Livin' la Vida Orca

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

Garrett believes Lolita remembers her life in the wild. He insists she hasn't lost her hunting skills or knowledge of the distinct calls that orcas use to communicate, that she has vivid memories of her home and even her mother.

Garrett describes Lolita in almost human terms; memories of her time in the wild give her hope and keep her alive, he says. "I can't help but wonder how Lolita survives the cramped, featureless space and solitary confinement," he continues. "Maybe it's the way she was raised by her mother, or maybe, like the mysterious human spirit in times of extreme adversity, she has deep resources of faith. Maybe Lolita remembers her family and dreams of going home some day."

But Arthur Hertz, Lolita's keeper, isn't budging. Ken Balcomb admits he probably never will: "I've told Howie I don't want to be pessimistic, but in my view Arthur is never going to talk about letting go of the whale." Howard's response: "I know Hertz wouldn't do it out of the goodness of his heart, but I don't think he'll have any other choice."

In a desperate attempt to gain supporters, Garrett recently joined singer Jimmy Buffett's fan club, the Barefoot Children of Fort Lauderdale. He distributes information at the monthly meetings and talks to whomever will listen. Elton John's personal assistant sent a letter this past May saying the entertainer would add his name to the cause. "Until we get someone like Madonna into it, I'm just not quite sure how to get people's attention anymore," he says in a fit of frustrated laughter.

Walking the streets of Hollywood's Young Circle on a recent day with a beige cloth bag over his shoulder, Garrett hands out flyers to shopkeepers and asks if he can tape up "Free Lolita" posters. Most act interested in Garrett's orca freedom spiel. Some ignore it.

Candy Benvenuto, owner of New Wave Hair Design, is busy cutting hair when Garrett approaches. "Hi, I just came to see if I can leave you these postcards, and ...," Garrett stops short. He holds up a postcard in one hand and a poster in the other. The beautician hasn't even glanced at him. He solemnly turns around and walks out. Says Benvenuto of the encounter: "I was busy. I don't pay attention to solicitors when I'm working."

Yet Garrett has supporters. This past Mother's Day, about 100 protesters gathered in front of Seaquarium and waved picket signs that read "Don't work Lolita to death." Drivers beeped their horns in support as Garrett walked through the crowd with a megaphone chanting: "Hey-hey. Ho-ho. Let Lolita come home." Sandy Taylor, a realtor from Arlington, Virginia, attended the rally during a South Florida visit. Next year she plans on retiring in Florida to be closer to Garrett's cause. "We're not saying throw [Lolita] out in the wild. We're saying let her go when she wants to go," Taylor explains.

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