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This year marks two milestones for Seaquarium. Virginia Key's landmark marine theme park has been a Miami fixture for 50 years, coasting on its storied past as the setting for the Flipper television series in the early Sixties. It is also an anniversary date associated with another intelligent sea mammal: Lolita, the park's performing orca, begins her 35th year in captivity a decade after a movement to have her released swelled and faded.
Although they are sometimes called killer whales, orcas are actually a species of dolphin, and like their smaller cousins are completely carnivorous. Orcas in their natural habitat -- they live in the cold streams of the Pacific Ocean from Pole to Pole -- can snatch a snoozing seal from an ice floe and bite a walrus cleanly in half with dagger-sharp teeth the size of sabers. But Lolita would be hard pressed to nip a chunk out of a salmon. Recent photos obtained by New Times show the orca's teeth to be in bad shape, with decay, breakage, erosion, and receding gums visible even to amateur observers.
Aleta Hohn, a marine biologist and cetacean specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the pattern of wear on Lolita's teeth is unusual and could be a threat to the animal's overall well-being if left untreated. Though many adult orcas exhibit some degree of tooth abrasion, Hohn remarks, "I do not recall seeing only the couple of teeth in the very front of the mouth worn so much relative to the wear in the other, especially nearby, teeth."
The tooth erosion, likely caused by Lolita's anxious habit of gnawing on her enclosure, could ultimately expose the orca to infection unless properly treated, says Hohn, who reviewed the photographs at the request of New Times.
"Even if their interest is only financial, the people who invest in this animal would probably be sure to provide good dental care," Hohn adds. In their defense, Seaquarium officials cite a 2004 USDA inspection report giving Lolita high marks for dental health and saying, "There is no evidence of infection or inflammation around any of the teeth." If not on oral health, Seaquarium owner Arthur Hertz has invested millions over the years in feeding and training Lolita, and in keeping her tank at an Arctic 55 degrees in the midst of the subtropics. During the heyday of the "Free Lolita" movement and periodically since then, Hertz has pledged to build a larger, more modern tank in which to house the orca. His first promises date back to 1990. However, that plan was part of a large-scale expansion project which was tied up in court and eventually blocked by the Village of Key Biscayne and Miami-Dade County. Then in August 2001, Hertz announced plans to build Lolita a new stadium with a tank five times larger than her existing enclosure. No such stadium has been built, a fact Hertz has alternately attributed to sagging post-9/11 revenues and the county commission's reluctance to cede six acres along the Rickenbacker Causeway to Seaquarium for parking lots. The lots, say Seaquarium officials, will allow for the additional attendance revenue needed to pay for a new tank. Through public relations representative Michelle Palomino, Seaquarium officials confirmed that plans for a new whale stadium are indefinitely on hold.
Questions have been raised in the past both by strident animal-rights activists and more temperate scientists about the small size of the tank where Lolita spends her solitary days. The federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), after much deliberation and internal disagreement, recently said the tank meets the minimum standard for an orca enclosure.
Critics question whether a new tank will ever materialize, especially considering the condition of Lolita's teeth and the fact that, as far as captive orcas go, she has far exceeded her expiration date. At an estimated age of 38, Lolita is the oldest killer whale in captivity. She is the only remaining orca of the 45 captured with her in 1970. In fact few orcas live longer than a decade in captivity. The life expectancy of orcas in the wild is similar to humans, with females thriving into their sixties or seventies and males flourishing well into their fifties. Seaquarium's only other orca, Hugo, died at the age of fifteen in 1980.
"There's a lot of controversy about orca age," says Hohn. "They haven't been kept as captive animals very long, and they usually don't last long."
There are signs that Seaquarium doesn't expect Lolita to last much longer, including the persistent rumor that the park has had Lolita's image removed from print material for its new advertising campaign. In an e-mailed response to questions from New Times, Palomino categorically denied the rumor. "In light of celebrating our 50th anniversary," she wrote, "we have updated all of our collateral material and Lolita continues to be a part of our marketing efforts."
As with other environmental causes célbres, passion for orcas waxes and wanes. The "Free Lolita" campaign was engendered by the popularity of the 1993 film Free Willy, which itself resulted in the release of a real orca, Keiko, from a Mexican theme park. More recently Luna, a young and rambunctious male orca who somehow became separated from his pod in Nootka Sound near Vancouver, received massive attention -- and a well-funded rehoming effort -- after both terrorizing and delighting Canadian fishermen and sailors. It is Hertz who remains steadfast in his refusal to budge about a possible controlled release program for Lolita.