A Review of the Releasability
of Long-Term Captive Orcas


Research vessel with Lolita's extended family

  1. Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) were first held in captivity in the 1860's. The first killer whale, or orca, that performed for the public was caught in British Columbia, Canada in 1965. This young male, named Namu, was displayed at the Seattle waterfront for eleven months until his death from massive infections. Namu showed that orcas were easily trained and established deep relationships with their trainers. [Note: the following statistics were updated May 31, 2003] Currently there are 48 orcas known to be held in captivity worldwide. For a complete list see Stefan Jacobs' Orcas In Captivity).

    In 1976, after ten years of captures, the state of Washington reached a court settlement with Sea World that ended capture operations there. Capture teams then moved to Iceland where they continued until 1989. By that time a total of 128 mostly young orcas had been delivered to marine parks. Six more have been caught in Argentina and Japan since 1989. Of the 47 orcas in parks today, 24 are captive-born. Of the 134 orcas captured from the wild since 1965, only 26 remain alive today. Only one of the 110 that died had reached its average life expectancy if it had remained in the wild.

    Efforts to release captive orcas were encouraged by a children's movie called Free Willy and a grassroots campaign to release Keiko, the movie's star orca. By the end of 1993 it seemed that every child in the Western world had seen Free Willy, and many had gotten the video for Christmas. Many of these children have learned the lesson of the plot, which is that Willy was a member of a family, that he missed his family and they missed him, and that he could safely be released to rejoin them. They also learned that captivity was hazardous for orcas. Studies have now confirmed that captivity is life-threatening for orcas, and we also now know that each wild orca is indeed a valued and recognized member of a highly cohesive family. The proposition that they would happily rejoin their families is gaining acceptance, but proposals to release them after long term captivity remain in doubt for many adult observers.

    Because the marine park owners where Keiko was held realized that he needed to be moved somewhere or he would soon die there (Cornell, 1993), and after a coalition including a wealthy benefactor financed and organized a lengthy rehabilitation and release program, Keiko is now receiving the benefit of the first realistic effort to release a long term captive orca. After two and a half years of rehabilitation in Oregon, Keiko regained his strength and nearly returned to his normal state of robust health. In September, 1998, Keiko was moved to a sea pen in Iceland, near where he was captured.

    Thus much of the younger generation and a growing portion of the general public are becoming aware that it is possible to release or retire captive orcas in their native habitats. The movie's image of the insensitive marine park risking the lives of their main attractions has also stuck in the minds of the younger generation, and that impression indeed seems to be borne out by recent revelations (PBS Frontline, "A Whale of a Business" Nov. 11, 1997). Captivity for orcas is increasingly seen as, at the least, disrespectful and abusive. Adding to the pressure on marine parks is a global network of organizations and individuals working to end the practice of displaying whales and dolphins. The era of large-scale controversy for the marine park industry has begun (Johnson, 1990).

    Partly as a consequence of this increasingly negative publicity, Sea World, by far the largest player in the marine park industry with its four parks, has begun a "calculated shift away from animal attractions" (Miami Herald, May 10, 1998). Marine World in California and the Vancouver Public Aquarium each experienced the death of an orca in October, 1997, and neither park has made a replacement, due in part to outspoken efforts in both localities to instead allow the surviving orca to be released.

    Declining attendance and resulting economic pressures are causing the closure or transformation of other parks. The public demand to end whale and dolphin shows will almost certainly increase in the years to come, resulting in further declines in attendance at the parks. As the animals attract less revenue at the turnstile, the expenses required to maintain them remain high, and the market for the trained performers tends to evaporate. Public pressure to resolve the building controversies by releasing or retiring captive dolphins and orcas is thus likely to grow over the coming years.

    Regarding Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, the economic factors seem to have preceded the public pressure. The park has been steadily losing attendance for well over 20 years. Since 1991 the Seaquarium has made numerous attempts to obtain an exemption to the county zoning regulations to allow construction of a completely new park, with a water slide, an IMAX theatre, restaurants and retail stores. The state appellate court has denied the exemption twice, and in May, 1998 the state legislature turned down the plan. Since at least 1985 the Seaquarium has repeatedly promised to build a new tank for Lolita, but since it is nearly impossible to find a replacement orca on the market due to public pressure prohibiting further captures it is highly unlikely that any new tank will ever be built.

