August 22, 2016
Lolita, a Northwest orca whale living at Seaquarium in Miami, has suffered scrapes and other health problems, according to recently unsealed court documents that offer an unsettling look at the life of the whale captured in 1970.
The documents were written by four expert witnesses who visited Seaquarium, and reviewed medical and other records, on behalf of plaintiffs who challenged the conditions of the whale’s captivity. They found that 20-foot-long Lolita has a troubled relationship with two Pacific white-sided dolphins that live with her in an oblong pool that is 80 feet across at its widest point.
These dolphins scraped Lolita’s skin with their teeth more than 50 times in 2015. Through a review of the records and their own on-site observations, the plaintiff’s’ experts concluded that the dolphins – rather than being best buddies with Lolita – are often at odds with the whale.
“In reality, they harass and injure her, often to the point she needs antibiotics and painkillers for bleeding open wounds,” wrote John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld killer- whale trainer whose February report was one of four expert-witness reports unsealed recently – at the request of the plaintiffs – by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro after her June decision to dismiss a lawsuit that sought to gain the whale’s release. The plaintiffs include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Washington-based Orca Network.
Another expert witness, Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust, noted that at least one of the dolphins engaged in sexual behavior with Lolita, including pelvic thrusts while mounted on top of the orca. Visser, a marine scientist, described such activity as “completely inappropriate,” and cited records in her report of the whale exhibiting sexual behavior toward a dolphin.
Seaquarium, in a statement responding to the unsealing of these reports, rejected claims that they documented poor treatment of the whale. The statement said Lolita is one of the healthiest orcas ever examined, and “she greatly enjoys her Pacific White Sided Dolphins as companions.”
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are found in many of the world’s oceans. Lolita was captured from the southern-resident population, which spends time in Puget Sound, and is listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The three pods in the population were reduced in a series of controversial roundups by marine parks between 1965 and 1975 that left at least 11?whales dead and sent 36 to exhibitors, according to Visser.
Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was caught in 1970 in Penn Cove and is the lone survivor of the Northwest whales sent to captivity. In February of last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that Lolita, though captive, would be listed — along with the wild orcas — as protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“This is a listing decision,” said Will Stelle, the NOAA Fisheries regional administrator for the West Coast at the time of the decision. “It is not a decision to free Lolita.”
Whale activists have long sought to get Lolita out of Seaquarium. And, they hoped the ruling would give them new legal leverage to see that Lolita was returned to the Pacific Northwest, possibly to live in a sea pen.
And once they secured the ruling, they filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court of Southern Florida alleging that Lolita’s conditions of captivity violated the Endangered Species Act. The act prohibits a “take” of a listed species, which the law says includes harassment and harm.
The plaintiffs tried unsuccessfully to convince Ungaro that conditions of captivity, including an undersized tank, no protection from the shade and the dolphin harassment constituted a violation of the Endangered Species Act, and justified her removal from Seaquarium, where she performs with trainers for the facility’s customers.
Ungaro, in dismissing the lawsuit to remove Lolita from Seaquarium, concluded that the conditions though, less than ideal, had not been found to violate the Animal Welfare Act, which is intended to provide for humane treatment in captivity.
Only if Lolita faced “grave harm” would an exhibitor be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, Ungaro concluded.
The judge also noted that the plaintiffs’ experts opinions about the causes of the whale’s medical conditions had a “speculative and unreliable quality.”
Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation’s director of animal law, says “the court adapted a very narrow interpretation of the Endangered Species Act,’ and the decision is being appealed.
After the June decision dismissing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs moved to unseal the reports of their four expert witnesses that include both their observations of Lolita and notes from their review of Seaquarium records that had been kept from public view through the course of the lawsuit.
The reports included information about the whale’s medical records. Veterinarian Pierre Javier Gallego Reyes, for example, wrote about tooth pain that resulted in some teeth being drilled and found the whale also suffered from dehydration.
The whale also has an inflammatory eye condition that is treated with daily drops, according to the reports.
After the lawsuit was dismissed, Seaquarium attorneys fought to keep the reports under seal, arguing in a court brief that some of the information was “highly confidential and highly sensitive” and that the defendant had a strong interest in “protecting specific medical and highly personal information” about the captive orca.
Responding to the public release of these reports, Seaquarium, in the written statement, said that for 46 years, Lolita has been “lovingly cared for.” The statement added that Lolita plays an important role in educating the public about the need to conserve the marine environment, and will continue to be “an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”