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Lolita And Freedom: Feds' Orca Decision Shifts The Tide

It's a provocative question: If an aquarium or zoo possesses a member of an endangered population, should it be required to attempt to return it to the wild and that home population? A federal decision on the captive orca Lolita yesterday may have shifted the ground rules of that debate.

The people trying to bring the orca Lolita -- also known as Tokitae -- back to her home Salish Sea waters scored an incremental victory yesterday:

The federal government wants Lolita — the orca snared 44 years ago in
Penn Cove by whale hunters who sold her to a Florida aquarium —
protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Friday
reversed itself and recommended the killer whale held by the Miami
Seaquarium be governed by the same law that protects Puget Sound’s wild
southern resident killer whales.

The move could have implications for other endangered species held by
zoos and aquariums and almost certainly will lead to a re-evaluation of
the conditions of Lolita’s captivity, which activists have complained
about for years.

But it’s not clear how or if this will affect the decades-long
campaign to have the former member of L pod returned to Washington.

It's a provocative question: If an aquarium or zoo possesses a member of an endangered population, should it be required to attempt to return it to the wild and that home population? Indeed, many zoos are engaged in species-recovery work, and returning animals to the wild is a big component of those programs.

No such programs exist, however, for orcas. And as anyone who has seen Blackfish understands, there is only one reason for that: Killer whales are the money engine for these theme parks. They are the reason the turnstiles rotate as rapidly as they do. And as a result of that and the declining population of captive orcas, each one of these animals is worth millions of dollars.

The marine-park industry has only ever gotten involved in wild-release work for killer whales when it was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the efforts to return Free Willy star Keiko to the wild, and when it finally did engage, it attempted at every step of the way to sabotage that effort, sometimes secretively.

I was in Florida last week and I went to the Miami Seaquarium to see Lolita. She is a sprightly female and charming as can be, and appears to be in excellent health still. At one point she came up to me at the railing where I was standing and seemed to pose for me:

Lolita posing

I was taken aback by a couple of things. For one thing, she is ridden by her trainers a great deal during her twice daily performances. You can't help admiring the athleticism required for both whale and trainer to pull this stuff off. And there's no doubt the exercise is good for the whale. But these are extremely unnatural behaviors, and there are stresses associated with that. I have grave doubts that so-called "water work" -- which is now prohibited by OSHA at SeaWorld parks -- is really good for these animals.

Nonetheless, she is in excellent health still, though Lolita gives the impression of having survived these forty-four years in captivity by having simply shut down part of her personality or her brain. It struck me as unlikely, for instance, that she is echolocating very much in her pool because it is featureless concrete that will simply reflect back at her.

These impressions could be wrong -- her curator and trainers were not inclined to talk to me, so I wasn't able to get any information from them about these issues. But my chief and abiding impression from my visit, and the thing I was taken aback most by, was just how tiny and cramped her little pool really is.

Perhaps I had been spoiled by my visit a few days earlier to SeaWorld Orlando, where the orcas' sterile pools at least have the virtue of being reasonably large, though still tiny compared to even the smallest cove orcas might explore in the wild. They are also clean and well-maintained.

Miami Seaquarium, by comparison, is a dump. It is going on fifty years old now, and looks every bit of it. The orca stadium's concrete pillars are stained with algae and mildew, and the paint inside the stadium is in a state of constant peeling, even though it appears fresh coats get slapped on periodically. But most of all, Lolita's pool is tiny. Painfully tiny. She is able to cross its widest point -- about 80 free -- with two quick flicks of her flukes. It is deep enough to enable her to perform her breath-taking breaches, but the minimum distance point, between the pool's edge and the island in the middle where her trainers stand, is only thirty-five feet wide. Lolita herself is twenty feet long.

These dimensions, it should be noted, are in fact in violation of federal regulations for an orca tank, where the minimum horizontal dimension (MHD) allowed is 48 feet, not the 35 in Lolita's tank. But the agency in charge of regulating and licensing these facilities, has for every year they've been in business given Seaquarium a "waiver" for that island as though it does not actually exist, thus extending the pool's MHD to include the portion of the pool behind the island. There is a lawsuit against APHIS over its failures to properly regulate the Seaquarium over this very point.

Seaquarium will never let Lolita return to the Puget Sound on its own: It is too addicted to the revenues she generates. But now that one federal agency has weighed in and found that she is part of an endangered population, its walls are starting to crumble. One more favorable ruling and the tide may finally rise in Lolita's favor and sweep her out of her depressing little concrete prison.

Read more about Lolita at the Orca Network.

Cross-posted at Orcinus.

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