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Free Lolita Update 14

Lolita Update #14
July 30, 1999

1) Big August 8th demo coming up.
August 8, 1999 is the 29th anniversary of the roundup of orcas that took place during a superpod gathering of the three pods that make up the Southern community in Washington State inland waters. Six-year-old Lolita, first called Tokitae, was one of six young whales taken from the community during the following week. On Sunday, August 8 the Tokitae Foundation will conduct the 4th monthly demonstration at the Miami Seaquarium. We'll present a proposal to the Seaquarium and to the press calling for a two-way cellular communications link between Lolita and her community of birth in Puget Sound. Since such an experiment would demonstrate that Lolita has retained the ability to communicate with her extended family, the Seaquarium is expected to reject the proposal, as they have since 1987.

For those in Washington, there will also be an informal ceremony/gathering the evening of August 8th on the shores of Penn Cove, where Lolita was separated from her family and taken from the water to a flat-bed truck. There will be music and fellowship. If you'd like to attend or help with planning, please contact Susan Berta at

The July 11 demonstration at the Seaquarium was well attended and seemed to reach a large number of people driving by. A sign saying "Honk If Lolita Should Go Free!" was answered with a steady stream of honks, which could be heard inside the park.
2) USDA says it can't find engineer's name "for months."
For more than a month now the USDA has been dragging its feet about answering requests for information on its measurements of the depth of Lolita's tank. In June architect's drawings from 1969 were found indicating that the shallow end of the tank, which the USDA says is 12' deep and which must be at least 12' deep to be included in the overall measurement, is only 10' deep. When this area is not included in the overall measurements it is doubtful that the tank meets the minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare Act for containing an orca.

The USDA finally said an independent engineer took the measurements, but they wouldn't give out the engineer's name. In early July we requested the name of the engineer. On July 29 the USDA said that due to a backlog of requests it won't be able to find the engineer's name "for months." The real question is whether anybody actually got in the water with Lolita and the four dolphins to measure the depth (the sides are sloped so it can't be done from the side), or whether the Seaquarium was merely asked for the measurements, and gave the USDA numbers that made the tank sound legal. Of course there still may be bureaucratic explanations for the delay. We also have other means to find the engineer. We'll certainly keep you posted.
3) What's up with Keiko?
[Note: Sorry for the length of this report on Keiko. It may seem more academic than you'd expect in a Lolita Update, but like Lolita, Keiko remains captive not by sinister schemes but by our society's beliefs, and the politics that determine those beliefs. To get her home again we need to take a good, long look at them, and then change them.]

What IS up with Keiko? He seems ready for a carefully monitored, phased release to the open ocean.
  • Keiko was declared perfectly healthy and ready for release by his veterinarian, Dr. Lanny Cornell, in January of this year.
  • He has been catching fish for two years now to levels at least half his daily needs.
  • He is showing phenomenal stamina and diving ability (17+ min.).
  • He is making complex vocalizations, indicating he is still capable of communicating in his pod's unique dialect, which he was born with and used in captivity in Canada until he was moved to Mexico in 1985.
  • Keiko is highly social, often desiring interaction with the humans near him. This eagerness to interact is typical of his species and bodes well for his willingness and ability to resume any needed social skills, probably even more quickly than he regained his physical health after near death from the stresses of captivity in Mexico City.
So why hasn't Keiko been let out of his bay pen by now for a monitored, radio-tagged ocean trial? To gain a sense of why Keiko is still in his pen and why there is still no firm plan or timetable for his release, we need to back up a bit and look at the bigger picture. We need to look first at the industry that is setting the tone of the conversation about Keiko. The marine park industry is a big industry, like the oil industry, or big tobacco. Every industry tries to help consumers make up their minds. Like the tobacco industry, the marine park industry is adept at forming public opinion. They hire and schmooze scientists and journalists and feed information to their employees and investors, and finance massive advertising campaigns to convince consumers that their product is harmless and fun.

