Federal officials are seeking public comment on a proposal to have Miami Seaquarium's killer whale Lolita covered under the Endangered Species Act.
The National Marine Fisheries Service's latest move is in response to a petition from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in collaboration with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The petition calls for Lolita to be returned to the region where she was captured and possibly be returned to her family pod.
"She should be in her home waters where she can feel the ocean and interact with other marine life," said PETA spokesman Jared Goodman.
But the federal government noted in last week's proposed amendment that the listing that releasing Lolita to the wild is not a guaranteed result of this change, because in some cases it's safer to keep the endangered animal in captivity.
The Miami Seaquarium agrees with that assessment. General Manager Andrew Hertz notes that the fisheries statement says release of a captive animal into the wild may injure or kill that animal as well as pose a danger for wild populations of the same species.
"Even if Lolita is officially deemed part of an endangered species group, Miami Seaquarium would already be in full compliance with any additional requirements and protections," Hertz said in a statement.
He added that Lolita has been living at the marine park for 44 years and is as active and healthy as ever.
Additionally, the USDA has said Lolita's habitat "far exceeds the minimum requirement established by the Animal Welfare Act regulations," according to the statement.
Lolita was captured from Puget Sound, located off the coast of Washington, where the Southern Resident Population of orca whales reside, the fisheries service said. This population was listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, long after Lolita's capture in 1970, excluding her from the listing.
"Lolita should never have been excluded from the Endangered Species Act in the first place, and now the government has righted that wrong," said Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA in a statement.
Steven Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said his group and others are doing everything they can to get Lolita back to her family and her habitat.
Comments on the proposed rule are being accepted for two months, either electronically, through the mail and by fax.
Click here for more information on the proposed rule to have Lolita covered under the Endangered Species Act.