Orca’s health issues cited in unsealed documents

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.”

 Source: www.Columbian.com

USDA Gets Sued in Latest Effort to Free Lolita the Lonely Orca

May 24, 2016

Animal advocacy organizations are back in court in the latest effort to free Lolita, the lone orca at the Miami Seaquarium.

Lolita was once a wild and free member of a family of orcas, the southern resident killer whales, who live in the Pacific Northwest, but her fate was forever changed when she was taken from them during the notoriously brutal roundups that took place in Penn Cove in 1970.

After she was torn from her family, she was taken to the Miami Seaquarium where she has spent more than 45 years in the smallest and oldest tank in North America. She has been alone since 1980, when her companion Hugo died from an aneurysm after ramming his head into the tank wall, in what many believe was a suicide.

Today, she is the last surviving southern resident in captivity.

Her advocates have been working hard to get her out of there for years and there has been some good news along the way, such as her being included in endangered species listing granted to her family in the wild in 2005, but she’s still languishing in Miami.

In the latest effort to free her, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Orca Network and PETA have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is challenging the agency’s decision to grant the Miami Seaquarium’s new owner a license to keep her.

The Miami Seaquarium was bought by Palace Entertainment in 2014, and as the ALDF explains, under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) licenses can’t just be transferred to new owners. Instead, new owners have to show that they’re complying with current regulations, and Palace Entertainment clearly has not.

Not only is Lolita being kept in a tank that violates the USDA’s own standards for minimum size, but she’s being kept in solitary confinement with no escape from bad weather or Florida’s scorching sun, which former caretakers have said caused burns that have led to her skin cracking and bleeding.

“Miami Seaquarium’s new owner simply does not qualify for a permit for this facility, when the orca confined there is suffering in an illegally small concrete pit,” said PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman. “We are asking the court to strip this deplorable facility of its wrongfully obtained license and put Lolita on the path to freedom after more than 45 years of captivity and exploitation.”

The ultimate goal is to return her to her home waters off the coast of Washington state, where she may be reunited with her family. Lolita is a member of the L pod and her mother, L25 (Ocean Sun), is still believed to be alive and with the pod, along with a few others who were present the day Lolita was taken.

While some who want to see her stay where she is have been trying to raise fears that moving her will do more harm than good, there is an extensive retirement plan for her in place and ready to go that involves moving her to a sea pen, where she’ll be able to experience the ocean again.

It’s hoped that she will eventually be able to return to the wild and reintegrate with her family, however, if she is unwilling, or unable, her advocates have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life. In either case, bringing her home is far better than the future she faces now in captivity.

With promising changes like SeaWorld ending its breeding program and sea pens becoming a very realistic option for giving retired orcas better lives, we can hope Lolita’s advocates will be successful in getting her back home where she belongs.

While this case plays out, there’s yet more hope that another pending lawsuit arguing her living conditions constitute prohibited “take” under the Endangered Species Act, which includes harming and harassing imperiled species, will help get her there.

For more info on how to help, check out the Orca Network, ALDF and PETA.

Source: Care2.com

Miami Seaquarium sued over Lolita, ‘World’s loneliest orca’

May 19, 2016
Miami Seaquarium is the target of a lawsuit filed in a federal court in North Carolina, over the park’s star attraction, Lolita the orca, living in “woefully inadequate” conditions.

The Miami Seaquarium was purchased by Palace Entertainment in 2014. Plaintiffs, which include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the nonprofits the Animal Defense Fund and the Orca Network, assert that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is violating the Animal Welfare Act by granting a license to the new parent company.
Jared Goodman, PETA foundation director of animal law, told Miami Herald that the license means Lolita will have to remain in her current enclosure.

“Miami Seaquarium’s new owner simply does not qualify for a permit for this facility, when the orca confined there is suffering in an illegally small concrete pit.

“We are asking the court to strip this deplorable facility of its wrongfully obtained license and put Lolita on the path to freedom after more than 45 years of captivity and exploitation.”
Plaintiffs argue that the license is in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and that Palace Entertainment should not be able to acquire a license, “without improving Lolita’s conditions by providing her with a larger living space, shelter from the sun, and a companion of her own species.”
The lawsuit also alleges that seeing the orca in her current state causes “emotional injury.”

