One of the last killer whales to be captured as part of Washington's whale trade will remain in captivity following a federal court ruling Tuesday, marking a major blow to a decades-long campaign to relocate Lolita the Orca.
A judge presiding over an appeals court case in Florida highlighted the risk in transporting the orca back to her home waters in Puget Sound in his decision to uphold a Miami-based aquarium's right to house the sea mammal.
The ruling stymies more than two decades worth of effort from animal rights activists who argue Lolita's health has deteriorated since she was originally captured off Whidbey Island in 1970. She is one of many whales who were captured and sold to aquariums and parks across the world during this time.
Seaquarium, where Lolita is held, says the orca has better living conditions in captivity than she would have in the wild. In a Seattle Times report, the amusement park said the orca is better off in a tank than in Puget Sound where pollution and lack of food threatens a beleagured population of killer whales.
Critics of animal captivity say the orca has sustained mental and physical trauma as result of frequent dolphin attacks and a holding pen that is miniscule compared to the open waters killer whales require in the wild.
The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal rights group behind the recent lawsuit, have suggested the orca be relocated to a santuary in the San Juan Islands where she could be rehabilitated under human care.
"Where she is now, she is being administered antibiotics, anti-fungals, pain medicals, steriods, hormones and anti-acids to treat infections," Jared Goodman, PETA's deputy general counsel for animal law, said. "She is in conditions that cause substantial harm to her."
Whether Lolita, 51 years-old, could survive the journey and reacclimate to new surroundings remains a source of dispute.
Past attempts to reintroduce captive orcas into the wild have resulted in their deaths. Keiko, the whale made famous in the movie Free Willy, was released after decades of captivity only to be discovered a year later off the coast of Norway as having died from pnemonia. A 2009 study concluded the sea mammal's dependence on humans was at play in her death.
Goodman said PETA does not want to reintroduce Lolita into the wild, but rather keep her under close supervision in a netted off cove off Orcas Island.
Another lawsuit filed by the animal rights group could pressure Seaquarium into improving Lolita's living conditions by calling into question the park's adherence to federal guidelines for animal captivity.