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Lolita alone

...the feasibility of Lolita's return

At no point in the proposed reintroduction program is there any significant risk to Lolita, to other orcas, or to humans. Our proposal ensures that:
  • Prior to Lolita's reintroduction a thorough medical examination is conducted to make certain that Lolita carries no foreign pathogens that might be transmitted to her conspecifics in Puget Sound. A model for this examination is the team of six USDA-appointed veterinarians and pathologists that examined Keiko in Oregon, prior to his transport to his native habitat in the North Atlantic;
  • Sufficient funding and logistics are in place to accomplish transport and relocation to an established and secure baypen where professional marine mammal care staff are employed, sufficient food is available and medical care is on call 24/7;
  • That food provision, professional and veterinary care remain available indefinitely after Lolita achieves full acclimatization to her natal waters, dependent on her choice to swim free or continue in human care.
Basically, efforts to rescue Lolita from her confinement in concrete are in response to an obvious case of animal cruelty if seen from point of view of a formerly free-ranging orca, once accustomed to traveling up to 100 miles each day throughout Pacific Northwest waters with dozens of family members. The circumstances of her captivity since 1970 have required that she adapt to a space barely larger than herself, and yet economic and legal realities are that her continued presence in Miami is seen as essential for the Seaquarium and the Miami tourism industry.

Even Seaquarium management agrees that Lolita is kept in an obsolete, substandard tank, but honest opinions differ about the probability of successfully reintroducing Lolita to her native habitat. Many well-meaning people doubt that Lolita can be safely returned to Puget Sound, even if cared for in a protected baypen and eventually given the opportunity to swim free only if she so chooses. This skepticism seems to be rooted in beliefs about orcas that are as obsolete as her tank.

Recent developments in scientific literature may help shed light on Lolita's current situation and her capabilities for successfully readjusting to her natal habitat. Although some scientists may believe that animals that have been under human care for more than 10 years are poor candidates for release, this broad statement ignores the wide range of abilities demonstrated by various species and simply does not apply to orcas. Orcinus orca possess capabilities not found in other animals, including other large mammal species, that when taken together indicate extreme social cohesion, highly developed memory retention and extraordinary adaptability. Lolita's ability to adapt to solitary life in such a small tank speaks volumes about her adaptive abilities. Re-adaptation back to her familiar surroundings would be a much easier adjustment.

Three important and informative papers appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals in 2001, two of which present new findings in our understanding of bottlenose dolphins (orcas are the largest of the delphinids, the dolphin family) and one that documents the ground-breaking conclusion that orcas live as member of cultural communities unlike any other animal known except humans (Rendell and Whitehead 2001).

In humans, awareness of self is an essential ingredient in cultural identity (Blumer 1969). Although cetaceans have evolved separately from humans in marine environments for over 50 million years, recent studies show that, for bottlenose dolphins at least, knowledge of themselves as individuals has developed in parallel with similar human capabilities. In Reiss and Marino (2001) Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: a case of cognitive convergence, the abstract states:
The ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is an exceedingly rare capacity in the animal kingdom. To date, only humans and great apes have shown convincing evidence of mirror self-recognition. Two dolphins were exposed to reflective surfaces, and both demonstrated responses consistent with the use of the mirror to investigate marked parts of the body. This ability to use a mirror to inspect parts of the body is a striking example of evolutionary convergence with great apes and humans.
An article in Scientific American (Dolphin Self-Recognition Mirrors Our Own, May 1, 2001) describes some of the implications of this study:
The extent of dolphin self-awareness remains to be explored. But the fact that they have passed the mirror test means that self-recognition may result from large brains and advanced cognitive ability, as opposed to being a by-product of primate-specific factors. That dolphins and primates-which differ profoundly in their brain organization and their evolutionary histories-should both exhibit this unusual ability, the authors note, represents "a striking case of cognitive convergence."
The ability to communicate with fellow family and community members may be an essential condition for reintroduction after a long absence. The use of pod-specific vocal dialects by orca social groups has been established beyond debate for over 20 years (Ford 1991). Recent recordings of Lolita have demonstrated that she has retained the use of her matrilineal dialect, unique to her family of birth, the L25 subpod of the Southern Resident orca community, despite her 37 [now 43] years absence.

The most recent and revealing experimental research into the ability of dolphins to understand symbolic meaning was published by Herman, et al. (2001), in The Bottlenosed Dolphin's (Tursiops truncatus) Understanding of Gestures as Symbolic Representations of its Body Parts. From the abstract:
These findings provided strong evidence that the gestural symbols we used for body parts were semantically processed and understood by the dolphin as representing those body parts. In addition, the dolphin's ability to use its different body parts in the same way (e.g., touching objects with each of the nine referenced body parts), and to use the same body part in different ways (e.g., displaying or shaking its dorsal fin, or touching or tossing objects with its dorsal fin), suggested a body-image representational system for conscious awareness and conscious control of body parts similar to that postulated for humans and revealed through human brain lesion studies.
Again we see a similarity of conscious self-control in humans and dolphins.

