A B.C. marine mammal expert is throwing cold water on an idea to repatriate a southern resident killer whale to the waters off the West Coast, where it was was born.
“I think this could be a very cruel and inhumane thing to do,” said Andrew Trites, who is the director of the University of B.C.’s Marine Mammal Research Unit.
“Lolita is not a young whale.”
Tokitae becomes Lolita
In 1970, the female whale known as Tokitae, a member of the L-pod of killer whales, was captured from the waters off Washington state and British Columbia. The orca is now in its 50s and for most of its life has lived in captivity at Miami’s Seaquarium.
The animal was given the name Lolita when it arrived in Miami.
On Saturday, members of Washington state’s Lummi Nation, completed a journey to Miami with an 1,800 kilogram totem pole to display at the aquarium.
It’s part of an $8.5-million US effort to bring the whale back to the Salish Sea.
Jewell James, a Lummi Nation carver says it’s time Seaquarium gave up the animal, which he said has been forced for 48 years to perform twice a day. James describes the whale’s tank as a prison cell.
“She’s our relative and we want her back,” he said Sunday in Miami, where protests were held over the issue.
For its part, Miami’s Seaquarium says it has no plans to hand over Lolita, although the conversation over the whale’s release has gone on for decades.
Robert Rose, curator emeritus for Miami Seaquarium, says he’s worked with the orca for 23 years. Rose said the whale is too old to be moved. He’s also worried Lolita would be exposed to pathogens and diseases that would kill the animal if moved.
He’s highly critical of the Lummi Nation’s plan.
“Really they should be ashamed of themselves, they don’t care about Lolita, they don’t care about her best interests, they don’t really care whether she lives or dies,” he said.
But James and the nation insists the plan is doable, which would see the killer whale transported to the West Coast.
It’s also working on buying land in Washington’s San Juan Islands for a sea pen and wants to arrange for experts to work with Lolita to rehabilitate the whale.
The ultimate goal would be to release the orca into the animal’s original pod. Lolita’s mother, Ocean Sun, is still living with the pod.
James says he hopes the campaign will raise awareness about Tokitae.
“The attention that we are bringing is not for us,” he said. “It’s going to make the public aware that a corporation, Seaquarium has been taking advantage of Totikae for 48 years. It’s time for her to go home.”
Trites says he respects the nation’s sentiment, to correct past cruelties of whales being captured in the ’60s and ’70s, but says that the window has passed to bring Lolita back.
“She is a senior citizen and I really worry about … the ethics,” he said. “She’s had constant companionship with people, with white-sided dolphins and she’s not adapted to come out here.”
In the early 2000s the killer whale Keiko was released from captivity in Mexico to waters near Norway after being rehabilitated in Oregon.
It died within a year of being released and did not assimilate with other killer whales.
The Lummi’s have sent the operators of the Miami Seaquarium three letters asking for a meeting to discuss the sale of Lolita, but have not received a message back.
In a statement, the Seaquarium told WPLG-TV, “Miami Seaquarium has the utmost respect for the Lummi nation…however members of the Lummi business council are not marine mammal experts and are misguided when they offer a proposal that is not in the best interest of Lolita.”
Jewell James of the Lummi House of Tears Carvers is carving a commemorative totem pole that will depart May 9 for a 4,000 mile awareness journey across the western and southern U.S. and ending at the Miami Sequarium.
“We’ll have 565 tribes behind us, a couple hundred environmental groups and churches before we are done,” said James.
He said the Seaquarium has an opportunity to right a wrong.
“Now if they work with us, they’ll become heroes, if they don’t they will lose $1 or $2 billion,” said James.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee will issue an executive order on Wednesday to establish a task force and other measures to protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales, which call Washington waters home.
The order will include habitat protection, restoration and Chinook salmon recovery.
Parques Reunidos is also the parent company of Marineland in Antibes, France, which holds four orcas captive: Wikie, Inouk, Moana, and Keijo. At least 12 others have died there since 1970, including 19-year-old Valentin, who succumbed in 2015 to severe internal injuries, after a storm caused the oxygenation and filtration systems in his tank to stop working, leaving him trapped in a pool of muddy water. Just months earlier, his mother, Freya, also died, decades before the maximum life expectancy of female orcas in the wild.
