This is the sad case of Lolita the killer whale. It is reportedly one of the more extreme examples of a marine park in the United States taking advantage of an orca in captivity for financial profit at the expense of the animal’s welfare. Yes, for the past 46 years, Lolita has been confined to a small marine park pool in Miami and has not seen another of her kind in 26 years.
Originally born to one of the now endangered pods of resident orca whales that live in the waters around Washington state, Lolita now probably knows little of her native home. After all, she was taken from the wild when she was only four years old.
This happened in early August 1970 when men in speedboats surrounded a pod of killer whales in Puget Sound. The men allegedly used a plane, nets, ropes and explosives to separate the adults as they captured the infants, one of which was a female calf that locals called Tokitae. During the struggle, however, the adult whales refused to leave their young. Therefore, the men apparently killed four babies and an adult killer whale.
Tokitae, renamed Lolita, then left her life in the wild to begin a new one in captivity as the star of the Miami Seaquarium. Her captured cousins had similar experiences, as marine-themed amusement parks in Texas, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and France also reportedly paid the whale herders for their services. Unfortunately, this industry-wide practice resulted in a generation of orcas removed from their native population.
In fact, Lolita would be Seaquarium’s second orca and a companion for the park’s older male, Hugo. Unlike Lolita, however, Hugo was practically a teenager when he was captured in 1968.
To better prepare for housing a pair of orcas, then, the park kept Hugo in what is now the manatee pool while they built a larger, 80-foot-wide pool for Lolita. Apparently, as soon as Lolita arrived, Hugo began calling out to her from his nearby swimming hole.
After a few weeks of allowing the whales to communicate with each other from a distance, the park moved Hugo to the larger pool to be with Lolita. However, the park had reason to be nervous about the pair’s first physical encounter together.
Indeed, Hugo had not adjusted well to life in captivity, perhaps because he was slightly older than Lolita. For example, he was aggressive and would constantly hit his head against the glass.
But there are no reports that he ever showed any kind of aggression toward Lolita. Instead, he would sometimes target his trainers, refuse to perform altogether or, per his usual routine, bash his head against the pool’s deeper viewing windows.
Ultimately, Hugo died of a massive brain hemorrhage in 1980, and the park did not purchase another orca as a companion whale for Lolita. By that time, fortunately, wild captures of orcas in the Pacific Northwest had ended, due primarily to a change in public sentiment over the practice.
Neither did Miami Seaquarium find a replacement companion through a transfer with another marine park or a purchase of a captive orca from Iceland, which was still common at the time. Instead, Lolita was introduced to a pair of dolphins as pool mates.
Another reason why Lolita never received an additional whale companion might have been that Lolita’s pool isn’t really big enough. The park claims otherwise, but others state that an island in the middle of the pool reduces its swimmable size below today’s legal minimum requirements. It has been further claimed that, though the pool is 80 feet long, it is only a tiny 20 feet deep in certain places.
This is even more shocking when you consider that Lolita weighs in at 6,000 pounds and stretches to 21 feet long. Indeed, Lolita would swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild, but in her pool she can apparently swim only a little more than the length of her own body. What’s more, the lonely whale takes a stream of medications for various ailments, including chronic kidney infections.
Not only that, but she is also slowly losing her vision due to pterygium, or “surfer’s eye,” which is an uncomfortable condition caused by excessive exposure to UV radiation. A lack of shade above Lolita’s pool is claimed to be the likely cause.
And if her physical health isn’t bad enough, her reported mental health is not much better. Recently, for example, Lolita has allegedly started showing signs of emotional distress through “jaw popping,” a potentially damaging activity that indicates that Lolita is bored or frustrated. In fact, the whale has had to have her teeth drilled over a dozen times because of this behavior.
People also cite whales’ intelligence as a reason why Lolita shouldn’t be kept in captivity. After all, whales rank as one of the more intelligent species on earth and are one of the few to possess self recognition. “I think it would be fictional to say she has no feelings about her separation from her family all these years,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network.
Indeed, while only an estimated 90 Southern Resident Community orcas now swim in the Pacific Northwest waters, Lolita’s mother, Ocean Sun, is one of them at the ripe age of 90 years old. Wildlife activists, therefore, are pushing to have Lolita reunited with her family before it is too late.
Though the process would have to be gradual, the idea is to provide her with a safe natural habitat in a cove along one of the Juan de Fuca Islands of her birth home. There, potentially, she would be given swimming lessons in the Pacific Ocean and learn to eat live salmon, before eventually being introduced to the resident L-pod of orcas that are her relatives. Of course, due to her life history, Lolita would also have the option to stay closer to shore where an orca wildlife team would be waiting to provide her with whatever she needs.
But Miami Seaquarium must first agree or be forced to release Lolita from her enclosure. To this end, PETA, Orca Network and the Animal Legal Defense Fund have banded together to lobby for Lolita’s case. In 2012, they filed a lawsuit on Lolita’s behalf against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.
While the case was dismissed, it caught the attention and rallied the support of the public. In February 2015, then, NOAA Fisheries added Lolita to the Endangered Species list, and in July 2015, the animal rights trio filed a lawsuit against Miami Sequarium, citing a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Unfortunately, in June 2016, the case was dismissed again, and Miami Sequarium has yet to release Lolita voluntarily. However, an appeal has already been filed for the ESA lawsuit, and Lolita’s many advocates will continue to fight for her freedom.