It is not the first time Lolita has been the center of legal action. Activists have initiated at least four lawsuits in the past several years. In 2015, Miami Seaquarium was charged with being in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Broward Palm Beach New Times.

Animal Legal Defense Fund’s executive director Stephen Wells said last year that the protests will continue on Lolita’s behalf.

“Lolita is protected by the Endangered Species Act and deserves to live a life free of harassment, in which she can engage in natural behavior. We will continue to fight to win her protections under the law.”
Lolita was captured off the coast of Washington State in 1970. She is one of the “L pod” members of the Southern Resident killer whales, of which there are 35 individuals left.
The “L pod” orcas are one of three groups, which live around the San Juan Islands and swim over hundreds of miles of coastal waters. A wild orca can easily cover 75 miles in a day.

According to Orca Network, the other two groups, J pod and K pod, combined with Lolita’s family make a total of 83 whales. The groups have their own habits, diet and language, separating them from other killer whale groups around the planet. Their sparse numbers have rendered them an endangered species.

All the whales have names, and are identified and their activities carefully logged by scientists.

Lolita was captured in the month of August, when she was four years old. She was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for $6,000, according to The Dodo.

Lolita’s tank, which offers no protection from the sun, is only 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The size of her enclosure amounts to four of her body lengths.
Lolita’s mate, Hugo, died in 1980. She hasn’t seen another orca since then. She shares her enclosure with two dolphins.

At 50 years old, Lolita is the oldest orca in captivity. She was named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential animals of 2016.

In January 2015, thousands of protesters gathered outside the Miami Seaquarium asking for Lolita’s release.
The mayor of Miami, Philip Levine, has even chimed in on her behalf.

“Miami should be known as the beautiful, modern city that it is — not as the home of the smallest orca tank in North America. This endangered animal must be released as soon as possible from the appalling conditions at the Seaquarium and moved to a sanctuary in her home waters.”
A group of scientists is currently scouting for a location for a sea sanctuary for retired orcas, and funding has already been initiated for the effort, which is called The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Miami Seaquarium maintains that Lolita is being well cared for and that moving the orca to a sea sanctuary would be “traumatic.”

Source: Inquisitr.com


Plans for a whale sanctuary ride a wave of support, but face a storm of controversy

May 5, 2016 at 5:33 pm


An effort to create the world’s first sanctuary set aside for rehabilitating whales and dolphins is moving ahead, but now the hard part begins.

Today marked the official launch of the Whale Sanctuary Project, a non-profit organization that aims to identify and build a refuge for whales, porpoises and dolphins that have been retired from entertainment facilities or rescued from injury or sickness in the wild.

Munchkin Inc., a baby-product company headquartered in California, put up an initial $200,000 contribution to begin looking at potential sites for a seaside sanctuary and draw up a strategic plan for the operation’s early phase. Another $1 million was pledged to complete the sanctuary once the site is selected.

“Munchkin has long favored a natural coastal ocean sanctuary as an alternative solution to maintaining orcas in captivity, so we are eager to support The Whale Sanctuary Project’s efforts on behalf of cetaceans retired from the entertainment industry,” Munchkin founder and CEO Steven Dunn said in a statement. “We are dedicated not only to these majestic mammals, but also to helping parents and children understand what they can do to help orcas and others live the rest of their lives happily and safely.”

A decision on the site could be made within six to nine months, according to the project’s outreach coordinator, Michael Mountain. Coastal areas of Washington state and British Columbia are among the locales under consideration, along with Maine and Nova Scotia on the East Coast. Once a site is selected, Mountain said it could take another 18 months or more to prepare the sanctuary for its first resident, depending on funding.

Marine mammals regularly pass through protected waters such as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but the Whale Sanctuary Project would create dedicated spaces, using nets or “sea pens,” to contain cetaceans that can’t survive in the wild. For more than 20 years, the Washington-based Orca Network has proposed creating such a sanctuary at Eastsound on Orcas Island in the San Juans.

The best-known case of cetacean rehabilitation relates to Keiko, the “Free Willy” orca (a.k.a. killer whale) that was released in the late 1990s and ended up being returned to his home waters off Iceland. He never fully integrated with wild whales, and died of pneumonia in 2003.

