Livin' la Vida Orca

Howard Garrett carries the torch for an aging aquatic entertainer named Lolita

In 1983 he spent three months aboard a research ship based in the Dominican Republic studying humpbacks during mating season. Later that same year Garrett moved to New England, where he lived for ten years working as a tour guide on whale-watching expeditions during the summer months.

In 1993 Free Willy hit the big screen and Garrett returned to Friday Harbor. His sociological musings on orca communities took a dramatic turn. He decided to become a full-time activist.

In the movie a boy named Jessie befriends an orca named Willy. When Jessie discovers an unscrupulous marine-park owner wants to kill the animal to collect insurance, the boy joins forces with a trainer and a park groundskeeper. The three tow the creature to freedom in a specially rigged trailer.

A real-life orca named Keiko starred in the movie. In 1979, at age two, he was captured off the coast of Iceland and then languished for eleven years in a rundown Mexico City aquarium called Reino Aventura. (Adventure Kingdom) There he became steadily more ill until Warner Bros., with Balcomb's help, rescued him. This past September Keiko was sent to Iceland, where trainers are teaching him to again live in the wild. If released, Keiko will become the first captive orca to be reintroduced to the sea.

In the media blitz that followed the film's release, Garrett was often quoted on the orca's living conditions and health. He traveled across the nation for live radio interviews while working part-time at a print shop. In 1994 he even appeared on the TV tabloid show A Current Affair, and talked about Keiko's plight.

Garrett had bigger fish to free when he moved to Miami in 1997. He arrived with a slew of Miami Vice-inspired stereotypes about the city and a $2000-per-month stipend from a Washington group called PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society). Six months later the money ran out. The reason is unclear; PAWS director Kathy Kelley says her group only budgeted for that period. Garrett says he wasn't militant enough for PAWS.

In the year and half since Garrett arrived in South Florida, he's hung thousands of posters, held rallies at Seaquarium, visited at least 30 schools in Miami-Dade County, met with Mayor Alex Penelas, freelanced for numerous publications, and promoted his campaign on the Internet. Garrett even learned HTML code and designed his own Web page. Microsoft representatives even spotted the Website ( and redesigned it for free.

Garrett says he is doing everything possible to draw publicity to Lolita's cause, but he admits he chooses his battles. "There isn't full-time work in this," he says. "A lot of what I do is waiting for the right moment. I don't want to be a pest; I'm not constantly on the phone haranguing and harassing people."

Garrett complains about the circus tricks Lolita must perform for food, her isolation, and the fact that she was taken from her family. "Separation from kin is what kills them in captivity," Garrett says. "You can't make up for that even with the best of care."

The Tokitae Foundation has raised about $22,000 since 1995. Most of that money has gone to support Garrett. He pays $425 per month to live in a cramped studio apartment and gets around in a faded-red 1986 Nissan Sentra with no air conditioning or functioning radio.

Still, critics charge that Garrett is milking Lolita for money. "I don't know if he's sacrificed his life in his struggle to free Lolita, or if it's made a life for him," says Seaquarium publicist Seth Gordon. Adds Hertz: "I think he should get a job. The man is doing something because he visualizes an awful lot of money and fame." Seaquarium, it should be noted, raked in about $12 million this past year after paying taxes and rent to the county. Hertz owns a $211,000 home in Coral Gables, a $243,000 condo on Brickell Key, and drives a white Cadillac with leather interior.

The walls of Garrett's apartment are lined with orca posters, childrens' drawings, and collages of Lolita with her family. There are also several batiklike killer-whale wall-hangings and orca calendars. On a windowsill are orca postcards and a photo of Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro with his family. (Munro is one of four Tokitae Foundation board members.) An old, thin, twin-size mattress leans against a wall. Two large cardboard boxes contain files, most of which are orca-related. A laptop computer sits on a plywood desk. Nearby, taped to a wall, a poem titled Imprisoned Too Long serves as a daily reminder of Lolita's confinement: "Captured, trained, torn from her mom, far from her own, imprisoned too long."

It's about 1:00 p.m. when Garrett sits before a tiny white television set and pops in a videotape of Lolita's Spirit in the Water, a 1996 documentary made by an ABC affiliate in Seattle. He points at an image of a Puget Sound whale on the screen and blurts out: "That's J2; she's 86 years old." Then he grabs his orca photo album to verify the claim.

Next Garrett turns off the TV and plays a CD of what he calls an orca "superpod" meeting. Three families gather thrice yearly for a party that lasts 24 hours, he explains. Amid the whistles, clicks, squawks, and bleats, Garrett talks about his job as an orca freedom fighter. "I'm trying to give a whale rights," he maintains. "That's not in most people's vocabulary."

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