Federal officials in the United States are seeking public comment on a proposal to have captive killer whale Lolita included in the endangered-species listing for Puget Sound orcas.
Activists consider the announcement Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service another step toward releasing the whale that was captured in 1970 and is now at the Miami Seaquarium.
The federal government notes in the proposed amendment to the Endangered Species Act listing that releasing Lolita to the wild is not a guaranteed result of this change, because in some cases it's safer to keep an endangered animal in captivity.
The Miami Seaquarium agrees with that assessment. General Manager Andrew Hertz notes that the U.S. fisheries statement says release of a captive animal into the wild may injure or kill that animal as well as pose a danger for wild populations of the same species.
"Even if Lolita is officially deemed part of an endangered species group, Miami Seaquarium would already be in full compliance with any additional requirements and protections," Hertz said in a statement.
He added that Lolita has been living at the marine park for 44 years and is as active and healthy as ever.
Lolita's is a member of the Southern Resident community, and specifically the L-pod. The orca's family spends most of its time in Washington's Puget Sound and waters off British Columbia.
The U.S. federal government has listed the Southern Resident orcas as endangered species since 2005. The wild population of the three pods — J, K, and L — numbers about 85.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Orca Network and other animal-rights groups filed a petition to encourage a rule change.
"Lolita should never have been excluded from the Endangered Species Act in the first place, and now the government has righted that wrong," said Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA in a statement.
Steven Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said his group and others are doing everything they can to get Lolita back to her family and her habitat.
Comments on the proposed rule are being accepted for two months, either electronically, through the mail and by fax.