Since then, orcas at SeaWorld San Diego have been implicated in three human deaths, adding to the controversy over marine mammals in captivity. Documentaries such as “Blackfish” and “The Cove” energized the opposition. In March, SeaWorld said it would stop breeding orcas and eventually phase out their use in performances.

For now, SeaWorld plans to keep the orcas it has at its facilities. However, the organizers of the Whale Sanctuary Project hope that the animals will eventually find refuge with them.

“There are sanctuaries for other large, highly social and wide-ranging mammals, including elephants and great apes, but there are none anywhere in the world yet for dolphins and whales,” the project’s leader, neuroscientist Lori Marino, said in today’s announcement. “Cetacean sanctuary initiatives are long overdue, and we now have the best possible team of experts to ensure an optimal quality of life and care for individual cetaceans.”

Marino is the executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. During her time as a researcher at Emory University, she published a series of studies suggesting that dolphins and orcas have significant cognitive capacity.

The Munchkin money should provide a boost to the Whale Sanctuary Project, but in a report published today by the journal Science, some experts questioned how successful the project will be. Shawn Noren, a physiologist and orca researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, was quoted as saying that “mind-boggling” challenges lie ahead.

By some accounts, the cost of creating the sanctuary could eventually amount to tens of millions of dollars, or even hundreds of millions.

“I’d rather see that money spent protecting marine areas and conducting basic science,” Richard Connor, an animal behaviorist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, was quoted as saying.

Source: GeekWire.com

Why is the government ignoring its own research on orcas in setting captivity standards? What you can do.

May 2, 2016 at 1:02 PM

(Courtesy Orca Network)


After a 14 year delay, the federal government has finally decided to update the standards of care for captive whales and dolphins.

Sort of.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, the updated standards do very little for the animals – for instance they don’t change the minimum tank size standard.

The current space standards were set over 30 years ago and have no basis in science or even best practices within the captive display industry.

As an example, for up to two orcas, a facility need only provide a circular tank with a diameter twice as wide and a depth half as deep as an average adult orca is long.

This standard does not even allow the animal to position itself fully in the vertical plane (its tail would touch and drag on the bottom before the animal reaches full upright orientation).


The government (USDA) claims to be ignorant of any scientific literature that demonstrates the need that whales and dolphins have for space…yet that information is readily available, and in some cases was even funded by the government. The research shows  that orcas travel as much as 120 miles a day, and regularly dive over 500 ft deep.

Having paid for, completed, and published data that show the woeful inadequacies of keeping whales in tanks, why in the world won’t they change the standards?

The recent death of a killer whale with tagging fragments found embedded in his body has forced NOAA to reconsider the invasive methods they were using to find out where the orcas go in the winter.  What is the point of harming an endangered species if the government is just going to ignore the data when it comes to helping captive whales?

You can let the government know your thoughts on this issue by using the Animal Welfare Institute’s convenient link, or go directly to the federal page for more detailed information.

Source: Blog SeattlePi.com

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby meets with, reassures pass holders

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby

April 30, 2016

SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby came face to face with some of the company’s most loyal fans Saturday to explain what he called “the single hardest decision I’ve ever been involved in.”

SeaWorld in March announced it would end killer-whale breeding, phasing out its display of the animals over the next few decades.

Since then, Manby has reached out to both employees and customers, some of whom felt SeaWorld had betrayed them and caved in to its critics.

Manby held an online forum for annual pass holders a few weeks ago. About 300 people attended Saturday’s in-person town hall at SeaWorld Orlando’s Nautilus Theater. A similar meeting will happen Sunday at the company’s San Diego park, followed by another in San Diego in a couple weeks.

Manby told the group “it was gut-wrenching” to make a decision that will eventually phase out the theme-park company’s signature attraction.

“There were days where I felt, `I can’t do this. I would rather resign than have to make this decision.’ It is not what I dreamed would happen when I came to SeaWorld.”

But Manby saw twin losing battles looming ahead — one against declining attendance, another against increased legislation targeting orcas in captivity. SeaWorld has been fighting both after the 2010 death of a trainer and the subsequent anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish.”

“This is a beautiful, great company that got a bad rap,” Manby said.

Much of the audience agreed. Still, preaching to the converted can be a delicate task when some of the converted feel as though you’ve made a deal with the devil.

