Lawsuit: Captive Miami orca violates Endangered Species Act

MIAMI (AP) — An orca's decades-long captivity at the Miami Seaquarium attraction amounts to a violation of the Endangered Species Act requiring the animal's release, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by animal rights activists.

The lawsuit, filed in Miami federal court by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups, contends the orca Lolita should ultimately be removed to a sea pen under a retirement plan that would more closely mimic her natural Pacific Ocean environment.

Lolita is the biggest attraction at Seaquarium and has long been the subject of animal rights protests. She was captured in 1970 off the Washington state coast from an orca pod listed as endangered. That made Lolita endangered as well, according to the federal government, and the lawsuit contends the conditions of her captivity in a relatively small tank are therefore illegal under U.S. law.

"Decades of abuse, miserable confinement, and chronic deprivation have cost Lolita everything that's natural and important to her," said general counsel to PETA Jeffrey Kerr.

A Seaquarium statement said Monday that Lolita is healthy and that removing her would be cruel and traumatic. The statement noted that several previous lawsuits seeking to gain her release have failed and that her designation under the Endangered Species Act does not affect her residency at the attraction.

"Miami Seaquarium will continue to defend against these activist lawsuits and seek to protect the best interests of Lolita by keeping her at the home she has known and thrived in for 45 years," the statement said. "Miami Seaquarium provides first-class care for Lolita."

A different Florida attraction, SeaWorld in Orlando, has also been subjected recently to criticism and protests stemming from a 2013 documentary, "Blackfish," contending its orcas were mistreated. SeaWorld stated the documentary was inaccurate but has announced several changes, including larger orca tanks and more money for orca conservation in the wild.