“Lolita’s extended family is still swimming freely in the ocean, and we want her to be reunited with them,” said PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “PETA is calling for all these highly intelligent, social animals to be released into seaside sanctuaries, allowing them to enjoy a more natural life and be rehabilitated for potential release into the ocean, where they belong.”
A group of marine researchers and scientists, including Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) marine mammal scientist Dr. Naomi Rose, filed an amicus brief today in defense of Lolita, the lone orca who has languished for over 45 years at the Miami Seaquarium. Specifically, the amicus brief supports a petition for a rehearing at the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which recently affirmed a lower court finding that the substandard conditions under which Lolita is held do not pose a threat of serious harm to her.
In July 2015, a coalition of animal welfare organizations filed a lawsuitagainst the Miami Seaquarium, contending that the facility’s holding of Lolita constitutes a violation of the Endangered Species Act. In June 2016, a judge dismissed the case, establishing that captive conditions must be “gravely threatening to the survival” of an animal—which the coalition and supporters felt was an erroneous standard. A month later, in July 2016, the coalition filed an appeal of the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
As part of its ruling last month, which affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit, the court of appeals concluded that, although the district court applied an improper standard, the evidence in the case did not support a conclusion that Lolita’s conditions posed a threat of “serious” harm to Lolita. The amicus brief, submitted by Dr. Rose, Dr. Joan Gonzalvo, Kathy Hessler, Dr. Lori Marino, Sandro Mazzariol, Dr. Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Alison Rieser, and the Aquatic Animal Law Initiative of Lewis & Clark Law School, argues that Miami Seaquarium’s conditions do pose a serious threat to Lolita and the rehearing petition should be granted. The main points made in the brief are as follows:
The presented evidence of Lolita’s injuries must be viewed holistically. Any one injury or condition might not seem serious, but together the injuries have a cumulative impact and may act synergistically to make things even worse for her.
Lolita’s injuries are not isolated and passing incidents, but rather chronic and persistent.
Because orcas are highly intelligent and very socially complex, any conditions that cause injury or behavioral abnormalities—including holding a member of a social species alone—must be viewed as much more harmful.
”In May 2015, captive Southern Resident killer whales were recognized as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which led to the original lawsuit under that statute seeking to help Lolita. AWI hoped that this listing would mean the beginning of the end of her suffering,” stated Dr. Rose. “We were dismayed when the lower court unfairly dismissed the case that sought to remove her from that horrible, tiny tank she languishes in. We hope this amicus brief helps undo that error.”
A federal appeals court on Friday rejected efforts by animal rights advocates to force the Miami Seaquarium in Florida to release Lolita, a killer whale it has held in captivity for nearly half a century.
By a 3-0 vote, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Miami rejected claims by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others that keeping Lolita in captivity violated the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The evidence, construed in the light most favorable to PETA, does not support the conclusion that the conditions of her captivity pose a threat of serious harm to Lolita,” the court said.
Friday’s decision upheld a lower court ruling. The lawsuit began in July 2015, two months after the National Marine Fisheries Service recognized whales such as Lolita as an endangered species.
PETA said it may appeal, and that the decision ignores current public sentiment about the suffering of captive orcas.
“This ruling sentences this highly intelligent, deeply lonely, and distressed orca to a lifetime of physical and psychological harm, confined to a tiny concrete cell without family, friends, or freedom,” Jared Goodman, director of animal law at the PETA Foundation, said in a statement.
The Seaquarium and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Lolita, captured in 1970, is roughly 20 feet (6 meters) long and weighs about 8,000 pounds (3.6 tonnes), and has long been one the Seaquarium’s top attractions.
Critics raised 13 objections to her captivity, including the small size of Lolita’s tank, her lack of an orca companion since the death 38 years ago of her tank mate Hugo, stress and injuries caused by the white-sided dolphins she now lives with, and inadequate treatment by Seaquarium personnel.
