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May 15 Protest

May 15th 2010
International Day of Protest for Lolita

Taking it to the next level

Free Lolita Update #117 - After the May 15 Protest

Informed advocates for Lolita's retirement plan protested in public in over 40 cities on May 15, the International Day of Protest for Lolita. In the 15 years since the campaign began to return Lolita to her home waters, many people have learned about the issues involved and have helped in many ways. Videos have been produced, songs have been written and recorded, letters have been written, students have been taught and quiet diplomacy and informal outreach have been accomplished in ways too many and varied to even estimate.

But this Saturday of global protest was different. People from all over the world explained in their signs and sidewalk testimony the many reasons why she should come home and why, following the safe and professional procedures outlined in our retirement proposal, she would do just fine back in the marine habitat she grew up in before she was taken away.

Here on Whidbey Island a group of about 15 kayakers joined the Cutty Sark sailing vessel flying banners and signs in Penn Cove at the very site of the captures in 1970, when Lolita was taken, and again in 1971. Photos from the day can be found on the Orca Network Facebook page.

As expected, the Seaquarium is trotting out the same old lame arguments about her supposed educational value as a captive (Angela Percival's comment on the ON Facebook page answers that one well: There would be enormous scientific value from a Tokitae release; perhaps the most revealing evidence of orca intelligence of all time would result. Its potential significance far outweighs any value she has as an entertainer. If it doesn't happen, a unique opportunity to understand these animals will be lost forever), or their denial of the scientific and historical record that shows she would thrive in her native waters (see the answers to questions below on this page).

The whole marine park industry has been defensive and disingenuous about the realities of captivity and the prospects for reintroduction since the start of Sea World in the mid 60's, and the Seaquarium in particular is behind a bunker mentality. The management won't discuss the issues with anyone and employees are sworn to secrecy about the things they see and hear every day. We've tried respectful proposals to help the park with a transition to non-exploitive shows, we've sent emissaries, and we've avoided too much reference to character traits like greed and dishonesty, although that's hard to avoid.

There's a sign from the Miami protest that seems to represent the sentiments of many of us that says: "Retire the Damn Whale!" It takes some familiarity with the natural history of Lolita's extended family, but once people get the whole picture of captivity contrasted with the possibilities for her to have a life with her family in the natural world, they sometimes lose their infinite patience and just insist it's time to move her home. As of May 15 I think the campaign has turned the tide into an effective base of support that has the needed background and just wants to see her back where she belongs. It's exciting to see that on such a global scale.

Here are some potentially effective ideas on how to proceed legally and legislatively.

Below is a report on Lolita from a visit on Friday, May 14, forwarded by Rae Wilson from a friend. It's very important to know how she's doing and what her day is like. Note that the gates to the back pool, which is used to add up to legal measurements by APHIS inspectors, are closed, and six Pacific white-sided dolphins are now housed there. This report raises some critical questions, and conveys what it feels like to see her confined to that cramped space.


The day after the protests we received a message with some questions from someone who wanted to know if our proposed retirement plan would be successful in providing her a safe and healthy life. That's a valid concern, especially when the usual defense by the marine parks is to say that captive orcas would not survive life in the real ocean. Others may get questions like this, so below you'll find our answers.

I support Lolita's release from captivity but would like to know more about how realistic this is. Does she really have a chance of surviving in the wild, or has she become so dependent on people that she'd just die if released? Will she still know her native language? Has this been done before? Who would fund and operate her rehabilitation?

To which we responded:

These are very good questions. They are the responsible questions that have to be asked to make sure this is a safe and feasible proposal that so many are speaking up for now.

Our proposal is not just to release her. The idea is to return her to a protected cove (Kanaka Bay, the preferred site on the west side of San Juan Island, which was used as a baypen for two transient orcas in 1976) and take care of her for as long as needed.

A care station would be prepared, complete with a fish freezer and prep room. Professional marine mammal care staff would be hired to be there 24/7, and vets would do exams and be on call. She would be examined in Miami prior to departure to make sure she has no contagious pathogens, as Keiko was thoroughly examined before his departure for Iceland.

