (24 by 18 meters) wide and 20 feet (six meters) deep, as one of the smallest in the world.

Killer whales are highly social mammals that have no natural predators and can live to 50 to 80 years old.

Animal rights groups support a plan to reintroduce Lolita to the open water in a netted-off area near Washington state, then release her.

Opponents argue Lolita is well cared for, and would face the difficult challenges of learning how to hunt and rejoin a group of wild orcas.

"This is a non-releasable animal," Miami Seaquarium curator Robert Rose told Reuters in January. If freed, "she's going to die without question," he added.

The push to free Lolita has gained momentum following the 2013 documentary, "Blackfish," which described the captivity of orcas and how one killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

Thousands have gathered outside the beachside tourist attraction in recent months, demanding her release. (Editing by David Adams and Lisa Lambert)



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