These recent studies indicate that rather than behaving in lockstep with genetic instincts or environmental determinants, bottlenose dolphins apparently take into account their self-knowledge to decide their actions. There is every reason to assume that orcas, with brains four times the size of bottlenose dolphin brains, are at a minimum equally capable.

The third paper describes a review of field research on several whale and dolphin species and finds convincing evidence of cultural learning, passed from individual to individual and across generations. The most compelling results were obtained from long-term demographic and behavioral studies on two resident-type orca communities, including the Southern Resident community, Lolita's extended family.

Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead, in Culture in whales and dolphins (2001), find that orcas appear to have developed distinct cultural traditions that are maintained over countless generations. The abstract states:
Animal culture is generally studied by either investigating transmission mechanisms experimentally, or observing patterns of behavioural variation in wild populations which cannot be explained by either genetic or environmental factors. Taking this second, ethnographic, approach, there is good evidence for cultural transmission in several cetacean species. However, only the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops spp.) has been shown experimentally to possess sophisticated social learning abilities, including vocal and motor imitation; other species have not been studied. There is observational evidence for imitation and teaching in killer whales. The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties (emphasis ours). Find the full article here.
Taken together, these three recent scientific developments strongly indicate that orcas, including Lolita, are aware of their cultural origins, retain cultural knowledge indefinitely (demonstrated by Lolita's use of her family's unique vocalizations), and are able to communicate information about their cultural identity to other individuals that share their vocal traditions. We now know that we are mistaken to lump orcas with other animals when estimating their knowledge, memories and capabilities.

In light of these findings, a fresh look at some of the points often raised by the Seaquarium may be helpful in assessing the potential for Lolita's return to her home waters in a gradual, phased and monitored reintroduction program, the outcome of which may range from long-term care in a protected baypen to complete reunification with her extended family.

After consulting with the Seaquarium, Regina Suarez, Director of Constituent Services for the Miami-Dade County Office of the Mayor, wrote the following:
  • Lolita has learned to trust humans completely, which could endanger her in the wild.
  • Lolita is accustomed to being fed, and has lost her ability to hunt for live fish.
  • Scientists believe that animals that have been under human care for more than 10 years are poor, at-risk candidates for release.
  • Orcas in the wild are social animals, traveling in pods that do not accept outsiders; in order to survive, Lolita would need to become part of a pod and achieve acceptance among other whales - an event that almost certainly would not occur.
It is true that Lolita has developed trusting relationships with some of her trainers. It does not follow, however, that such trust impairs her ability to return to her home waters. Any assessment of Lolita's prospects upon return to her native habitat should consider (in combination with the scientific advances noted above) that orcas have existed in their present form for six to ten million years without predators, which is to say, without fear. No signs of aggression or hostility have ever been observed among Lolita's extended family, the Southern Resident Community. Trust, when reciprocated, seems to come easy for orcas.

Food-sharing among the Southern Resident orcas is well documented (Prey selection and food sharing by fish-eating ‘resident’ killer whales (Orcinus orca) in British-Columbia. (Ford, John K.B., Graeme M. Ellis (2005)), and the various cultural communities of orcas worldwide have often specialized in diets that remove direct competition with other orca communities for resources from their behavioral repertoire (Ford, et al. 1998). Thus, the species lacks the "flight or fight" reaction to threats found in virtually all other animals. This fact adds detail to the emerging picture of the orca as a species that must be considered apart from our conventional assumptions about animal behavior. Lolita's ability to build trusting relationships with humans is a positive indicator that she is adaptable to resuming normal, trusting, social relationships within her community.

There is no evidence to support the assumption that Lolita has lost her ability to hunt for live fish. Only once has any marine park allowed a scientific investigation of the theory that a long-term captive would lose its ability to catch live fish. Two researchers (Newman and Markowitz 1993) released live coho salmon with two orcas in a tank at Marine World Africa USA. The two orcas, captive for 24 and 13 years, echolocated on the fish, then caught and ate them within minutes.

Keiko, the recently released movie star orca, also demonstrated his ability to catch live fish when he was first given the opportunity to do so. According to the Seattle Times (May 16, 1998):
Keiko the celebrity killer whale is gulping down 10-pound steelhead these days as if they were guppies...They started by feeding him dead fresh fish, then advanced to stunned fish that didn't swim much. Now, a couple of months into training, Keiko is chasing live steelhead and slurping them down...During a recent live-fish training session, Keiko tracked four steelhead to their doom without delay, swallowing them head first. He eats about half his diet now in live fish.
From her reported length at capture in 1970, Lolita was three or four years old at the time. The examples of the two solitary orca calves (A73 Springer and L98 Luna) that successfully foraged on their own at the age of two years or less show that the skills needed for predation on fish are learned within the first two years of life. Heyning (1988) indicates that killer whales may begin eating solid food at a younger age than most delphinids. Asper et al. (1988) carried out a study on the development of a captive killer whale calf. They reported that tooth eruption of the upper teeth began at approximately 10 weeks, and that the animal began to eat fish at 11 weeks.

