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Feds enter debate over Lolita’s fate at Miami Seaquarium

The federal government has agreed to consider whether to declare Lolita, the Miami Seaquarium’s biggest star for more than 40 years, a member of an endangered pack of Northwest Pacific killer whales.

Animal rights activists hailed the decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service as a potential step toward their long-time goal of returning the oldest whale in captivity to its home waters.

“We fully expect them to conclude that Lolita deserves the same protection as her family in the wild,” said Jared Goodman, an attorney for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which petitioned the service along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Ideally and realistically, this could ultimately result in her being reunited with her family.”

But Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service in Seattle, downplayed the ramifications of the move announced late Wednesday. Agreeing to consider a petition isn’t an indicator of whether federal scientists will accept the argument that Lolita merits protection under the Endangered Species Act — or support moving the massive orca from its tank at the popular attraction on Virginia Key.

“Theoretically, it is possible for Lolita to be listed and nothing else would change,’’ Gorman said.

Gorman said he couldn’t predict what the agency might decide but said past efforts to return longtime captive marine mammals to the wild have often failed.

“Generally speaking, it ends disastrously,” he said. “The animal doesn’t survive.”

Russ Rector, a long-time Seaquarium critic and marine mammal activist from Fort Lauderdale, also was skeptical about PETA’s efforts, saying he believes Lolita should have been moved years ago but is now too old and unhealthy.

“All PETA is doing is trying to make noise so they can make more money from donations,’’ Rector said.

Andrew Hertz, Seaquarium’s general manager, released a statement saying he could not comment on the petition but defending Lolita’s care and living conditions over the last 43 years. He also said the idea of returning Lolita to the wild had no scientific support and would be reckless and cruel.

“She is healthy and thriving in her permanent home where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins,’’ the statement said. “Moving Lolita in any way, whether to a new pool, a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, would be an experiment. And it is a risk with her life that we are not willing to take.”

The groups’ petition focused on a decision that the fisheries service made in 2005 when it declared the “southern resident” populations of killer whales endangered. Those whales, which live in the Puget Sound region off Washington State, had been reduced to about 84 animals in three small groups called the J, K and L pods. But in its decision, the agency without explanation also exempted whales previously placed in captivity — a move that covered only Lolita, a young member of the L group when she was captured in 1970 and then brought to Miami.

Complicating Lolita’s fate: The Pacific Legal Foundation, a private-property rights advocacy group, also has petitioned the fisheries service to rescind the endangered status of the remaining southern resident whales in the wild, arguing they are a subgroup of a larger and healthy population of orcas worldwide. Gorman said federal biologists classified the southern resident whales as a separate population because they don’t interact or breed with outside orcas.

Over the last 20 years, activists have periodically mounted “free Lolita” campaigns and fought to expand Lolita’s tank or add more protection from the elements but the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees captive wild animal care, generally rebuffed the efforts. Hertz, in his statement, said the USDA had declared that Lolita’s habitat “far exceeds the minimum requirements established by the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) regulations.”

PETA attorney Goodman said his group continues to believe confining Lolita in isolation from others like her is harmful and runs afoul of endangered species protections. He said a private landowner has agreed to set up a seaside sanctuary along the Puget Sound where Lolita could live safely but also communicate with former pod members.

Gorman said the fisheries service expected to make a decision on the petitions in about nine months.