But the appeals court said accepting critics’ “expansive” conception of illegal harm and harassment could upset the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulatory scheme to help ensure the humane treatment of captive animals used for exhibitions and research.
The Seaquarium kept Lolita after SeaWorld Entertainment Inc decided in 2016 to end its orca breeding programs and phase out killer whale shows.
A 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” had depicted the captivity and exhibition of killer whales as cruel.
The appeals court ruled nine days after Bob Barker, the former host of “The Price Is Right” game show and animal rights advocate, called for Lolita’s release in a video posted on PETA’s Twitter account.
For nearly 25 years, the Miami Seaquarium’s killer whale, Lolita, has been the star of a sequel that has never been made.
In 1995, inspired by the original tale of Keiko, the whale in the 1993 film “Free Willy,” a Washington state governor sought to make Lolita the next captive killer whale returned to the ocean. A fundraising campaign ensued, and soon it seemed that Free Lolita could be the next real-life Free Willy.
Former Gov. Mike Lowry’s vision has since spawned thousands of dollars in donations, several lawsuits and annual protests at the Miami Seaquarium on Aug. 8 — the anniversary of Lolita’s 1970 capture off Puget Sound. Moms with their kids, college students in whale costumes and out-of-state advocates turn up on Virginia Key each year to support the Free Lolita movement.
But often lost in the well-meaning attempts to return Lolita home is one central question: Is freedom really what’s best for her?
The orca, now about 50 years old, remains the last known survivor of the group of more than 50 whales captured 47 years ago. Since her mate died of a brain aneurysm in 1980, she has become the only solitary orca in captivity, where she lives in the smallest killer whale tank in the nation.
As the years have passed, the likelihood of her return to the sea — and her ability to adjust to that change — has become less likely, said Russ Rector, a long-time marine mammal advocate. Lolita’s identity as a living being has been usurped, he said.
“She is just a casualty of captivity and the activists. She has become an icon that quite frankly, nothing has been done for her except a slogan: ‘Free Lolita, Free Lolita,’ ” Rector said. “I’m sure Lolita appreciates that.”
She is just a casualty of captivity and the activists. She has become an icon that quite frankly, nothing been done for her except a slogan: ‘Free Lolita, Free Lolita.’ I’m sure Lolita appreciates that.
Russ Rector, animal activist
In recent years, Lolita’s story has been awash in a tidal wave of public opinion that has crashed against marine parks that house captive animals. Kick-started by the release of “Blackfish,” a 2013 documentary detailing the plight of orcas in captivity, the change in public perception has caused shares of marine theme park company SeaWorld to sink by about 40 percent this year alone. Key to that shift was the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca following a performance at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. SeaWorld has since announced it would end its breeding program for captive orcas.
The “Free Lolita” movement has outlived even its creator, Lowry, who died in March. But the donations keep piling up, the protests go on, and plans for her release continue to resurface.
Just last month, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously passed a resolution urging the Seaquarium to retire Lolita based on the recommendations of a long-standing retirement plan originally created in 1996 by the nonprofit Tokitae Foundation (Tokitae was given the stage name “Lolita” by the Seaquarium) which later became Orca Conservancy. It involves transferring Lolita to a seaside sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest, in her native home, teaching her to fend for herself, and eventually releasing her back into the wild.
But at this point in her life, Lolita may never get to test her retirement plan. She may never be the sequel.
And that’s probably in her best interest, some experts say.
The Challenge of Release
It was late one night in 1989 when Craig Pelton, then a young whale trainer, snuck into the whale stadium at Miami Seaquarium after it closed and waded into the 50 degree water.
After-hours whale swims were categorically prohibited, so, naturally, the trainers did it from time to time, Pelton said. It was a time before “Blackfish,” before a trainer had been killed by a captive whale, before the “Free Lolita” movement started making waves.
In the water, Pelton watched as Lolita swam over. The orca was in her mid-20s by then, about 20 feet long and 7,000 pounds. A full moon illuminated the stadium below.
Lolita paused and put her pectoral fin under his body — then she snuggled to his side. On Pelton’s other side, Lolita’s tank mate Makani, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, did the same.