    Lolita's transport to another marine park would involve great risk due to her probable inability to adjust easily to the established social hierarchy of Icelandic or Japanese and captive-born orcas in every other marine park. Marine mammal veterinarian Jay Sweeney has said that as long as there is social instability among captive cetaceans, there is likely to be increased incidence of health problems. Such instability could in fact lead to Lolita's death, as has occurred with at least one other orca. This prospect, added to the knowledge that she is the subject of a nationwide release campaign, plus her already unlikely longevity for a captive, could discourage other parks from taking her.

    On the other hand, if the Seaquarium decides to allow Lolita to be retired with the prospect of release to her family and home waters, her health would predictably improve and her prospects for a long life would be enhanced, as will be discussed in this paper.

    Months of events commemorating Miami's farewell to Lolita could attract positive publicity to the park and to the city of Miami. Worldwide media attention now directed toward Keiko would focus on efforts in Miami to return America's own orca to her home waters. It would even be feasible almost immediately to connect Lolita acoustically, from her tank, via a long-distance phone call to her family in Washington, which would be an exciting event, as part of her preparation for transport. The positive glow of global media attention could have many spin-off benefits for Miami.

    Mother and juvenile offspring porpoising

    Retiring or releasing Lolita could also enhance environmental awareness. As we place former captives back into their oceanic waters, the public may begin to see some new reasons to protect and restore the natural productivity of those habitats. The emotional appeal of orcas we know by name living in in local waters could enhance environmental protection efforts.

    So it is important to determine the biological feasibility of rehabilitating Lolita in her native waters. Exact plans would need to be worked out after agreement is reached, but in all probability she would first be confined to a sea pen in her native waters and be provided with food, including live fish, given medical supervision and social stimulation by her trainers, much like the program almost completed for Keiko. Within weeks or months her family would presumably travel by, vocalizing as they typically do. Lolita would hear them and would respond, to which they would probably respond. They would likely approach her and meet her from the other side of the net. If a long period of apparently friendly interaction followed, and if a panel of experts and veterinarians concluded that she was capable of safely rejoining her family, she could be released, under supervision and carrying a temporary radio tracking device. If she would not or could not rejoin her family for any reason, she could be retired to the sea pen to be cared for in perpetuity.

    But all such scenarios depend on a positive answer to the question: Is it safe to retire or release a long term captive orca? After all, Free Willy was only a movie. The real Keiko could not leap over a wall to gain his freedom. But as he himself is now demonstrating, a retirement/release program, if well planned and carried out, can be accomplished without significant risk to the animal or its wild counterparts. This conclusion is, of course, vociferously discouraged by representatives of marine parks.

    Any release plan needs to be comprehensive and guided by scientific principles. When Keiko was delivered to Newport, Oregon in January, 1996, he was skinny, flabby, ulcerous, and he had warts. Now, five years later he has gained 2,000 pounds, his stamina and metabolic strength are excellent, his skin is sleek and shiny, and he shows no trace of any virus, according to a team of six veterinarians appointed by the USDA (Appendix K). Keiko demonstrates that a professional rehabilitation program can be successful for a long term captive orca.

    Lolita remains in surprisingly good condition at the Seaquarium, despite the fact that the other 44 orcas caught from her family at about the same time Lolita was captured had all died by 1987. Nevertheless, she would require the same evaluation process provided for Keiko and a clean bill of health prior to immersion in her native waters. Her good condition is a statistical aberration, but it means that her rehabilitation could probably be accomplished in less time than Keiko needed. It would not be necessary for Lolita to first go to a tank. She could be placed directly in a sea pen in her native waters.

    Adult males travelling together

    The question of releasability can be reviewed by looking at each point in the rehabilitation/retirement/release process where a risk might occur. No orca has been seriously harmed during transport in the 34 year history of the industry, so no significant risk is involved in any stage of the delivery to the rehabilitation site. The longest transport took 63 hours. (Dudok Van Heel, W.H., 1986). Keiko required about 24 hours out of water before arriving in Iceland. The total time out of water for Lolita would be less than half that time. When moving an orca it is routine for the trainers or other personnel to accompany it during the flight and for a time thereafter.