“They should have fought ‘Blackfish’ tooth and nail,” one attendee grumbled before the meeting.

“It upset me” when SeaWorld agreed to stop breeding orcas, said John Jeffries, a diehard fan from Cocoa who visits a couple of times a week. After the meeting, he said he felt more reassured about the future. “I think he [Manby] is the guy that will lead us and put “Blackfish” to rest,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries told Manby the company originally hadn’t stood up for itself enough when “Blackfish” came out. “I’m with you, man,” Manby said. “We’ve got to fight.”

That brought one of several bursts of applause from the audience.

Manby hosted the forum with SeaWorld Orlando president Donnie Mills and Chris Dold,SeaWorld Entertainment‘s chief zoological officer.

The forum also covered new improvements to the park. And Mills made a welcome announcement for many: He wants to bring back the popular mime act, perhaps as early as next year. Three mimes lost their jobs in a mass layoff at the end of 2014.

Customers submitted questions in writing. One asked whether SeaWorld might ever take in Lolita, a lone killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium. Dold said moving the aging orca might not be good for her health and that “she’s thriving there at Miami Seaquarium.” Another asked whether SeaWorld might ever change its decision about ending breeding. Manby said a couple of centuries from now, orcas’ conditions in the ocean many deteriorate to the point that people “may ask us to take whales again. It’s not something we’re going to address now.”

Loyal customers like such direct contact with company executives because it makes them feel their voices are being heard, said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. “That said, a lot of SeaWorld fans felt burnt by Manby and thought that the company caved to anti-captivity activists, so Manby and SeaWorld have work to do to repair those relationship with their core customers,” Niles said in an email. “But it’s a good sign that Manby’s aggressively addressing this.”

Source: OrlandoSentinel.com

Activists fight to free Lolita the whale after 46 years of captivity

April 24, 2016


Everyone’s heard of Free Willy, but what about “Free Lolita”?

A killer whale that has been held in a tiny pool for over 46 years is the property of an investment firm in London, according to activists who have stepped up a campaign for her release.

Lolita, who was captured in 1970 off the North West coast, has lived days and nights in a tank measuring around 50 foot wide and 20 foot deep – around the same size as a hotel swimming pool. She is thought to be the whale that has been held the longest in captivity.

Her life started off with trauma. According to One Green Planet, the men who herded up the pod of orca whales in 1970 used nets, ropes and explosives to separate the adults from the babies. During the capture, five whales were killed.

Lolita now lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida, owned by Arle Capital, an investment company based near the Pall Mall in central London.

“We assert that the conditions of Lolita’s captivity violates America’s Endangered Species Act prohibiting harm or harassment of an endangered animal,” said Howard Garrett, of Orca Network, the US-based organisation that is leading a lawsuit to move Lolita to a marine refuge, as reported byThe Sunday Times.

Animal rights protesters have already gathered outside the offices of Arle Capital, which could prove embarrassing for its managing partner John Arney and his colleagues, who control around £2 billion worth of assets.

The company acquired Lolita when it bought Spanish entertainment company Parques Reunidos, which in turn owns Palace Entertainment, the firm behind Seaquarium.

According to Seaquarium’s website, “conservation and education go hand in hand”.

The Florida attraction is estimated to make annual profits of around £750,000. Lolita performs seven days a week for visitors.

Julie Foster, a spokeswoman for Arle, said vets make sure Lolita is healthy and the pool fits legal requirements.

“It would be a reckless and cruel experiment [to take her out of the tank] which would put her through a traumatic transport process and jeopardise her life,” she said. “Each year more than 85,000 schoolchildren and 600,000 other guests visit Miami Seaquarium to see and learn about Lolita.

“We believe that this remarkable, educational experience creates awareness and appreciation for orcas and marine life in general.”

The fight to free Lolita has been going on for years, involving groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which sued Seaquarium last year. The movement gained momentum after the release of documentary “Blackfish” which exposed the cruel treatment of the whales.

Orca whales are very sociable and swim in tight-knit pods. Her former companion whale, Hugo, died in the same tank 34 years ago, after continually bashing his head against the side of the tank.

Opponents of the release plan point to other whales who were set free and died as a result. The whale Keiko was released near Iceland in 2002 but died after it was rejected by other orcas.

Source: Independent.co.uk