“I laid there for about five, 10 minutes, all three [of us] at the surface,” Pelton said. “She was just a sweet animal that was just amazing to work with.”
By the time he left the park in 1991, Pelton said he learned how limited Lolita’s ability to adjust to new surroundings already had become. Pelton, now an assistant clinical professor at the University of Florida’s veterinary college, recalls the day he started at the Seaquarium, when the park installed a slide-out platform to her tank for performances. Lolita struggled to adjust to the change, Pelton said. . . . . . .
We finally have some promising news to share about Lolita, the oldest living orca in captivity. The Miami Beach Commission is now putting pressure on the Miami Seaquarium to release Lolita to a seaside sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest. Truly, this is the least they can do to ensure Lolita can live the rest of her years in peace. The Commission voted unanimously last week in favor of the resolution that urges Lolita be retired to the Orca Network, a non-profit that developed a retirement plan way back in 1995.
Even though the resolution only holds a symbolic significance, as the board does not have any legal power over the Miami Seaquarium, this is still a hopeful step. The plan would take six to eight weeks to transport, rehabilitate, and retire Lolita to the San Juan Islands in Washington State, close to her original home in Puget Sound. Orca Network estimates the process would cost $1.5 million in private sector funding.
The Mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine, is a long-time advocate for moving Lolita to a seaside sanctuary. “Hopefully, in the future, this animal will go on to its family in the Northwest,” he told the Miami Herald. But because Lolita was added to the endangered species listing for the Southern Resident killer whale in 2015, the minimal amount of risk would have to be taken to retire Lolita.
Not surprisingly, the Miami Seaquarium is against the proposal, stating that the stress upon Lolita could prove fatal. Seems odd that they would all of a sudden care about her well-being after refusing to even expand the size of her tank. Importantly though, the more negative attention brought to the Miami Seaquarium, the more likely they are to retire Lolita to a sanctuary. At the end of the day, they won’t change anything until their bottom line is affected.
Please share this story to show the Miami Seaquarium that the world is watching and that we won’t give up until Lolita is free.
Days before Hurricane Irma descended on South Florida, inciting an evacuation of 5.6 million people, the Miami Seaquarium left many of their marine animals at the facility to ride out the storm, including their Orca whale, Lolita. The whale, surrounded by flimsy tin roof from the stadium surrounding her tank, along with several dolphins, were left in the tank uncovered. The aquarium is particularly vulnerable given their location on Virginia Key, a barrier island off the coast of Miami.
In contrast, dolphins at an aquarium in Cuba were airlifted to safety by helicopter out of Hurricane Irma’s path before it made landfall. In response to an inquiry on why they didn’t transport their animals to safety, The Miami Seaquarium said in a statement, “Miami Seaquarium has been at its present location since 1955 and it has withstood its fair share of storms. The park has an experienced and dedicated team working diligently to ensure our animals are safe. In preparation for the possible effects of Hurricane Irma, Miami Seaquarium has implemented its Hurricane Preparation Procedures. These protocols, which are constantly updated, clearly detail the necessary animal safety and precautionary measures to be implemented at the park. You can monitor our social channels for all updates regarding the park.”
Besides closing the park, the Miami Seaquarium provided no updates on their social media channels throughout the storm, nor did they explain what procedures were actually put in place to protect their animals during hurricanes, or clarify whether staff remained on site as Hurricane Irema approached. Reports from Miami have shown downtown Miami submerged by flooding.
“The threats to exposed captive killer whales include missile injuries, blunt force trauma, stress, and foreign objects in the pool, which can be swallowed. In nature the whales can ride out storms, spending their time predominantly below the surface and at greater depths,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer who advocates against Orca captivity. “The shallow water columns of captivity force the animals to be exposed.” He cited that he was on site at SeaWorld Orlando during Hurricane Erin, but that SeaWorld’s infrastructure was much safer and more resistant to storms than the dilapidated state of Miami Seaquarium’s structures.
