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In danger or endangered? Will ‘world’s loneliest orca’ be released into the wild?

January 25, 2015 at 6:41 PM EDT
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration will soon decide whether to put a killer whale named Lolita who has been dubbed "the world's loneliest orca" on the endangered species list. Researchers disagree over whether to give her that protection since she'll most likely be released into the wild. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: You may have seen the documentary “Blackfish” that examined the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando. Now at the Miami Seaquarium, another controversy is brewing over a whale named Lolita.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently deciding whether Lolita should be placed on the Endangered Species list.

NAOMI ROSE: If she is listed as an endangered species, citizens will then have the right to sue on her behalf.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That could lead to Lolita being re-acclimated over time and eventually released back into the waters off Seattle, where she was captured in 1970.

Some scientists and activists argue that the tank where Lolita currently lives alone is too small for her well-being and that she should be set free.

Lolita has been dubbed “the world’s loneliest orca.” And this week, hundreds marched in Miami demanding her release.

But the Miami Seaquarium says it will fight any plan to put Lolita back into the wild, arguing that she simply can’t survive on her own after 45 years in captivity.

Robert Rose, the curator of the aquarium notes how hard it is for an animal that’s lived in captivity for so long to be returned to the open ocean.

ROBERT ROSE: I mean, she’s gonna die, without question. They are going to take her out there and do exactly the same thing they did to Keiko which is to kill him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Keiko was the iconic killer whale that starred in the movie “Free Willy”.

Keiko was released into the waters off Norway in 2002 but died alone a year later of pneumonia.

ROBERT ROSE: Unfortunately this didn’t have the Hollywood happy ending where Free Willy jumped over the wall and lives happily ever after.

HARI SREENIVASAN: NOAA’s decision on Lolita’s status is expected by the end of this month.

Editor’s note:

We heard from many of you after we aired a story about what was – at the time – a pending decision by NOAA about the future of an orca, known as Lolita, now living at Miami Seaquarium.  Last week, NOAA decided that Lolita will be added to the endangered species list, but not released back into the wild.

 Some viewers took issue with a line in the segment about another orca: “Keiko was released into the waters off Norway in 2002 but died alone a year later of pneumonia.”  The debate centers on the definition of “release.”  Some of you have commented that Keiko was released and lived in the ocean for 5 years.  Others have commented that Keiko was never truly released because caretakers were monitoring the animal the entire time after it was removed from the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  

 Viewers were also concerned that we implied that Keiko died because he was released into the wild.  In the segment, Robert Rose, the curator of the Miami aquarium, expressed his opinion that Keiko’s death followed from the decision to release the orca.  NewsHour reported his comments but did not mean to suggest that we agreed or disagreed with his opinion.

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