I would insist that at least one of her current caretakers accompany her on the trip and stay with her for several weeks or months afterward, just to ease the transition.

The timing of what follows would depend on her responses and behavior, and any interactions she may have with her family. Probably, after a few weeks in her baypen and some exercises led by her caretakers, she would be led out of the cove by a boat to explore further and build up swimming strength and stamina. A signal would call her back to the boat if there seemed to be any problem, such as approaching other boats. She would probably retrain herself to catch live fish as Keiko did.

She still uses some of the calls she learned before her capture, so she at least still knows the rudiments of her native language, enough to be recognized and vice versa. Assuming there is interaction with her family she would probably regain her use of calls over time.

To answer the question of whether she has become too dependent on humans it's important to look into the natural history of orcas that has been learned over the past 35 years of field research. Orcas, unlike any other mammal known except humans and perhaps some other cetaceans, live in tradition-bound cultures, according to rules that determine behavior more than instinct or habituation. In each orca culture discovered worldwide their diets, mating practices, association patterns and pretty much all activities are preordained by the prevailing cultures that each individual was born in. There is no dispersal from or recruitment into any orca culture, leading each community to become genetically distinct over the generations. There is currently a proposal by researchers to split the species Orcinus orca into several full species, according to the genetic differences which stem from their culture-bound behavior.

This means that each individual is fully aware of which culture they belong to. Their sense of self, their identities, are shaped by their cultures. Keeping all this in mind it is reasonable to assume that even after 40 years Lolita still knows who she really is, a member of the L25 matriline of L pod, from knowledge formed in her early years before capture. I have a hunch that her survival through four decades of captivity, three decades of that in solitary confinement, has been the strength of her knowledge of who she really is. Her return then, would be like coming home In a sense we might understand emotionally.

The closest parallel to retiring Lolita was the attempt to release Keiko. Keiko dispelled the fears that he would not survive immersion in his native habitat. Quite the contrary he thrived from the first minute. He explored his surroundings immediately and soon gained in strength and dive times and paid less attention to his human caretakers. Unfortunately his family was never located prior to his release near Iceland, and he never found them on his own. He died after travelling on his own across the North Atlantic to Norway, where, after over a year in a remote cove, he died.

Who would fund the operation? It's always been a chicken and egg proposition. As long as the Seaquarium refuses to consider current scientific knowledge or the concerns of many, many people, or the welfare of Lolita, and flatly refuses to publicly consider, or even discuss, her retirement, it's very hard to raise funds to retire her. But as soon as there is some kind of MOU and serious talks get underway, I'm quite sure there will be little problem raising the money to pay expenses. Considering that it is important to have a long range plan with contingencies in case Lolita chooses to return to human care for years, somewhere between 1 and 2 million would be needed altogether for transport and professional services. We have a more detailed budget in our proposal.

I'd be happy to elaborate or show you more background on any part of this. I appreciate anyone who wants to see the evidence and the facts. It's looking to me like we've reached a quantum leap in public understanding of some of these novel understandings and contentious issues with the result that a lot of people now get it and see what needs to be done. I've never seen this broad show of support from such a wide range of people. It's exhilarating.

Thanks for asking and please let me know if you'd like any clarification.


Orca Network


Another report from inside the Seaquarium: Lolita is ALONE 22 HOURS PER DAY!!! More "Witness Testimony" from Coleen Gorman

May 14, 2010
I want to share my experience at Miami Seaquarium from May 14, 2010. We've all seen the photos and read Lolita's story, but after witnessing the place first hand I can tell you how bad Lolita's situation really is. First, my disclaimer: I did not pay admission to get in. As someone who is against keeping orcas and other dolphins in captivity, I will not support these places financially. I was given a free entrance pass which had been donated to a friend.

Here are several things about my experience that were most disturbing:

First, the size of Lolita's tank is smaller than it looks in photos. Pictures don't do a great job of capturing depth. Just as pictures of the Grand Canyon can never convey its true size and depth, pictures of her tank can't convey the lack of size and depth. Many hotels and health clubs have larger pools. Her tank is like a large backyard swimming pool. It is the first thing that hit me when I walked in. I had seen many pictures beforehand, but none of them prepared me well for its true lack of size. 40 years in that pool is unimagineable. I will also say that Lolita is beautiful. That hit me right away too and it was surreal to see this orca in front of my eyes that I have read so much about. Suddenly this cause became more real to me and truly about the injustice to this individual being in front of me.