“In the case of Lolita, her stadium could literally collapse, and she’s alone. The Seaquarium was cited in 2003 for a ‘rusty roof beyond repair‘ as well as other issues,” He continued. “If she was lucky enough not to get hit or impaled by collapsing stadium elements, she stands the chance of being sliced by metal in her space. A second concern I have is that the expected storm surge, up to 10 feet, could undermine the structural elements of her tank including the perimeter glass that holds back the water.” Ventre explained, “If that were to happen, she’d be in dirty foreign-object-filled water trapped in her rickety whale prison with no way to swim to the sea, which is meters away. In the context of the original storm forecast, which predicted a CAT 4 or 5 direct strike on Miami, the Seaquarium’s decision to roll the dice with her life is certainly callous, immoral, and unjust,” he said.
Samantha Berg, another former SeaWorld trainer said in a September 10 post on the blog Voice of the Orcas, “Her tank is not deep enough for her to submerge and find refuge from flying debris. And, in an ironic turn of events, she even faces the potential of drowning if the surface of her tank becomes sufficiently blocked by falling detritus. Or maybe the filtration system will fail and she’ll have to spend days or weeks floating around in her own excrement. Her tank may over-heat if the power goes out and this could easily lead to a slower death from disease and injury.” She added the only proper way to prepare for a Hurricane of Irma’s magnitude was by getting the animals out of there.
Orca captivity and the facility’s treatment of Lolita has already been a controversial subject. The whale was captured in 1970 at the age of four. Documents released in 2016 noted the whale often suffers scrapes, and cuts from the dolphins that share her tank. She frequently needs antibiotics to treat these injuries. Environmentalists have been fighting through litigation to have Lolita freed and returned to the Pacific Northwest where she could live out the remainder of her life in a sea pen, but the Miami Seaquarium has pushed back on these efforts, claiming that Lolita has been taken care of in her tank, the smallest one for any orca in North America. The USDA released a report in June 2017 after auditing the aquarium. They found the tank likely does not meet the agency’s Animal Welfare regulations.
The 2013 documentaryBlackfish exposed the harmful effects that captivity has on orcas—these animals regularly travel over 60 miles per day in the wild. In addition to health effects, psychological effects have been well documented. SeaWorld is currently under federal investigation for defrauding investors by misrepresenting their business downturn since the documentary’s release. In December 2017, PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Orca Nework will begin their oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to push for Lolita’s release under the endangered species act.
To read the article and watch VIDEO visit the source at Observer.com
For years, animal advocacy groups have argued that the Miami Seaquarium’s lone killer whale, Lolita, has been kept in a tank that is woefully small, allowing her to swim only a few yards in any direction.
Now, they might have the support of a federal agency.
“The design of the enclosure may deny the resident orca sufficient space for adequate freedom of movement,” the report found.
That doesn’t mean the 50-year-old Lolita will be leaving the Seaquarium. The report doesn’t reach a firm conclusion about the tank, instead calling for better guidelines when auditing marine mammal enclosures. Its suggestion that the tank might be too small would contradict previous USDA evaluations that Lolita’s enclosure was an appropriate size.
While the audit does not specifically name the Miami Seaquarium, photos of the enclosure and its dimensions match the unique shape and size of the Seaquarium’s orca tank. The report also cites a tank with only one orca — Lolita is the only solitary captive orca in the country.
“It certainly is further confirmation that the USDA’s own oversight body doesn’t believe the facility is compliant with the regulations,” said Jared Goodman, director of animal law at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals foundation. “The evidence was already strong.”
Barbara Fulchini, foreground, 24, of Miami, and Adriana Pruitt, center, 32, of Miramar, attempt to turn back people at the entrance to the Miami Seaquarium during a protest against Lolita the orca’s decades-long captivity at the Miami Seaquarium, on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015, in Miami. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other groups have sued in Miami federal court, saying Lolita should ultimately be removed to a sea pen under a retirement plan that would more closely mimic her natural Pacific Ocean environment.Wilfredo Lee AP
PETA has been working for six years to bring to light the alleged non-compliant size of Lolita’s tank, Goodman said, and activists have been pushing to move Lolita to a seaside sanctuary for decades.
But the Seaquarium’s general manager, Andrew Hertz, said in a statement that the park has always been in adherence with the federal government’s rules and regulations.
