A Review of the Releasability
of Long-Term Captive Orcas Consciousness and Memory
A female does a cartwheel
Consciousness is a slippery subject to study even in humans, and memory is also difficult to measure and compare. And yet, if we are to understand and communicate with each other we need to assume that we are conscious of our surroundings and of one another and able to remember things. And if the plight of a captive orca is to become real for us, we need to have a sense that the animal is aware of its surroundings, and that it is capable of recalling past events. Recent theoreticians have concluded that indeed many species are capable of such feats (Griffin, 1976, 1984).
Marcia Henton was Lolita's trainer for eight years from 1988 through 1995. In a 1996 TV documentary called Lolita—Spirit In the Water, Henton explained her relationship with Lolita:
It's like having a best friend that you get to see every day, only it's not a human, it's an orca. I've been able to go back into her journals 20 years, and look up old signals, and those signals are what trainers use to communicate with the animals. And I know for a fact I haven't used a certain signal for the time I've been here—eight years. So I can walk up here and give her a signal she hasn't seen in at least 8 years, and she remembers it (KOMO-TV, 1996).
The neuroanatomy of an orca, with a brain size four times human brain size, is certainly sufficient to indicate an extremely large memory capacity. A large brain requires a great deal of oxygen, which is an expensive commodity, especially for an ocean-dwelling animal, so such a brain must have high adaptive value and be consistently used.
A recent investigation of short term memory in bottlenose dolphins (Mercado, et al., 1998) found that dolphins proved to be able to repeat a wide variety of behaviors on a command meaning "repeat what you did last." The authors report: "The results suggest that dolphins can flexibly access memories and that these memories are of sufficient detail to allow for reenactments."
A story from the Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1998 (Appendix P), gives some insight into the memory of an orca. Elias Jonsson was involved in many of the orca captures in Iceland:
One whale, he remembers, was seasick when it was brought to him after the trip home for six hours through choppy seas. When Jonsson got his hands on the animal, it was so dizzy it couldn't stay right-side up in the water, and he had to spend hours by its side, holding it upright so it could breathe. "After that, we got along so well that I never was afraid," he says. That whale was eventually shipped off to an aquarium in France, Jonsson says, and two years later he got the job of flying in a companion for it. The seasick whale hadn't seen him in two years, he recalls, but when he entered the aquarium, it finished its performance and rushed over to where he was standing, wagging its head and obviously showing that it recognized its former caretaker. "If that killer whale could remember him after two years," Jonsson figures, "why shouldn't Keiko remember how to hunt, or to recognize his fellows, after 20 years?"
Obviously the same can be said of Lolita. With the intensity of the social and family bonds now known to be the case among Lolita's extended family, along with her demonstrated capacity for long term memory of arbitrary show routines, deductive reasoning indicates that she remembers her family to this day. Moreover, Lolita was six years old, several years older than the average captive orca at the time of capture, so the clarity of her memories of the days prior to her capture may help explain her unusually long survival in captivity.