Second, Lolita is mostly unavalable for public observation. Unlike other marine parks (Seaworld), you can only see Lolita during her show. She does 2 shows a day. You can enter the stadium 10 minutes before where she listlessly floats near the front of her tank. As the stadium music blares loudly, she looked at people for a few minutes. She then sank to the bottom and was still for several minutes. Up for a breath and a look, then back to the bottom, barely moving.

After the show, Lolita immediately swims to the corner of the front section of the tank. She was not able to access the back tank, which was gated off and had 6 Pacific white-sided dolphins. Lolita waits there, at one point with her mouth open as if she was waiting for food. When I was there, her trainers were in that corner watching the dolphins and talking to each other, completely ignoring Lolita. Lolita then floated still with her head against the gate, watching the dolphins, still with no attention from trainers. We were able to get to the rail of her tank and stand within a few feet of her, making eye contact with her. We said hello in an excited, friendly pitch. At one point Lolita nodded her head up and down. Of course I cannot tell you she was reacting to us or what she was thinking or feeling. Only that she nodded and we had eye contact.

Within 5 minutes of the show ending, security kicks everyone out.

So she does 2 shows a day, 20 minuntes each. You can see her 10 minutes before and 5 after. That is a total time of 1 hour and 10 minutes view time per day. At all other time she is behind closed doors, literally. The stadium is secured by metal garage doors. There is no way in. This raises so many questions of what is going on behind closed doors. Do they open the gates to give her access to the back tank behind the trainer platform? Or is she confined to the front of the tank, making her living space even smaller? Is she getting attention, stimulation and excercise? Enough food? Medical care? It all happens privately with no ability for the public to know.

Third, the show. I was shocked at the lack of Lolita's presence in the show. During the intro, in their sales pitch for MSQ, the trainer asked in a salesy voice, "Where is the one place in the world where you can see a killer whale swim and play with Pacific white sided dolphins?" Of course her answer was MSQ, but I was thinking British Columbia.

As I mentioned, the show is 20 minutes. Lolita swims around with a trainer standing on her, breaches 3-5 times, tail slaps, pec slaps, demonstrates her L pod calls and splashes the first 6 rows. Hardly 20 minutes worth of material. So they spread it out. She does one "trick," then swims to the platform for 3-5 minutes, mouth open, catching dead fish from a trainer while the Pacific dolphins take over the show. Then Lolita does a breach or another "trick, and back to the platform for another 3-5 minutes. Combined, literally, she is performing for maybe 5 minutes of the 20 minute show. The dolphins played a much larger role. I cried the entire show.

I don't know why she is not the main feature of the show. There are rumors and speculation though. Apparently her long time trainer left a year or so ago and there is talk that Lolita has not been the same since and this is impactihg her ability/desire to perform. There are rumors that she shows signs of depression and her food is being laced with prozac. Someone mentioned that at times when trainers try to get in the water she agressively swims around the tank. However, without public access beyond an hour a day and with no access to medical records, none of this can be confirmed.

Finally, I left the facility very depressed. The facility is a relic to the 1950's. The crowds are small. Many of my photos show empty bleachers. I watched 2 bottlenose dolphins in a tank larger than Lolita's pushing beach balls around. I got bored watching them for 5 minutes. I had the freedom to walk away. I can only imagine their plight.

It was all an experience I am grateful to have seen first hand. I am hopeful that this gives me the credibility of a first hand witness in enrolling people in the cause to return her home. I took a lot of sadness out of there with me that will remain with me for a very very long time.

Getting Lolita home is so important for her and us. Though we can never fully give back what others have taken from her, we need to give her what we can. After witnessing this,leaving her there is inhumane and wrong. It is terrible for her and it speaks poorly on us if we allow this to continue.

Now that the International Day of Protest has passed, it is not time to let this calm down, it is time to take it to the next level.

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