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By Jessica Bennett
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Updated: 2:38 PM ET Jan 23, 2008
Lolita exercising between shows in Miami
Photo by Howard Garrett, Orca Network
Newsweek magazine: "It's been nearly four decades since Lolita the killer whale was snatched from her family in the waters of Puget Sound. Now activists want to bring her home."
Lolita moments before she was hauled aboard a truck in 1970
Photo by Dr. Terrell Newby
In late November, however, Garrett got a call that, in spite of his usual doubts, stirred the fight inside him. Raul Julia-Levy, the Hollywood producer and son of actor Raul Julia, wanted to sign on to help free Lolita, and with him, promised to bring every last Hollywood contact he could persuade. He immediately put Garrett on the phone with the wife of Jean Claude Van Damme, and within days, had a list that included Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford and even 50 Cent. Now Levy says he's got a benefit concert in the works that will include R&B singer Truth Hurts, Snoop Dogg and 50 (who did not return NEWSWEEK requests for comment, though Levy says "the man loves animals like you have no idea"). Nearly a dozen local politicians have signed on, as well. "We have some of the most powerful Hollywood producers behind this campaign, and I have spoken with some of the most prominent scientists in this field," Levy says. "This beautiful animal does not deserve to die in a stinky little tank, and we are not going to take less than a full victory."
Whale capture was big business in the 1960s and early 1970s, especially in the Pacific Northwest. According to the National Marine Fisheries Services, about 50 orcas are known to have been killed or captured in that region between 1965 and 1973. The last whale capture in Puget Sound took place in 1976. Ralph Munro, an assistant to the governor of Washington, happened to be sailing in the region at the time. He alerted his boss, Gov. Dan Evans, who sued Sea World--the amusement park owned by Anheuser-Busch--whose contractors had used planes and small explosives to herd orcas into their nets. All of the whales from that capture were eventually released, and a Seattle district court ruled that the use of those planes and explosives had violated the company's permit to collect the whales. While capturing orcas is still not illegal in Washington, doing so requires a permit--a political nonstarter in the whale-crazy state.
When she first arrived in Miami, Lolita had company. She was placed with a young male named Hugo, who, Garrett says, had been taken from Lolita's family 18 months earlier. For 10 years, the two orcas performed together as the Seaquarium's star attraction. But as Hugo matured, critics say he became too big for his tank, and he repeatedly bashed his head against the walls and windows, says Michael Royce, a former Seaquariam show master who worked with both whales. Hugo died of a brain aneurism in 1980.
Orcas are highly intelligent and intensely social creatures, traveling and hunting in family units known as pods that never break up. Years of study have shown that family cohesion is the cornerstone of orca communities around the world: children stay with their mothers their entire lives. Each orca community also has its own diet, rituals, mating patters and language. (In 1995, "Dateline NBC" put that language to the test: Lolita made national television when they played a recording of her family to her. "She literally leaned over so her ear was as close as she could get it," says Garrett.)
A common criticism of the fight to free Lolita is tragic story of Keiko, the orca who was released from captivity amid the "Free Willy" craze of the 1990s. Keiko starred in that movie, after years in a rundown Mexico City aquarium where he suffered ill health. But unlike the fictional character he played, Keiko didn't have the same fairy-tale ending: five years after being released in Iceland, he died, alone, after settling in a Norwegian fjord.
The difference with Lolita, advocates say, is the family factor--crucial, say experts, to any whale's release. There haven't been many to study. But looking back on Keiko, many scientists believe too little was known about his family history to successfully reintegrate him with his pod. Lolita's family, on the other hand, are some of the most studied whales in the world: a group of 43 L Pod orcas that can be found at regular intervals around the region. "The whole key to this is whether or not the animal will be accepted by its family," says Wood of Global Research and Rescue.
For his part, Levy is aware of the obstacles, but remains confident they can be overcome. Transporting a whale across country isn't cheap--but with Hollywood's help, that may no longer be a problem. "Trust me, we are going to get [Lolita] out of that tank," says Levy. "It's inevitable."
