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Free Lolita Update 59

Lolita Update #59
January 23, 2003

Dear Friends of Lolita,
  • Excellent 1-hour documentary "Lolita - Slave to Entertainment"
  • Keiko segment on ABC's 20/20 Friday Jan. 24th
  • New awareness of why Lolita would easily make the transition to her home waters
Lolita - Slave to Entertainment

We've just had the deeply moving experience of watching Lolita: Slave to Entertainment, a one-hour documentary on Lolita's life story. This amazing work provides the reasons and prospects for getting her back home. There is new footage of her capture, interviews with those present at the time, and some great graphics to illustrate the event. Ric O'Barry tells her story in depth, Russ Rector dissects the marine park industry, Jerry Powers tells how he tried to convince Seaquarium owner Art Hertz to be a decent person, Ken Balcomb describes some of how it would be done, protesters give their particular insights, and yours truly gives some background on why it would work to bring her home. Valerie Silidker narrates beautifully and some of the best wild orca footage available gives a sense of what Lolita is missing, and what she could have again.

ABC 20/20 will be broadcasting a 12-minute Keiko Story this Friday night January 24th. It should be quite extensive coverage of the Keiko's journey and we are hopeful that it will be positive. You never know for sure though. It should include footage of Keiko in Norway and interviews with Colin and Toba in Norway, Paul Irwin, Paul Spong, Naomi Rose, and Dave Phillips.

20/20 is an hour-long show and we don't know when the Keiko segment starts, but the show begins at 10pm Eastern Standard; 10pm Pacific Standard, and 9PM Central.

Happy viewing.

Also, on Tuesday the 28th, Warner Bros. will release the 10th Anniversary DVD of Free Willy. Amazing how time flies when you're having fun. They will be doing press outreach and putting out information about the Keiko reintroduction effort.

Why Lolita would easily make the transition to her home waters.

So far, Seaquarium owner Arthur Hertz still refuses any offer or attempt to convince him Lolita should come home, and large revenues are still being generated to keep him in business. The USDA still refuses to enforce the letter or spirit of the Animal Welfare Act, and most of the scientific community still dodges the question of Lolita's capability to return home.

But some things have changed in the past six or seven years. Unexpected events have shown the immense capability possessed by orcas to master the challenge of life at sea, and the scientific community's understanding of the species has reached a new consensus on the nature of their highly evolved social lives.

It was only a year ago that two solitary baby orcas, Springer (A73) and Luna (L98) began to draw widespread attention. They have taught us a lot. Prior to a year ago, any knowledgeable person would have assumed that an orca younger than 5 or 6 years old would not have a chance of surviving alone at sea. Both Springer and Luna, it turned out, were sufficiently skilled to catch and eat their own food, even though Luna was first left alone at about 18 months of age, and Springer's mother died when she was only about a year old. This is an astounding demonstration of competence for mere infants, which truly rocks the scientific community, but it's a fact generally underplayed by media spokespeople and unnoticed.

Then this summer and fall we all watched as Keiko broke his bonds with humans and swam across the Atlantic, first in the company of orcas, then by himself into a Norwegian harbor. Yes, he sought out the company of humans, and yes, they are feeding him and keeping him company for the time being. But for 60 days he was out there, diving regularly to 40 meters, traveling 40-60 miles a day, and he arrived in Norway well fed. Keiko now has access to the sea, but often remains near his designated caretakers. Giving Keiko fish is done to maintain a relationship as well as to feed him, and it's given sporadically, so he'll never know when he may be fed again. In the next week or so, when wild whales follow the herring into Taknes Bay, Keiko will be fed less and will be led out to be among his kind. Keiko is in better physical shape than ever, which makes sense now that he has the entire ocean to play in.

Possibly the most prominent discovery that has come from Springer, Luna and Keiko, is that orcas are intensely social mammals. We have only to watch Luna, up in a remote bay on Vancouver Island, pestering any boater he can hold up, sometimes literally, to scratch and be scratched. He craves company, and since he can't be with his family, he'll take a human, almost any human. Springer was said to be fond of the Evergreen State ferry. She came to people in boats and played with driftwood like a child under their gaze. Yet, when reunited with her grandmother and cousins, she was given a quick refresher course on how to behave like an orca, complete with discipline, and she followed them. The rules apparently include not approaching people in boats.

For orcas, there is a strong need to be affiliated with family and community, and strong social reinforcement for appropriate behavior. This brings the story to recent scientific breakthroughs that give credence to the idea that Lolita, even after over 30 years in captivity, would thrive in her home waters and would probably rejoin her family after a period of readjustment. In 2001, a peer-reviewed paper was published in the prestigious British Journal of Behavioural and Brain Sciences, called Culture in Whales and Dolphins, by Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead. The authors reviewed findings from field research worldwide on a variety of species of cetaceans, as well as the data from captive experiments on dolphin learning and language acquisition. Much of the data comes from the orca populations we see almost daily in Washington and BC waters.

The evidence is compelling. In the past dozen or so years, the natural history of the Southern Resident orca community has become well known in the Seattle area. Offspring of both genders stay with mom and family for life, with no migration in or out of the community (except for Luna). Each community has its own intricate vocabulary of calls, and each pod uses a variation of the basic call system. Virtually all behavior, from food choices to mating partners, is determined by cultural rules. In the words of Rendell and Whitehead, "the complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric [overlapping] groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans, and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties."

Orcas apparently know who they are, in terms of social identity, as well as we know who we are. Maybe better. This cultural identity dramatically enhances the whales' memories and skills, just as we may vividly recall what we learned at our grandmothers' knee. Keiko, for instance, used his family's calls during all those years in captivity, indicating he knows he's a whale from the North Atlantic, from a specific family and community. Springer always knew she was a Northern Resident community orca, and now that she's back with them, she's behaving accordingly. Luna no doubt knows who he is as well, and the implication is that Lolita still clearly remembers her life prior to her capture, at 5 or 6 years old, when she had been catching her own fish for years, and was undoubtedly fully enculturated into her society.

So we've learned a thing or two since the Lolita campaign began in 1995. With the tremendous attention to Springer, Luna and Keiko, plus the simmering controversy surrounding the NMFS decision not to list the Southern Residents under the ESA, our understanding of Lolita and her kind is growing rapidly. We continue to hope that Lolita will once again feel her home waters and rejoin her family.

Susan and Howard

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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