Survivor Spirit

Living in the wild, Orcas spend their entire lives with their mothers, as family bonds last a lifetime. Living in large families, Orcas have a lifespan similar to a human lifespan. Orcas are intelligent, social, sentient beings, and relatively docile, with no documentation of free-range Orca attacks on humans, except when Orca's are in captivity. | Photo: Orca Network | Lolita, Orcas, Animal Legal Defense Fund,

A new life for Lolita: one step at a time

"When you look in their eyes... someone's looking back." - John Jett, Former SeaWorld Trainer, recounted in the documentary, Blackfish

The documentary, Blackfish, brought into light the dangerous consequences of captive Orcas, exploited for entertainment purposes in sea parks, such as SeaWorld. The exploitation reached the pinnacle when SeaWorld Trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed by Tilikum, a male Orca who was previously associated with the death of two other people, creating insight into the world of captive animals in the entertainment industry. However, as Blackfish accounts, the death of Brancheau was the culmination of Tilikum's experience in captivity, from his limited living space, to being bullied by the dominant females, and frustration; all factors which would have been avoided, if he was living in the wild, triggering a type of psychosis leading to aggression.

As Blackfish accounts, the fishermen on the coast called Orcas "black fish," animals who possess great spiritual power; beings who should be respected. Howard Garrett, Orca Researcher, observes, Orcas are amazingly friendly who "intuitively want to be your companion," living in large families with a lifespan similar to a human lifespan, where each community has their own set of vocals. As cetaceans, Orcas are intelligent, sentient, social beings.

As sentient beings, Orcas are aware when they are being separated from their families. Blackfish accounts the young separated from their mothers at SeaWorld. Carol Ray, Former SeaWorld Trainer, recalls Katina and her baby, Kalina. At age four, Kalina was being disruptive where the administration decided Kalina should be moved; once Kalina was packed and en route, Katina, generally quiet and not very vocal, would be at one end of the pool, shaking, screeching, screaming, and crying, expressing immense grief. The other females would venture to check on Katina, who would continue to screech and cry. It never crossed Ray's mind that a baby would ever be separated from her mother, as in the wild, Orcas spend their lives with their mothers. John Hargrove, Former SeaWorld Trainer, recalls Kasatka and her baby, Takara, who was taken away to Florida. Kasatka made vocals, as analysts determined Kasatka was making long range vocals in efforts to find Takara, "that's heartbreaking." Hargrove observes, "How could anyone look at that and think that's morally acceptable. It's not. It's not okay."

As Neuroscientist, Dr. Lori Marino, asserts, "Everything about [Orcas] is social," citing mass strandings, where the Orcas were staying with each other. The most compelling example: when the adults stayed behind when the young Orcas were corralled during their capture in 1970.

According to savelolita.org, in August of 1970, a pod of Orcas in the waters of Puget Sound in Washington State were rounded by whale herders, hired to capture the young to be placed in sea parks and aquariums. As recounted in Blackfish, aircrafts and speedboats were used to chase the Orcas, deploying explosives to force the Orcas into Penn Cove. The Orcas had previously experienced captures, where the adults (without young) traveled east, as the mothers and their babies travelled north; the whale herders initially travelled east, but then realized their targets travelled north; in order to find the Orcas' location, they waited for the Orcas to come up for air, and soon nets were deployed to herd them, separating the babies from their mothers, one of whom was four-year-old Lolita.


Lolita was one of the seven Southern Resident Orcas kidnapped from Penn Cove of the Puget Sound in Washington State, at age four in 1970; footage of the capture documents her cries. Lolita is intelligent and sensitive, forced to live in misery in confinement for over 40 years, and in isolation for over 30 years, at the Miami Seaquarium. | Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund, ALDF | Lolita, Orcas, Animal Legal Defense Fund,

As one of the divers hired to capture the Orcas recounts, he was essentially "kidnapping a little kid away from their mother," expressing regret as the "worst thing I ever done, hunt that whale." The atrocities continued where one adult and four babies were killed during capture, according to savelolita.org. In attempts to conceal the deaths, the herders slit open the Orcas' bellies, filled them with rocks, and sank them with anchors. According to Jenni James, Litigation Fellow of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which fights to protect the lives and advance interests of animals through the legal system, the discovery of Orca bodies, which washed ashore ten days later, generated public outrage.

