After repeated protest from animal rights activists, Miami Seaquarium has agreed to release its captive orca, Lolita, into the wild waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Lolita has been a member of Miami Seaquarium for about 50 years. She was captured in the wild when she was four years old. At the time, she was name Toki, reports NPR. She was later renamed Lolita and shipped to Florida to take part in trained animal shows.
Over the past few decades, wildlife advocates have spoken out about Lolita’s captivity. Like many marine mammals, killer whales are highly intelligent. Keeping such creatures in enclosures is a moral wrong, activists say. Other institutions, like the soon-to-be-built octopus farm in Spain, have drawn similar fire in recent years.
Orca whales, which are actually part of the dolphin family, may be especially sensitive to the conditions of captivity. In the wild, their territories span many miles of open ocean—far more space than the average aquarium tank can provide. Captive orcas have been known to lash out against their handlers. In 2010, for example, an orca named Tilikum drowned his trainer after a show at Sea World by grabbing her ponytail and dragging her to the bottom of the pool. Many experts saw this behavior as a response to chronic stress and depression.
Though the aquarium has promised to release Lolita, a few obstacles remain. For one thing, there’s the expense. Miami is thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean. Shipping an orca that distance will likely be very pricey, reports NPR, and the funding details are still being worked out. For another, there’s Lolita’s age.
Lolita is currently 57 years old, making her the oldest orca currently kept in captivity. Female orcas usually live to be 50 to 60 years old in captivity and 45 to 50 years old in the wild. So, even if Lolita is successfully transported to the Pacific, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be fit enough to survive for very long.
Despite the risks, Florida biologists and animal rights activists are applauding the decision. Miami Seaquarium signed an agreement with advocacy group Friends of Lolita this week to make their promise official.
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