The fate of Miami Seaquarium's killer whale Lolita is once again being debated.
The National Marine Fisheries Service formally accepted a petition from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in collaboration with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, to include Lolita in the list of endangered species. according to spokesman Brian Gorman.
Starting Thursday, the agency has nine months to review the petition and make a decision.
The petition calls for Lolita to be returned to the region where she was captured and possibly be returned to her family pod.
Miami Seaquarium General Manager Andrew Hertz, said Lolita is happy and thriving.
"While we are unable to comment on information pertaining to this petition which has just been put out for public comment by the federal government, we can say that Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 43 years," Hertz said in an email statement. "She is healthy and thriving in her permanent home where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins. She will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium."
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.
"What this petition would accomplish is to just grant her the same protections that she's entitled to," said Jared Goodman, an attorney with PETA.
Goodman said that the animal rights group is asking that Lolita be transfered to a coastal sanctuary in her natural habitat, where she can communicate with other killer whales. He added that Lolita's mother is over 80 years old and still roams the area.
But even if Lolita made the endangered listing, there is no guarantee she would be returned to the ocean, said Gorman.
"There is a general feeling between marine animal biologists that it's extremely risky to release an
animal that has been in captivity this long into the wild," Gorman said. "The learned behavior and the experience that comes with being in the wild has disappeared from her memory."
While it is too soon to predict where Lolita will end up, Gorman said the agency is not dismissing the case, but it will review similar cases.
"The history of trying to return large marine mammals to the wild is not a very good one," he added.
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