According to Public Broadcasting Station (PBS), in 1976, whale captures in Budd Inlet was witnessed by Ralph Munro, an assistant to Washington State Governor, Dan Evans. Reporting to Governor Evans that aircrafts and explosives were used to herd the Orcas (a violation of the terms in the collection permit), Governor Evans sued SeaWorld, and a Seattle district court ordered SeaWorld to relinquish its permit-granted right to collect Orcas in Washington; Washington State waters has become an unofficial sanctuary for Orcas. As Washington State became off-limits, SeaWorld turned to Iceland to capture Orcas for the live-animal entertainment industry.

As James states, there are at least three different ecotypes of Orcas: off-shore, transient, and resident (who live in near shore areas), all having varying cultures and languages. The Northern Resident Orcas (who live closer to Canada) don't share the same blood and genes as the Southern Resident Orcas (who primary live in the San Juan Islands in Washington State), with distinct calls. Southern Resident Orcas were frequently found in near shore areas, which made it easy for whale herders to capture them. 36 Southern Resident Orcas were taken into captivity, at least 11 others died during capture; the Southern Resident Orca population had 96 members, where nearly half of their population was depleted.

According to the ALDF, Lolita was one of the seven Southern Resident Orcas kidnapped from Penn Cove, as footage of the capture documents "the cries of Lolita and her family." Lolita is intelligent and sensitive, forced to live in daily misery in confinement, which violates the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). According to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the AWA was signed into law in 1966, which regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers, stipulating the minimum acceptable standards. ALDF continues, Lolita has been confined in isolation, in a tank below minimum standards at the Miami Seaquarium for over 43 years, without a companion since 1980.

According to James, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) had not been passed when the Miami Seaquarium built the Orca tank, which would be housing Lolita and Hugo. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Atmosphere (NOAA), focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere, the MMPA was enacted in 1972 based on findings such as some marine mammal species (or stocks) may be in danger of extinction (or depletion) due to human activity. James continues, the AWA regulations setting the minimum standards for cetacean display was not promulgated until 1979.

James was sad to note the lack of shade with no covering over her pool, where Lolita had to continually follow the little shade created by the shadow of the stands. A major issue of Lolita's tank is the width, were considerations were not made in regards to the trainer's platform; the platform was not included in the measurement. As savelolita.org states, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which administers the AWA, guidelines for an Orca Lolita's size, include a minimum of 48-feet wide in either direction with a straight line of travel across the middle; Lolita's tank is only 35-feet wide from the front of the wall to the trainer's platform. James continues, the minimum depth of the pool must be half the average adult length of the longest species, determined to be 24-feet (therefore, the minimum depth is 12-feet). According to savelotlita.org, Lolita's tank is 20-feet deep at the deepest point, 12-feet deep around the edges. Other guidelines include each marine mammal must require its own minimum space.

Heartbreaking for James was knowing Lolita has been alone for over 30 years. According to ALDF, Lolita had a companion, Hugo, a male Orca who shared her tank from 1971 until 1980. In 1980, Hugo had continually rammed his head into the side of the tank, dying from a brain aneurysm, possibly due to his despair in captivity. James continues, Hugo's death left Lolita in grief, spending hours at the bottom of the pool, which was unusual for Lolita; she has been without an Orca companion ever since. Regulations stipulate for marine mammals to have a biologically related species as company, where the Miami Seaquarium gave Lolita a dolphin as a companion (Orcas are the largest dolphins). James finds this erroneous, using the comparison of placing a chimpanzee as a companion for a human: the two species are biologically related, but not necessarily appropriate companions. James speculates Lolita was left in solitary because the Miami Seaquarium had no motivation to give Lolita an Orca companion, as after 1980 it became more difficult to attain Orcas, as well has their difficulty in claiming their facilities was sufficient to support Lolita and a companion, in addition to competition, as Lolita is a potentially dominant female.