Citing the USDA’s sole letter to the Seaquarium in 1999 regarding Lolita’s enclosure, Hertz said: “Lolita’s habitat has been certified by the USDA as ‘… meets the intent and the letter of the law with regard to space requirements for orcas.’ The USDA goes on to say that her habitat ‘far exceeds the minimum requirements established by the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) regulations.’”
The Seaquarium emphasized that the most recent USDA audit report states that current regulations don’t clearly outline rules for enclosures like the Seaquarium’s, that “do not fit well within the process for determining whether minimum space requirements are met,” according to the report.
LOLITA’S HABITAT HAS BEEN CERTIFIED BY THE USDA AS ‘…MEETS THE INTENT AND THE LETTER OF THE LAW WITH REGARD TO SPACE REQUIREMENTS FOR ORCAS.’
Andrew Hertz, general manager of Miami Seaquarium
Hertz added that since the audit was conducted, the park “has not been contacted by USDA stating [the enclosure was too small.]”
Most of the USDA’s report focuses on the fact that the tank may not meet the minimum horizontal dimension requirements, largely due to a “work island” for trainers in the middle of the circular tank that creates an obstruction for the 20-foot whale.
To meet the minimum requirements, the horizontal dimension of the enclosure should be at least 48 feet for an orca to swim a path twice its length unobstructed.
Technically, Lolita’s tank measures 60 feet but is bisected by the work island. That separates the tank into two pools, with the main pool only reaching a horizontal dimension of 35 feet, the audit found. That figure matches a 1995 review of the enclosure that also found the pool’s true dimension to be 35 feet.
The auditor analyzed prior data and documentation on the tank and visited the facility in person in the time period from October 2015 to August 2016. The audit focused on seven parks, four of them in Florida.
The Seaquarium might also be missing the mark on the requirements for the minimum depth of an orca pool. That’s because the channels on the two sides of the work island, which connect the two pools, are only about eight feet deep compared to the tank’s main pool depth of 20 feet.
IT CERTAINLY IS FURTHER CONFIRMATION THAT THE USDA’S OWN OVERSIGHT BODY DOESN’T BELIEVE THE FACILITY IS COMPLIANT WITH THE REGULATIONS. THE EVIDENCE WAS ALREADY STRONG.
Jared Goodman, director of animal law at PETA
Also in question is the four-foot tall barrier that surrounds the tank, which only has a yellow line painted one foot from the wall to keep visitors out.
“Foreign objects could be dropped into the enclosure, or one of the animals could injure a spectator,” the report said.
Still, the Seaquarium has never experienced an incident with the barrier wall, which meets the Animal Welfare Act’s minimum requirements, the audit found.
According to the report, “[animal care officials] met with facility representatives and discussed the potential risks associated with the current public barrier around the tank and methods that could be used to bolster it.”
The report, which focused on whether the Animal and Plant Health Service’s Animal Care Program had an adequate system in place to monitor compliance at marine mammal enclosures around the country, fell short of declaring the Seaquarium non-compliant due to the ambiguous rules in place to audit tanks.
The audit recommended creating written guidelines by the end of the year that more clearly indicate the requirements — in terms of the size of enclosures and other rules — animal care inspectors have to look for when auditing facilities that house marine mammals.
THE DESIGN OF THE ENCLOSURE MAY DENY THE RESIDENT ORCA SUFFICIENT SPACE FOR ADEQUATE FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT.
USDA Office of the Inspector General report
The findings of the report bolster other recent actions by PETA to declare the Seaquarium’s tank inadequate and move Lolita to a sea pen in Washington state. The orca was captured by whale hunters off Puget Sound in 1970 when she was about 3 or 4 years old and sold to the Seaquarium, where she has been the star attraction for decades.
PETA was part of a lawsuit filed against the USDA last year claiming the agency is violating the Animal Welfare Act by granting a license to the Seaquarium’s new parent company, Palace Entertainment. Licenses can only be granted to facilities compliant with USDA regulations, which PETA and other groups argue the Seaquarium is not. The case is still in process.
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.”