The most important belief confronting the Lolita campaign, the doctrine that is essential for the survival of the marine park industry is: "Once in captivity-always in captivity." Among marine park personnel no discussion is allowed about the merits of releasing captive whales and dolphins, except to advise against any such attempts. Any good candidate is declared to be unfit for release. To discourage any talk about releasing whales and dolphins the ocean is depicted as "cold, dark and ferocious" (in the words of Brad Andrews, VP for Zoological Operations for all four Sea World parks). As long as these messages (that captive cetaceans become too weak for life in the wild, which is terribly cold, dark and ferocious) are pumped down the pipeline through advertising, employees, and compliant journalists and scientists, there will be no serious talk about releasing whales and dolphins, and people will continue to believe it can't be done. Such was the case until Free Willy, that is.

Through an unlikely sequence of events started by a major motion picture, Keiko was brought out of Mexico and after two and a half years in Oregon was moved to Iceland last September. Now he is poised to become the movie star that disproves the marine park industry's edifice of falsehoods and nay-saying that have been essential to their business plans since the first dolphinariums opened in Florida four decades ago.

Keiko is now ready to show the world that even after long term captivity, many (maybe all) of those orcas captured from the wild can ultimately be released back to their native habitats to rejoin the pods they were born in. The entire enterprise of watching orcas and dolphins performing in marine parks would then be compared with our new appreciation of their lives in natural habitats. Marine parks would begin to look obsolete and abusive.

But investments and jobs seem to be at stake. The park industry could instead make a transition to a new kind of high-tech, interactive, simulated marine environment, a blend of the thrill rides now packing them in and the conservation-oriented, educational aquariums popping up all over the world. They could go on making lots of money even after the dancing dolphin acts fade into quaint history. But the industry perceives a threat instead of an opportunity, so they continue reinforcing the big lie that Keiko is too weak, too habituated to humans, and just too nice, to rejoin his family pod. They think Keiko is a slug who wouldn't stand a chance out in the open ocean.

In general, marine park employees have little or no experience with oceanic whales. Scientific field research on orcas is generally ignored and the results denied by park management. Most park employees haven't seen pods travel in synch with one another, meet up with other pods and perform greeting ceremonies in which they roll around together in choreographed ritual sequences. Without that background, they mistake Keiko's affectionate nature for weakness, when actually that affection is normal for an orca. Keiko's obvious amiability is precisely his social strength and the glue that still bonds him to his extended family. It's what will allow him to join up with, and be accepted by, the orcas with whom he shares a family and cultural history.

The marine park industry doesn't know much about free-ranging orcas, and doesn't want the public to know much either. They haven't observed the whales' graceful mastery of their world, always aware and in control, as they have been for tens of millions of years. They don't understand the implications of the fact that they live in cohesive families their entire lives, unlike any other mammal known. This is what we have learned about Orcinus orca during the past two decades. The intensely bonded, highly developed cultural family life of orcas is the most important thing about them and the thing we need to learn most. Keiko is ready to teach us. But the marine park industry still has a tight grip on our society's understanding of orcas and of Keiko. Most of the staff involved in Keiko's care-and they've obviously done a fantastic job-learned their skills, and their beliefs, from the marine park industry. They're finding it very difficult to realize that Keiko is perfectly ready for the open ocean. They can't seem to bring themselves to give it a try. They only really know the industry-approved way of thinking about Keiko.

The truth about Keiko's capabilities, about the physical, mental and social strengths of other captive orcas, is gradually becoming known by the public. In Iceland, a lot will change when that new understanding of the species takes hold and Keiko is allowed to head out to the seas of his birth. A lot will change in Miami too, since the same arguments and misinformation are used to prevent Lolita's return to her home waters. It's just a matter of when.

Much is going on to help bring Lolita home and to inform and advocate for her and her family Please consider a tax-deductible contribution to help Orca Network continue this work by clicking HERE. Thank you!

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