About 1,000 people gathered Saturday on Virginia Key to demand the release of Lolita, an orca that has lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 40 years.
Activists advocating for her reintroduction to the wild led the “March for Lolita” on the Rickenbacker Causeway that started at 10 a.m. People from all over the country held signs and wore shirts saying “Free Lolita” during the event, which continued at the Historic Virginia Key Beach Park with a rally.
Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network, told the crowd that Lolita supporters have created a plan for her potential release. She’d be taken to a sea pen set up in a cove in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, where she’d be near orcas researchers have identified as her family. After living without another orca at the Seaquarium for decades, he said, Lolita would have an opportunity to learn how to survive in the wild with her family.
“This is the most social animal known to science, and she’s got nobody,” he said.
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Later this month, Lolita may be added to a list of endangered whales by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has again spurred activists to call for her release. The Miami Seaquarium has said that Lolita would not survive in the wild, and it has stated this week that she is not for sale and will not be released.
In an interview with the Miami Herald earlier this week, Robert Rose, curator of animals at the Seaquarium, cited a well-known case of an orca dying a short time after being released into the wild. Keiko, who gained international fame with his role in the 1993 movie “Free Willy,” was captured near Iceland in 1979. About three years after he was released, he died. He had not been able to bond with nearby orcas.
Activists argue that Lolita would have a much better chance since she would be reunited with her family of killer whales.
Marla Curley, 54, drove from Boca Raton for the rally after her sister-in-law told her about Lolita.
“It’s just not fair,” she said.
People from as far as the Pacific Northwest and New England came to Miami for the rally. Bethany Rose, 45, of Boston, argued that keeping whales in captivity is solely for entertainment purposes and not for education.
“We should observe them as they are in the wild,” she said. “She’s held in captivity solely for the purpose of money.”
At noon, a group of more than 75 people moved to the sidewalk in front of the Seaquarium to protest. Several drivers honked as they passed by, and protesters urged people pulling into the Seaquarium parking lot not to go in.
“Don’t buy a ticket,” they yelled. “You’re supporting animal cruelty.”
Chris Lagergren, 44, regularly leads smaller protests there. He said was pleased with the big turnout, and he fully supports the proposed plan for Lolita if she were released.
“Her health is fine,” he said. “She’d do well in the sea pen.”
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