UPDATE: PETA continues to fight for Lolita— an orca imprisoned inside Miami Seaquarium— after a court of appeals dismissed her case for freedom from the park.
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) lawsuit against the Miami Seaquarium.
PETA, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network, had successfully petitioned the government to include Lolita in her family’s endangered listing which gives her protection from “harm” and “harassment.” The organizations then sued Miami Seaquarium under the ESA for holding her without the company of any others of her species, with incompatible animals, and in a cramped tank with no protection from the hot sun, leading to physical and psychological injury. These conditions, in which Lolita is held to do stupid tricks, both clearly “harm” and “harass” her. However, the court held that Lolita’s injuries did not meet its novel and heightened threshold for violations of the ESA, a standard that leaves endangered animals suffering in captivity with far less protection from harmful conduct by their abusers.
This ruling sentences this highly intelligent, deeply lonely, and distressed orca to a lifetime of physical and psychological harm, confined to a tiny concrete cell without family, friends, or freedom.
The organizations are now asking for both the three-judge panel that decided to dismiss the case to reconsider its decision and for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (rehearing en banc) to take up the issue.
The plaintiffs argue that the court’s ruling is inconsistent with the plain language of the ESA, the implementation of the law by the agencies tasked with administering it, U.S. Supreme Court precedent that recognizes the broad protections afforded by the law and rejects reasoning analogous to that of the lower court, and decisions in other jurisdictions.
The groups also note that they’ve presented extensive evidence of a critically endangered animal’s physical and psychological injuries, including those that are likely to reduce her life span. So, regardless of the standard adopted by the court, a trial before the district court is required to determine whether that standard was met, and summary judgment for the Seaquarium was improper.
No matter how long it takes, we will win for animals.
Public opinion has turned against using animals for entertainment, and we know confined orcas suffer beyond imagination in captivity. The courts and animal abusers alike cannot ignore this forever, and until all the tanks are emptied, PETA will continue to fight for animals’ right to autonomy.
Originally published on July 20, 2015:
This morning, a coalition including PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Orca Network, and Orca Network Director Howard Garrett hit the Miami Seaquarium with a lawsuit contending that the facility’s imprisonment of Lolita the suffering orca—who’s currently being held without the company of any others of her kind in a cramped tank with no protection from the harsh sun—constitutes a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the protection of the ESA—which Lolita was granted following a successful petition from the coalition—her imprisonment and forced performances appear to constitute an unlawful “take,” meaning that she’s being harmed, harassed, or wounded.
Since 1970, Lolita has been unable to swim more than a few yards of the 100 miles a day she might cover in the wild. And her tiny tank offers no protection from the sun—which, according to a former caretaker, has caused her skin to crack and bleed. PETA, the ALDF, Orca Network, and countless concerned advocates have pushed for years for Lolita to be retired from performing and transferred to a seaside sanctuary that’s waiting for her in her home waters off Washington’s San Juan Islands, where she could interact with her family pod. In the wild, Southern Resident orcas often spend their entire lives with their mothers. Lolita appeared to recognize her pod’s calls decades after being captured, and the orca believed to be her mother—who’s estimated to be about 86 years old—is still thriving.