Here again it is important to recall that orcas demonstrate capabilities not found in most, or possibly any, other animals. Keiko showed his foraging competence after 23 years in captivity when he traveled over 900 miles during sixty days on his own in the North Atlantic in the summer of 2002 and arrived well-fed. For at least four years prior to Lolita's capture she was chasing and catching her own fish, and may have been participating in complex, cooperative "pack hunting" techniques. A fair test of her ability to catch fish would be to introduce live salmon to her tank water.

According to a former trainer, since 1976 the Seaquarium has announced plans to build a new whale tank to government agencies and the public. Given the current reality that it is impossible to purchase an orca anywhere in the world (the massive new orca tank at Nagoya Park Aquarium in Japan opened in 2001 without any orcas, and Six Flags park in Vallejo, California has been unable to find a companion for a solitary orca), and given current economic conditions and forecasts, it is unlikely that such a large investment would provide sufficient revenues to cover expenses in the foreseeable future. This time-worn promise to "build a new tank for Lolita" is not in itself an economic investment, but only a promise that tacitly admits her tank is woefully undersized.

It is nave to say that "in order to survive, Lolita would need to become part of a pod and achieve acceptance among other whales - an event that almost certainly would not occur." Resident killer whales are members of the only mammalian population in which no dispersal of either sex has been recorded (Baird 2000). Family bonds, once established, presumably at birth, endure for life. Lolita was forcibly removed from her family in 1970, but many members of her family who were alive then are still alive, and all the members of her family today can recognize the vocalizations Lolita continues to produce (Deecke, et al. 2000, Thomsen, et al. 2001). Lolita remains a member of her pod. A fair test of this ability would be to set up telephone communication between Lolita in her tank and her family in Puget Sound.

Several females in Lolita's extended family have given birth past the age of forty, but reproductive success is not essential for Lolita to find a role in her community. Orcas join humans among the very few mammal species known in which females survive for decades after the birth of their last offspring. One female in the Southern Resident community is estimated to be over 100 years old.

In summary, Lolita endures tragic abuse on a daily basis. Domination, confinement and social isolation had taken the life of every other orca captured from her family, 44 in all, by 1987 (Hoyt 1990). Hugo, the adolescent male also captured from the Southern Residents, repeatedly bashed his head against the walls and windows of the same tank where Lolita is held today until he died in 1980 of a brain aneurism (NMFS 1993). For several weeks in 1970 Hugo and Lolita, while kept in separate tanks 100 yards apart, called out constantly and loudly through the air to one another.

Considering these recent scientific advances, there is no further biological rationale for Lolita's continued captivity; only a financial justification. It is time for the scientific community and responsible public officials to speak up now for Lolita's return to her home waters, before it is too late.


Sincerely yours,

Howard Garrett
Board President
Orca Network
Phone (360) 331-3543

Asper, E.D., Young, G. W., and Walsh, M. T. 1988. Observations on the birth and development of a captive-born killer whale. Int. Zoo. Yb. 27:295-304.

Baird, R.W. 2000. The killer whale - Foraging specializations and group hunting. pp. 127-53. In: J. Mann, R.C. Connor, P.L. Tyack and H. Whitehead (eds.) Cetacean Societies: Field Studies of Dolphins and Whales. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA, 433pp.

Blumer, H. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism - Perspective and method. University of California Press.

Deecke, V.B., Ford, J.K.B., and Spong, P. 2000. Dialect Change in Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca): Implications for Vocal Learning and Cultural Transmission. Anim. Behav.60(5):619-638.

Ford, J. K. B. 1991. Family Fugues. Natural History, 68-76.

Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis, L.G. Barrett-Lennard, A.B. Morton, R.S. Palm, and K.C. Balcomb. 1998. Dietary specialization in two sympatric populations of Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal British Columbia and adjacent waters. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77.

Herman, L. M., Matus, D. S., Herman, E. Y. K., Ivancic, M., and Pack, A. A. 2001. The Bottlenosed Dolphin's (Tursiops truncatus) Understanding of Gestures as Symbolic Representations of its Body Parts. Animal Learning & Behavior, 29, 250-264.

Heyning, J.E. and Dahlheim, M.E. 1988. Orcinus orca. Mammalian Species Account 304:1-9.

Hoyt, E. 1990. Orca: The Whale Called Killer. 3 rd Edition. Canada, Camden House.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 1993. Marine Mammal Inventory Report.

Newman, K. and H. Markowitz. 1993. Echolocation by killer whales (Orcinus orca) while in pursuit of live fish. Abstracts of Tenth Bienniel Conference on Marine Mammals, Galveston, TX.

Pain, Stephanie. 2001. Culture Shock New Scientist.

Reiss, D., and L. Marino. 2001. Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: a case of cognitive convergence. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 98:5937-5942.

Rendell, Luke & Whitehead, Hal. 2001. Culture in whales and dolphins Behav. Brain. Sci. v24(2): 309-382.

Thomsen, F. Franck, D. and Ford, J.K.B. 2001. Characteristics of whistles from the acoustic repertoire of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. J. Acoust. Soc. Am., Vol. 109:3, pp. 1240-1246.

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