Further injustice to Lolita was her exclusion from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973, which places the responsibility upon the government to protect endangered species, threatened species, and critical habitats vital to the survival of these species, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), dedicated to protecting wildlife and habitats for future generations. As ALDF continues, ALDF, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Orca Network, dedicated to raising awareness about Orcas in the Pacific Northwest, and others (Howard Garrett, Orca Network; Karen Munro, wife of Ralph Munro; Shelby Proie, Orca Researcher; and Patricia Sykes, who worked at the Miami Seaquarium when Lolita arrived), petitioned for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), responsible for the management, conservation, and protection of living marine resources, to grant Lolita protection granted by the ESA which protects all other Southern Resident Orcas, Lolita's family, who were listed endangered in 2005.


Not only is Lolita forced into a life of exploitation in subpar conditions, further injustice to Lolita is her exclusion from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite the fact her family, the Southern Resident Orcas, was listed as endangered in 2005. The rule did not take into account captive Orcas originating from the Southern Resident population | Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund, ALDF |
Lolita's current living conditions are prohibited by the ESA. As ALDF Executive Director, Stephen Wells, states, "If Lolita had originally been granted the endangered status that she deserves, she might be back with her family by now." In efforts to remedy this, ALDF has been working tirelessly to not only grant Lolita protection by the ESA, but to reunite her with her family. To James, Lolita is a great candidate to be released back into the wild; Lolita was captured at an age where she was old enough to know how to hunt, she remembers her language, and returned her family's calls. As ALDF states, 26 years after Lolita's capture, she had recognized her pod's calls, returning "the distinct dialect of her family's calls, in clear recognition of familiar voices," where her 85-year-old mother is thriving. James has high hopes for Lolita, "hopefully Lolita will remember her family and they will remember her."

According to James, the listing of Southern Resident Orcas as endangered resulted from a lawsuit; however, in listing the Orcas endangered, captive Orcas were not taken into consideration, where the rule didn't affect captive Orcas originating from the Southern Resident population, or the captive Orcas' progeny. None of the captured Southern Resident Orcas, except Lolita, lived past the 1980s; despite attempts at breeding, they did not have any progeny. James sadly reflects, "Lolita was forgotten and left unlisted."

In January of 2013, a joint petition by ALDF and PETA to end the exclusion of Lolita from the ESA in 2012 was filed after a court's dismissal of their 2011 lawsuit against NMFS for erroneously excluding Lolita from the endangered listing of the Southern Resident Orcas. According to ALDF, the 2011 case was dismissed based on a technicality. James elaborates, the lawsuit asserted there was no reason for Lolita to be excluded from the ESA, as genetically, she should have the same protection as her family, the Southern Resident Orcas. Because the filing was brought at the end of the six-year statute of limitations, ALDF and PETA were unable to refile the suit after dismissal.

Rather, as ALDF reports, ALDF and PETA agreed not to appeal the decision when NMFS agreed to consider the petition to include Lolita in the ESA. According to PETA, in late January of 2014, the NMFS agreed that the listing Lolita as endangered is warranted, and therefore, "legally entitled to the same protections as her family." To James, the petition is unique, as it is to list one, specific animal, as she and the co-petitioners are "thrilled they found the petition merited."

Implications behind the NMFS ruling could include the release of Lolita into the wild. If Lolita were to be released, a permit would be required to transfer her to a retirement pen. James continues, at this point, Lolita would be offered supportive care, as well as "training" in order for her to successfully acclimate in the wild. For example, James mentions Keiko (who portrayed Willy, in Free Willy) when he was in the process of being released. Keiko had to be "trained" such as in attaining endurance of swimming for a longer duration of time, to prepare for swimming longer distances in the wild. It is likely the people who worked in the process of rehabilitation and releasing of Keiko would be working with Lolita.

Animals held in captivity must comply with the stipulations outlined by the AWA. Lolita has limited space and has been denied shade and companionship, blatant violations of the AWA. However, the Miami Seaquarium still owns Lolita, where they may choose to find other accommodations for her. The Miami-Dade County has not expressed interest in providing the Miami Seaquarium additional land to build a larger pool, and it is unlikely she would be welcome in SeaWorld's crowded pools replete with other dominate females. James feels releasing Lolita into her natural waters is "most consistent with the [AWA] and petition," with the hope that the Miami Seaquarium will be "motivated to free her." To James, the release of Lolita would be the "most fantastic study," in learning the interaction between Lolita and her family, after decades of captivity and separation.

