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: 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: 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.

  1. Introduction
  2. Survival rates in captivity
  3. Precedents
  4. Disease issues
  5. Foraging ability
  6. Social systems and bonds
  7. Communication
  8. Consciousness and memory
  9. Emotions
  10. Conclusions
  11. Recommendations
  12. Bibliography