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March 24, 2015

U.S. court asked to weigh fate of captive killer whale in Florida

In February, federal regulators agreed to list whale as an endangered species along with her wild relatives.

Animal activists seeking to free Lolita, a killer whale in captivity in Florida for more than four decades, asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to reconsider a lawsuit claiming regulators have been "rubber-stamping" an aquarium’s license to keep her.

Lolita's living conditions at the Miami Seaquarium, her home since her capture in 1970 off the northern Pacific Coast, is the subject of a long-running lawsuit under the Animal Welfare Act.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups say keeping Lolita in one of the world’s smallest tanks with little shade violates the act. Her tank measures 80 x 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep (24 x 18 meters wide, 6 meters deep).

They are appealing a judge's decision to dismiss their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2014, a judge found the agency was allowed to reissue licenses without re-inspecting facilities.

The process amounts to "rubber-stamping," said PETA attorney Delcianna Winders at the court hearing. She argued it "undermines the statute whose purpose is to ensure the humane care of animals in captivity." 

Renewing the license to keep Lolita requires only an annual application, an annual report from the aquarium and a $100 fee, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Erickson-Pogorzelski.

The lawsuit is one of several efforts seeking to free Lolita. In February, federal regulators agreed to list her as an endangered species along with her wild relatives.

That decision was celebrated by animal rights activists who want to fly the 7,000 pound (3.2 ton) orca across the country and prepare her for release into the wild.

Seaquarium officials fear she could see a fate similar to Keiko, the orca in the 1993 movie "Free Willy."

Keiko was released into waters off Iceland in 2002 and died the following year after being rejected by wild orcas.