Although Lolita may be released into the wild, legally, she may be the only one freed via the ESA. James explains, wild-caught Orcas remain in captivity in the US, where Lolita is the only one taken from a protected population. Most captive Orcas are captive-bred hybrids, some of whom are even in-bred. What is heartbreaking to James is that even if these captive Orcas were released into the wild, "most don't have wild homes to go to." James hopes for the industry adamant in fighting the release of captive Orcas to "take a step back" to consider these Orcas be retired in sea pens, where these beautiful beings are more than performers; perhaps this can be spark a conservation in how to get Orcas out of captivity. The reasoning for Lolita to be released through the ESA is in her genetics; Southern Resident Orcas are protected under the ESA, and as a Southern Resident Orca, Lolita should have the same protection. For any other captive, wild-caught Orca to be released through the ESA, that Orca's genetics must be determined, and perhaps be released if his/her family is protected under the ESA. Currently, there are no other protected Orca populations, where James hopes for some to be listed. James also notes, wild-caught Orcas captured after Lolita were caught in Iceland; the flight to Iceland alone would be stressful, but Iceland must also welcome and facilitate these potential releases. James would like to see "retirements in American waters," hopefully, beginning with Lolita, as she is "the single most releasable Orca in America."

We can all help to grant Lolita endangered status to get the protection she deserves. James stresses the importance for people to let these agencies know we care about Lolita's welfare, in addition to thanking them for their efforts. It is also imperative to keep exerting pressure on sea parks such as the Miami Seaquarium and SeaWorld, voicing our demand to keep animals out of captivity, something as simple as not buying a ticket into these parks, and ultimately, bring life in captivity to an end. To James, what you see in the wild is so much more captivating than what you would see in the park, recalling her experience in seeing a Humpback whale diving in and out of the water into the sunset during one Fourth of July. James also evokes the image of "five dolphins sharing a wave." It is so much more rewarding to see these amazing beings in the wild, where viewing them is in easy access, such as vacationing in coastal towns.

Unfortunately, "Lolita isn't the only isolated Orca," states James, referencing Kiska residing in Marineland, located in Niagara Falls, and Kshamenk, residing in Mundo Marino Aquarium in Buenos Aires, Argentina. James hopes for people to become more aware of the Orcas, urging people to keep researching about Orcas, where that awareness and knowledge will translate into the end of captivity, exerting pressure on the live-animal entertainment industry. To James, captive breeding is also an enemy, as there isn't enough genetic diversity; rather, undesirable traits could be passed on, such as in the case of Tilikum. As Blackfish accounts, Tilikum's genes were valuable, fathering numerous offspring; offspring with potential aggression.

As Marino observes in Blackfish, Orcas are "emotionally destroyed" living in captivity. Former SeaWorld Trainer, John Jett, speaks of Tilikum "floating lifeless" in a pool, as Dave Duffus, Whale Researcher and expert witness for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA), which assures safety and healthful working conditions by setting and enforcing standards, "I feel sad when I see [Tilikum]," with his flopped dorsal fin (which occurs in less than 1 percent of wild male Orcas, as the majority of captive male Orcas have collapsed dorsal fins). Hargrove astutely observes in regards to Orcas in captivity, "' they're not your whales."

The ultimate hope is for Lolita to be reunited with her family. Although progress may be a slow process, James believes Lolita will be one step closer in reuniting with her family. As ALDF observes, in the wild, Orcas spend their entire lives with their mothers, as family bonds last a lifetime. To James, Lolita's mother, Ocean Sun, L-25 (the L-Pod), would help Lolita transition, in a seaside sanctuary, with her family awaiting Lolita to come home. As James astutely observes, "[Lolita's] family needs her." Perhaps, as much as Lolita needs her family.

The final ruling by the NMFS will be made January 27, 2015, where James is optimistic in Lolita gaining endangered status, as ALDF remains vigilant of developments. We can all voice our concern for Lolita as public comment is open for the rule to protect Lolita under the ESA. Comments will close March 28, 2014:

View the full document here.

Emotional, Jeffrey Ventre, Former SeaWorld Trainer, expresses best in Blackfish, the lives Orcas should be living: in the wild, in their home. An expansive blue ocean, as a pod of Orcas swam together, as the mist from their blowholes caught the sunlight, "I saw them swimming in a straight line with straight dorsal fins' it was moving."

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:04 PM EDT | More details


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