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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Orca Defenders Can’t Keep Fight in California

(CN) - A Florida court should decide whether the government erred in relicensing a Miami aquarium accused of mistreating its orca of 40 years, Lolita, a federal judge ruled.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Orca Network and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. originally sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Northern District of California. It says the Miami Seaquarium had its license renewed even after keeping Lolita in "inhumane" conditions.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, anyone requesting a license to exhibit certain animals, including orcas, must abide by USDA requirements relating to minimum enclosure sizes, weather shelters, and so forth, PETA attorney Jarred Goodman told Courthouse News.

Since the Seaquarium's facilities allegedly do not meet USDA standards, the agency violated the AWA and the Administrative Procedure Act by granting the Seaquarium a license to exhibit Lolita.

Activists say Lolita is "confined to an inadequate tank, which is smaller than the minimum regulatory requirements, is without sufficient space, without any companions of her own species, and without sufficient shelter from the sun."

The USDA said three alternative venues were more proper than the Northern District of California to hear the case.

It noted that the USDA's main office is in the District of Columbia; that its regional office, which granted Seaquarium the license, is in the Eastern District of North Carolina; and that the Seaquarium and Lolita are in the Southern District of Florida.

The activists meanwhile tried to keep the case in California by pointing out that the ALDF has an office there.

Senior U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti found Tuesday that the case cannot proceed in San Francisco because it does not involve real property there.

Rather, as the defendants argued, the license at issue in the complaint "directly affects a substantial part of the real property on which the Seaquarium is located."

The Seaquarium, as an intervening party, meanwhile argued that the outcome of this case could affect the local Miami community, including its employees.

It would be unreasonably inconvenient to have witnesses or any party travel to California in the event of a hearing, according to the ruling.

Florida will see the greatest impact of the case, and it is also less congested than the alternative venues, the court ruled.

Not missing a beat, the activists filed suit for an injunction in the Southern District of Florida.

PETA has sued over Lolita before. In a November 2011 complaint filed in the Western District of Washington, PETA said the National Marine Fisheries Service grant endangered species status to Southern resident killer whales and their offspring held in captivity.

Goodman, the PETA lawyer, said the Seaquarium illegally transferred Lolita from the killer whale population and has kept it in a Miami tank for over 40 years.

Wildlife officials designated killer whales as an endangered species in 2005, but they excluded Lolita, Goodman said.

PETA said the Fisheries Service eventually agreed in settlement talks to revisit Lolita's designation.

Under this agreement, PETA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund will submit a new petition asking for Lolita to be included in the listing, and NMFS must make a decision based solely on the biological status of the orcas - whether the population is threatened or endangered - within the legally required time frame," the group said in a blog post.

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