Lolita's Life Today
hough a young and healthy adult, Lolita is one of the oldest orcas in captivity, kept in the oldest and smallest orca tank in the U.S. The owner was quoted in a tourist trade magazine saying: "We recognize that the facility needs a pretty major upgrade, some aspects of the facility are functionally obsolete." In January, 2002 the Seaquarium admitted they simply don't have the cash to build a new whale stadium in the foreseeable future.
Since 1970 Lolita has performed reliably, entertaining visitors to the Miami Seaquarium with her power and grace. She has no other choice but to perform her routines to avoid reprimands from her trainers. Trainers may also deprive her of either food or attention and affection if she does not perform on cue. She tends to want to accomodate what is asked of her, so very little coercion is required, and as we learn more about orcas it's becoming ever more clear that they seem to understand what they are supposed to do, and act accordingly. On occasion she has refused to perform, but fortunately for her mental health those angry or depressed moods seem to be rare. This even temperament may be a clue to her astounding longevity in captivity.
Provided with good companionship and medical care, she has proven to be exceptionally robust, outliving by over two decades all of the approximately 44 other whales from her community who survived capture operations and were delivered to parks within three years of her capture. Nevertheless, by most accounts, one way or another Lolita's performing days will come to an end soon, probably within a few years.
Lolita is believed to be about 22 feet in length, weighs about 8,000 pounds, and is in good physical and mental health in spite of the fact that she has been held without other orcas since Hugo died in 1980. She is maintained in natural seawater drawn from Biscayne Bay and chilled to about 60° F, which is optimum for her in the Florida environment.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has objected to the Federal Government's failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act in regard to the small size of Lolita's tank. In short, the minimum horizontal dimension should, by law, be at least 48' wide in both directions. From the front wall to the wall that forms the barrier the pool is only 35' wide. The USDA says the barrier "does not present a significant obstruction" for Lolita, as if she can simply swim through the wall, as described by an official at APHIS. Orcas swim an average of 80 miles a day. Four other infractions at the Seaquarium whale tank have been documented at The Orca Project.
Lolita's tank is not a reasonable habitat for a whale. Read and send the letter to the USDA to register a formal complaint.
Her main problems result from her solitary confinement and separation from her family, compounded by a lack of normal physical activity and environmental stimulation. Lolita's only objects to play with are a child's inflatable toy and an old wetsuit. Lolita is the last surviving killer whale in captivity from Washington State, and 10 of her relatives who were present with her at capture are still alive as of 2011, including L25, considered to be Lolita's possible mother based on analysis of the calls Lolita continues to make in her tank.
Like most, probably all, orcas, Lolita yearns to bond with another caring, sentient being. In the absence of any other whales, she looks toward her trainers for companionship. Marcia Henton was Lolita's trainer from 1988 until the fall of 1995. Henton seemed to respond to Lolita's desire for a companion. "It was like having a best friend that you get to see every day. She likes a lot of close contact" she said. "It's a very unique experience. When she comes over to me, when we're interacting together, she looks right into my eyes. It almost feels like...my soul is open to her," said Henton.
Lolita has also demonstrated her incredible memory. Henton talks about finding an old hand signal book in a locker at the park that hasn't been used since she took over as her trainer. Just to see what would happen, she tried out some of the signals. The results surprised even her: "I can walk up and give her a signal she hasn't seen in at least eight years, and she remembers it."
In 1996 Keith Henderson of Dateline-NBC played a tape of Lolita's family. The tape was recorded in July, 1995, during a superpod event in the Pacific Northwest. A superpod is a reunion of the three pods that make up Lolita's extended family, the Southern Resident community. Lolita still makes the calls of her subpod, the L25 subpod, named for the presumed matriarch. These calls are unique to the L25 subpod.
Lolita, like Namu before her, always tries to create a bond of friendship with a trusted companion. This gives us an indication of her normal, natural relationships with family members. She can perfectly remember the meaning of a hand signal that she hasn't seen in more than eight years, that asks her to perform a silly trick. Indications are that if she were allowed to be reunited with her family, even by an acoustic linkup, Lolita would remember how to communicate with her mother and the rest of her family, and they would remember her. Lolita still makes her family's calls. There are four living females among L pod who are the right age to possibly be Lolita's mother.
In late July of 1994, during production of the movie Free Willy 2 on San Juan Island, Governor Mike Lowry came to participate in a town meeting and visit the movie set. Balcomb met Governor Lowry and told him about Lolita, the last survivor of Washington State's capture era. Lowry took an interest in helping bring Lolita home, and asked his policy advisor to act as coordinator to marshall state agencies to help prepare for Lolita's rehabilitation seapen.
Lowry teamed up with Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a dedicated opponent of the orca display industry since he and his wife witnessed a capture in 1976. On March 9, 1995, Lowry and Munro, along with Balcomb, held a press conference at the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle to announce the start of a campaign to bring Lolita home. Lowry declared his intention to help Lolita return "as a citizen of the state of Washington."
Munro and Lowry have since jointly written three letters to Art Hertz, owner of the Seaquarium, repeatedly offering a variety of ideas to compensate for the potential loss of income that Lolita is now generating. Hertz said that "The most prestigious scientists from around the nation inform us that releasing Lolita into the wild would be immoral, inhumane and unethical." Hertz claimed that if released, Lolita would continue to respond to humans, that she would not be able to catch live fish, that she would not be accepted by any social group, and that she might catch or spread a disease. Lowry and Munro responded to these concerns by again proposing an acoustic experiment that might resolve some of them, and by inviting Hertz or his staff to a meeting that was held during the American Zoological Association conference in Seattle in September, 1995, to discuss all the criteria that would need to be met. Hertz didn't answer that letter, but Munro and Lowry wrote him another letter in January, 1996, again inviting Hertz to visit Washington to see some wild whales for himself, and offering to collaborate with Hertz to help produce a cinematic production as part of a compensation package to secure Lolita's return to her home waters. Still no deal.
In November, 1995, the Seaquarium replaced several of Lolita's caretakers, including Marcia Henton, possibly in retribution for giving such a revealing interview. For a time afterward, Lolita seemed to have lost much of her energy. Her performances were lackluster, her breaches were half-breaches, and between shows she dropped to the bottom of the tank most of the time. Or she hovered at the surface near the edge of the tank, as if waiting for someone to come by to keep her company.
Trainers at the Seaquarium usually seem to care for Lolita and try to give her companionship. She seems to enjoy their presence, but when compared to the 24-hour a day, lifetime company she could have with her real family, such playful moments are clearly not enough.
Biologically and logistically she is an excellent candidate for return to her home waters to be retired in a monitored seapen with the option of rejoining her family, but objections to her return by the park have so far prevented the move. It is important to note that even in the largest and most modern marine park facilities, survival for killer whales is significantly reduced (See Small, R. and D. DeMaster, 1995a. Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science 11(2):209-226.)
Only Corky, a Northern Resident orca held at the San Diego Sea World, was taken before Lolita and remains alive today. Lolita remains healthy, but orcas in tanks usually die of massive internal infections that prove lethal within a few days or hours of first detection.