Lolita is still amazingly healthy.
Photo by Sean Jacobs.
DRAFT PROPOSAL FOR RETIRING THE ORCA KNOWN AS LOLITA TO HER NATIVE HABITAT IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
Letter to supporters
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Notes on this Newsweek article
Since 1995 the Lolita campaign has been dedicated to retiring this performing orca to her native waters with the opportunity to rejoin her family, in part by educating the public to understand the immense intelligence and social bonds now well documented in her clan. This Newsweek article makes many valuable points and offers a big step toward those goals, but some inaccuracies call for correction.
The problem of Lolita's conditioning to human care and to a display tank for 37 years is often raised, based on the record for most species. The point that needs to be made for Lolita is that orcas are different. In Lolita's family, no offspring, male or female, ever stray from their mothers' side, a fact that is totally unprecedented among mammals, and demands a revision of our assumptions about the prospects of retiring a long term captive. This permanent bonding is not due to instinct, but comes from cultural traditions learned from birth and maintained throughout life. Especially considering that orca brains are 4 to 5 times the size of human brains, there is no reason to think Lolita has forgotten who she is or where she came from. Here's one quote from scientific literature: "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." From: Rendell, Luke & Whitehead, Hal (2001) Behav. Brain. Sci. v24(2): 309-382 Culture in whales and dolphins.
What this means is that the degree of self-awareness and cultural identity in orcas is without parallel except in humans, so the conditioning that might take over in almost any other species is minor compared to her memory and knowledge that she is an orca from the L25 subpod of the Southern Resident orca community. She still uses two of the distinct calls found only in the dialect of the L25's. L25 (Ocean Sun) herself is still alive, along with 14 family members who were alive and present when Lolita was taken from them.
This point is the key to realizing that Lolita will remember where she was born and raised and who her real family are. It's hard for most people to grasp, but any consideration of Lolita's prospects in retirement must consider it.
The comment in the article: "I see [her] experiencing total shock as she is dropped into the hostile world of nature," ignores the example of Keiko, who was instantly energized by immersion in natural seawater in Oregon and even more so in his native Icelandic waters. Upon his move to a larger tank in Oregon, Keiko regained his health and his skin condition cleared up. He gained weight and muscle strength, he caught live fish with ease when first offered them, and was soon well prepared for his trip back home to Iceland. When he was lowered into his net pen in Iceland, Keiko immediately swam out of his sling, slapped his flukes and swam the perimeter of his pen, dove for long periods, feeling and hearing his ocean home for the first time since his capture as a young calf over twenty years earlier. Contrary to this quote, for an orca, their natural world is not hostile, but is by far the most hospitable and therapeutic habitat.
Most perplexing is the comment that: "The possibility of her dying in the next 10 years, of old age, are pretty high. The stress of a transport may kill her." Female orcas at birth will live to an average of 50 years; a healthy 40-year old female orca can be expected to live decades longer. On the transport question, never in the 40+-year history of hundreds of orca transports has one died.
Others have asked if her body can handle the pollution of the Puget Sound region--a known PCB hotspot. Lolita's presumed low level of such toxins makes her a perfect candidate to improve the health of the endangered Southern Resident orcas by bearing a calf before the end of her reproductive years at about age 45. Accumulation of those toxins to dangerous levels is most damaging to developing fetuses and neonates, but not so much for adults.
The bay pen we propose for Lolita need not be closed, so she could have access to as much area as she would want, which would clearly be a vast improvement over that tiny tank.
We are focusing on Lolita, but to assess her chances of survival in captivity, we need to look at the survival rates of other orcas in captivity, of which 148 have died in their youth or early maturity.
The record answers all these concerns with good indications that she would survive and thrive in her native waters. Lolita's retirment plan is a science-based, multi-staged reintegration plan that focuses on rebuilding her metabolism, gaining contact with her family, and reintroducing her to hunting for food. It also provides for the worst case scenario in which Lolita would remain in a large sea pen or possibly be provided an open feeding and care station, so she could swim to her heart's content and enjoy her natural environment once again.