At nearly 20 feet long and 7,000 pounds, Lolita the killer whale is a big lass. But despite her hefty girth, she's spent more than 40 years in a 60-by-80-foot tank at Miami Seaquarium -- the human equivalent, animal advocates say, of living in a port-a-potty.
A battle between the Seaquarium and groups such as PETA has been raging over Lolita for decades. But the recent news that the Virginia Key attraction would be sold to California-based amusement park company Palace Entertainment has spurred animal advocates to push harder than ever to get her back into the wild.
Protests about Lolita's living conditions are nothing new. Animal advocates have often greeted drivers on the Rickenbacker Causeway in an attempt to steer patrons away from the park, but to little avail. Even socialites have gotten in on the action. The Real Housewives of Miami star Adriana de Moura stripped down for a PETA ad targeting the Seaquarium last year.
Still, the Seaquarium has made no attempt to move the whale, and its representatives have maintained that the facility is the only home Lolita has ever known -- and that she's well cared for.
But Lolita's tank remains the smallest in North America for an animal her size. In the wild, orcas swim nearly 100 miles per day. Lolita was even the subject of an award-winning documentary, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.
As concern grows among the general public that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and dangerous -- thanks to the documentary Blackfish and other efforts by animal advocates -- groups such as PETA and ARFF are putting added pressure on the Seaquarium's new owners.
Palace Entertainment has not responded to Cultist's request for comment on this issue.
PETA says they've been in touch but haven't received a response either.
"We haven't heard any response from them yet, and we have reached out to them individually and privately," says Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation's director of animal law. "We hope they're going to see this as we presented it, which is offering them a way to start out with good public relations and avoid the controversy, public demonstrations, and all that comes with buying the Miami Seaquarium."
Lolita was captured in Washington state in 1970. Animal advocates say that her mother and extended family still live in that area and that she could be released into her native waters. If PETA and animal advocates were to get their way, Lolita would be transferred to a coastal sanctuary where she would be rehabilitated and reacclimated to sea life. It's hoped she would then be released to live with her family. If she couldn't adapt to the wild, she would live out her life in a sanctuary.
For now, though, Lolita has no orca companions. Her former tank-mate, Hugo, died in 1980 after repeatedly smashing his head into the walls of their tank in what was deemed a suicide. Currently, she lives with several dolphins.
This past January, federal officials announced they were taking the first steps toward having Lolita added to the endangered species listing for Puget Sound orcas.
After last year's release of the documentary Blackfish, chronicling the life of Tilikum, an orca that's been involved in the deaths of three people, SeaWorld has seen attendance drop (13 percent for the first quarter of 2014) -- though park reps are quick to claim it's for different reasons. It's unclear if the film had a direct impact on Seaquarium attendance.
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Goodman says he hopes the Seaquarium moves in a more progressive direction, away from breeding and acquiring animals, under its new owners.
"These captive facilities are cruel -- these animals are incredibly intelligent and social and deprived of everything natural. I think in the not-too-distant future we'll look back on this as something archaic and we'll question how it was only in 2014 that we still maintained these places."