New legal maneuvers give boost to 'Free Lolita' campaign

SEATTLE - A series of legal maneuvers and a new global distribution deal for a documentary may be giving the biggest boost yet for a campaign to return Lolita the killer whale from a Miami tourist attraction to her home waters in Puget Sound.

Howard Garrett is the man who has led the campaign for nearly 20 years.

"So the parts are being placed in the right places already," Garrett said, "to make the case that she needs to come home."

Garrett walked the picturesque beaches overlooking Admiralty Inlet on Puget Sound where Lolita once swam, and where the whale believed to be her mother, L-25 or "Ocean Sun" still swims with the L-pod.

Garrett believes the recent proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to list Lolita among other endangered orca will give a strategic legal boost to his efforts. Here's why:

If NOAA's designation is finalized as expected, Garrett and other animal welfare groups intend to petition NOAA to determine whether Lolita is at risk remaining in the Miami Seaquarium's killer whale tank, the smallest in North America. Or whether there is less risk in returning Lolita to a cove off San Juan Island and gradually retrain her to live in the wild.

Even Garrett acknowledges there is risk in both options. But he points to previous efforts to return cetaceans to the wild with partial but not long term success. Each time, however, he says vital scientific information was learned making success now more likely.

"Obviously, we know the answer to that," he says, "But they (NOAA) need to come to some kind of a judgment on that."

NOAA decision makers will consider whether "the whole thing is just too much for her mentally," Garrett says. "And, yes, there is some inevitable stress, some discomfort, probably some questioning about what's going on." But he quickly adds she'll be just fine because she'll remember her first 6 or 7 years growing up in Puget Sound. "As soon as she is immersed in her home waters, she'll immediately say 'that's my backyard!'"

Garrett concedes that he is anthropomorphizing, projecting human emotions to animals. But "she's earned it," he says, having survived more than 40 years in the Miami Seaquarium.

Miami Seaquarium officials have steadfastly held that Lolita is very well cared for at their tourist attraction and that sending her back to the wild would be a death sentence for her.

Does Lolita's long survival there mean they're treating her well? Garrett agrees her caretakers are now giving her more of what she needs but that, fundamentally, he says, an orca must live in wide open spaces so it can travel miles a day as they do in the wild, and it must socialize with other orca.

Adding to Garrett's renewed optimism is the film "Blackfish" which has fueled a rising chorus of public opposition to the captive orca industry. Garrett appears in the film and says producers just signed a deal to show the film in Europe and elsewhere.

"I think the Lolita campaign is on track," he says, unfazed by nearly 20 years of refusal by Miami Seaquarium to negotiate. "The wheels of justice and mercy grind slowly. But they're grinding toward her. Helping her out - it's been a long, long time. But there is a real prospect now. She's had a lot of, a lot of big guns on her side now. She has a whole legal team that is doing just magnificent work."

That legal team has also filed a lawsuit against the USDA alleging the agency has failed to stop violations of the Animal Welfare Act linked to lack of protection from the sun, lack of companionship and a small tank. The USDA gives Miami Seaquarium an annual permit to continue to own a killer whale. That annual permit is at the heart of this parallel legal action.

Lolita was born in or near Puget Sound about 46 years ago. In the wild, orca live as long as humans. But in captivity, Lolita is already beyond the average lifespan. That raises the concern among those who want to bring her back to Puget Sound that she may not outlive the efforts to do so.