    When recovering from any illness, the most therapeutic environment for a cetacean is its natural waters, so the contact with seawater does not pose a problem. Orcas have adapted to a wide range of temperature variability, but the crucial factor is the rate of change more than the destination temperature. Since Lolita's water is kept at about 55 degrees, and the temperature of her home water is about 48 degrees, the change should not be too drastic for her to comfortably adapt. Thus, assuming all preparations are in order, the immersion into her native waters, in an anchored, protective sea pen, poses no significant risk. Food provision, medical care and human companionship would of course continue. Keiko showed no sign of shock or trauma upon his transport to Oregon. For Lolita the waters will be her familiar habitat, where she was born and spent the first six years of her life. There she could again taste seawater and feel the tides and currents, and have visual and acoustic access to open water and the creatures that live in her home environment.

    The expected meeting with her family pod would probably take place whenever they arrived at the sea pen, but that meeting would not necessitate the release of Lolita, unless and until she was deemed ready for release by a panel of experts. When the time arrives to consider whether any dangers might await her upon opening the gate, if any risks are foreseen it would not be opened and Lolita would be retired and cared for in one of the hundreds of bays and coves that are typical of the coastline of the inland waters of Washington state. If all goes well she will be allowed to swim with her family, and will be closely watched at least until it is certain that she has successfully reintegrated with her family.

    The species Orcinus orca has no predators, so there is no danger that a released orca would be subject to predation.

    Any reintroduced orca should be placed among its closest relatives, who share the same vocal dialects and cultural traditions, to maximize recognition and acceptance. There is no dispersal from Lolita's extended family, and relationships among family members show little or no signs of aggression, so there is little reason to expect rejection from her pod of birth. Legitimate questions arise in Lolita's case because she has been separated from her family for over 3 decades. To assess whether her family would recognize and accept Lolita, a simple experiment involving a long distance vocal communication, in essence a telephone call between Miami and the Puget Sound could be arranged almost immediately upon authorization by Seaquarium management.

    There are other lines of evidence to anticipate the response of her family. There have been successful releases of cetaceans similar to orcas after long captivity. In 1968 a pilot whale (much like orcas in size and family patterns) was released after more than seven years in captivity, and was sighted in the company of other pilot whales three years later. A bottlenose dolphin escaped after 17 years in captivity and was observed 8 months later looking fit and in the company of other dolphins (Appendix B).

    Even after these reassurances, it is understandable that for many people, the most vexing question remains, What would happen in the case of a long term captive orca, like Lolita, upon meeting her family pod? Lolita's extended family is the most extensively studied community of orcas, or any cetaceans, in the world. There is no dispersal from the family and they are predictably found for most of each year in a protected inland sea. Known as the Southern Resident community, neither males nor females ever depart from the pod for the duration of their lives. Thus family memberships are permanent for both sexes, and although the return of a long term captive is obviously highly unusual, with their demonstrably long memories and lifelong bonding, her close relatives would likely retain the memory of their long lost family member.

    Orcas' vocal communication calls are unique to each pod. Lolita still uses her family's calls, which would be understood by her family.

    In the wild, females average over 50 years longevity, and can live beyond their eighties. Females well over the age of forty have given birth. Thus Lolita's length of life after release would in all probability be in the decades, and she could conceivably have a calf or two of her own.

    So it appears that other than a general unease with the idea of returning Lolita to an unknown wild ocean environment, the actual steps involved are biologically viable. Contingency plans will allow a smooth adjustment to retirement if she is unable to swim freely and rejoin her family.

    This report will attempt to establish each of these points while describing a general outline for releasing a long term captive orca, and will offer an overall proposal for the reunification of Lolita with her native habitat and family pod. Each section is presented briefly, in summary form, with references where appropriate. Taken as a whole, it is hoped that any realistic concerns or questions about the proposal to retire Lolita to her home waters for potential release to rejoin her family are answered here.

    There is no significant risk involved in any stage of the reintroduction process. Perhaps a consensus can be reached that it's time for Lolita to return home.

    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