Legal strategies are coming close to fruition
Some background and updates: In the summer of 2011 a legal team began consulting with Orca Network to help Lolita return to her native waters. Mostly from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the team arrived at a multi-pronged approach. First, they noted that the Seaquarium whale tank violates multiple provisions of the Animal Welfare Act, which is administered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) under the USDA. In early 2013 we sued the USDA for issuing a license to an unlawful facility. The case was dismissed on March 21, 2014 on procedural grounds, but on July 1, 2014 we appealed the dismissal to an appellate court, which hopefully will examine the actual violations and not just allow the inspectors to ignore them. The appeal is likely to be ruled on early this year.
On another track, in November of 2011 the team launched legal action against NOAA Fisheries to require the agency to include Lolita as a member of the Southern Resident community, a status she was unlawfully denied when the population was listed as endangered in 2005. On January 24, 2014 NOAA agreed to do include Lolita, pending a one-year comment period. The determination will be final in about three weeks
, by January 24, 2015, after a one-year comment period that drew an astounding 19,190 comments, overwhelmingly in favor of her inclusion. If she is indeed declared a member of her extended family, she will be granted protected status, and presumably it will be unlawful to use a protected animal in a for-profit display park. The situation is so unprecedented and so unpredictable, especially given the dramatic shifts in public opinion toward orca captivity, that it is uncertain exactly what will happen at that point, but you can be sure that Lolita's lawyers are ready to act on her behalf.
On yet another legal track, the team petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce the same requirements on the Seaquarium that are being imposed on SeaWorld, namely that trainers shouldn't get into the water with Lolita. OSHA agreed with ALDF in late July, and fined the Seaquarium $7,000 for the violations. The restrictions apply only to showtimes, so that "husbandry" can be performed outside the shows, which may be important for Lolita's mental health, if only for the human companionship. That case will be heard in August of 2015 in a hearing much like the OSHA hearing seen in the film Blackfish
, including no doubt many revelations of previously unknown records. Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove has been tasked by OSHA to be their expert witness in support of restrictions on waterwork with Lolita.
On July 2, 2014, the Seaquarium was bought by Palace Entertainment, which is owned by Parques Reunidos, which also owns over 70 theme parks including an orca display park in Antibes, France. Orca Network described Lolita's plight and the potential benefits to Palace Entertainment from her return home in a letter to President and CEO Fernando Eiroa
. We asked him to consider Lolita's health and welfare, and the image of Palace Entertainment, in their decisions about Lolita's retirement. The company's actions toward Lolita will be very important to a great many people, as will be demonstrated at the Miracle March on January 17, and their image could suffer or could soar depending on whether they hinder or help her to return to her home.
In step with these legal actions, for several years now and with ever increasing frequency and determination, demonstrations and informational protests have been held weekly at the entrance to the Seaquarium. A growing contingent of dedicated Lolita freedom advocates display a wide array of homemade and heartfelt signs while handing postcards and flyers to the occupants of cars entering the parking lot. Many otherwise unaware people are seeing Lolita in a whole new way as a result, leading some to turn around and find another way to enjoy the day.
January 4, 2015 - Demonstrators grace the entrance to the Seaquarium to advise potential visitors of Lolita's sad situation. Photo by Chris Lagergren.
All of these forces are working in tandem in this post-Blackfish era of rejection of captivity for whales and dolphins. We don't want to make any big predictions, but the signs are pointing to a possible breakthrough for Lolita some time early this year.