Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 1 January 1999

Lolita's Prospects

by Howard Garrett

Since 1970 a young adult orca named Lolita has been stuck alone in a tiny tank in Miami, swimming in circles and performing boring routines twice daily. Of the 45 members of her extended family that were captured and delivered to marine parks in the 60's and 70's, the other 44 had died by 1987. She's the headline act of the Miami Seaquarium, a crumbling, failing marine park.

Lolita. Photo by Howard Garrett
Lolita photo
The Seaquarium discourages all talk that Lolita can ever be released. A famous dolphinarium in the fifties, long before Sea World began, the Seaquarium crafted many of the public relations messages that are now broadcast by the entire industry. Facts are skewed or completely fabricated, and the public's ignorance about dolphins and orcas is exploited to downplay these fascinating mammals' astounding capabilities and their complex social lives.

With the Lolita campaign now heating up in Miami, the Seaquarium has escalated an all-out PR war to reinforce their dogma that for Lolita it's just too late, she's too habituated to her routine to ever be let loose in the cold, ferocious ocean. These bogus claims have been repeated for decades, and by now most Floridians don't know anything else. Of course our proposal is to transport Lolita first to a sea pen, much like the one Keiko is in now, until she proves ready for monitored release to rejoin her family, but the Seaquarium doesn't mention that safeguard.

Recently, however, there's been a lot working in Lolita's favor. Much has been learned about Orcinus orca in the 28 years since Lolita was captured. Back then nothing was known at all about orca communities, or longevity or maturation rates. Now we know, for instance, that orcas maintain extremely tight family bonds. Members of Lolita's extended family, the Southern Resident community, never disperse. With their massive brains and legendary memories, Lolita's family probably still remembers her.

These fundamentals of orca demographics are now accepted by serious scientists, but they provide only a hint of a far deeper realization that the scientific community, and the general public, are slowly coming to. Dr. Hal Whitehead opened the door into this new view of orcas in a historic paper published in the November 27, 1998 issue of Science magazine. Essentially, Whitehead announced to the world that, much like people, at least some whales are creatures of culture as well as biology.

So it seems those stern admonitions against "anthropomorphizing" that many of us have heard from the park industry and hard-core biologists all these years may have been incorrect all along. It appears that it is possible to understand to a great degree the emotions of captive orcas by imagining how we would feel, because orcas are also valued family members who maintain cultural identities.

Photo by Howard Garrett
Lolita photo
Amazingly, the family life of orcas was accurately portrayed in Free Willy, in which Willy's family missed him and called out for him, and welcomed him back after his release. We are now living in the "post-Willy era," in which holding cetaceans in captivity is increasingly considered a cruel violation of their basic need for open ocean habitats and family membership. The result: 1998 attendance at the San Diego Sea World is running 7% below last year. Attendance this year at the Miami Seaquarium is about 3% below last year.

So what does all this add up to for Lolita? It means that now people worldwide, including in Miami, are gaining some insight into the inner life of the orca. People are starting to understand that Lolita not only deserves to retire in her home waters, but that she could be returned home safely. Increasingly the only question is: Will Lolita continue to be exploited until she expires there, which will abruptly finish the Seaquarium on a disgraceful note and put a stain on the city's image? Or should Miami officials participate in Lolita's retirement and enjoy the positive glow of international media attention, which will improve the city's image and give a newly designed Seaquarium, without live animal acts, a huge publicity bonanza and global goodwill? These are the issues the Lolita campaign is now presenting to officials in Miami.

I can't help but wonder how Lolita continues to survive the cramped, featureless space and solitary confinement of 28 years in captivity. Maybe it's the way she was raised by her mother and her family, or maybe, like the mysterious human spirit in times of extreme adversity, she has deep resources of faith or knowledge that allow her to persevere through each day. Maybe Lolita remembers her family and dreams about going home some day.

Howard Garrett is president of the Tokitae Foundation, based in Friday Harbor, WA. He moved to Miami in October 1997 to conduct the campaign for Lolita's return to Washington waters.

· To help Lolita get back home, please write a letter to Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, 111 NW 1st St., Miami, FL 33128. The Seaquarium sits on county land, and Mayor Penelas could be a vital influence to help Lolita go home, if he is sure she would survive.

· For more on Lolita, look at the Orca Network web site at http://www.orcanetwork.org/.

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