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Battle to give Lolita the same freedom as Willy

They freed Willy, at least in the movies, so why not liberate Lolita in real life? "Free Lolita the killer whale" has become a war cry from the United States's north-west coast to the sun-drenched beaches of Florida.

Lolita, named for her flirtatious nature, is knocking on a bit at 31 but is still delighting audiences at the Seaquarium in Miami's Key Biscayne after 25 years in captivity. Wielding a brush between her teeth, she has become known for her highly impressionistic paintings but has been in a blue period since her boyfriend Hugo died 15 years ago.

Now, mammal lovers at the two extremes of the nation are split over whether she should be retired and sent back to her friends in the chilly waters of Puget Sound, off Washington state in the north-west, where she was captured in 1970. The big question is: after 25 years of being pampered and hand-fed, could she survive in the wild?

Washington's state governor, Mike Lowry, says she could. He says he got the idea for the "Free Lolita" campaign when he visited location shooting at Puget Sound last year for a sequel to the popular film Free Willy, in which a boy releases a whale from captivity.

The owners of the Miami Seaquarium, where Lolita is the star dollar-earner, suggest Mr Lowry may have ulterior motives. They note he has been embroiled in a growing sex scandal this year after four women accused him of hands- on sexual harassment. His flirtation with Lolita is a timely distraction, they say.

The other day, Mr Lowry, a Democrat, solemnly proclaimed that Lolita should be brought home "to retire as a citizen of Washington state". His campaign has already found an echo at the other end of the nation. A Florida magazine publisher has offered $2m (£1.27m) for her freedom, financed "Free Lolita" ads at bus stops and set up a telephone hotline to win support for the release of the five-ton flirt.

Richard Donner, producer of Free Willy, said he would feature Lolita in publicity for the sequel, called The Adventure Home and due out in July, to press the case for her freedom.

"(It) would be an exciting experiment in social biology ...very much like Terry Waite or Terry Anderson returning home," one marine biologist told the Miami Herald newspaper.

Other whale-lovers disagree. She may be unable to forage for herself, may be rejected or attacked by her own pod, or social group, and may be reduced to doing her stunt routine to get fed by passing fishing boats, they say.