Seaquarium stonewalls about the health and well-being of Lolita the orca

"The deal we offered Hertz to free Lolita was a win-win," says activist Howard Garrett of the Orca Network. Garrett is part of the group that continues to try to goad Hertz into letting Lolita go. "He was offered two million dollars, full royalty and film rights, and even the chance to have live broadcasts of her [after her release]. He could have looked like a hero, too, which will not be the case if she dies in captivity."

Hertz has maintained that, regardless of the morality of capturing Lolita in the first place, releasing an animal accustomed to performing tricks for food into the merciless ocean would be cruel and probably fatal.

"That's ignoring the fact that, all along, we've offered another option," says Orca Network's Susan Berta. "If she doesn't adapt well to hunting, we would keep her in an enclosed area much larger than her tank at Seaquarium, where she'd get to eat salmon all day, and have auditory contact with her family. It would be like a nice retirement for her."

Lolita's teeth show abnormal wear and breakage for an orca of her age
Dolphin freedom foundation
Lolita's teeth show abnormal wear and breakage for an orca of her age

Orcas are intensely social and group-oriented, traveling and hunting in family units that never break up. Children stay with parents for their entire lives, and families develop unique calls that distinguish them from other orcas. This knowledge has emerged as whales have been studied for the nature of their sentiency. Naturalists such as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who studied animal societies on Baffin Island, and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, insist simply keeping orcas in captivity is morally wrong and out of sync with a civilized human society.

Indeed time seems to be fixed in the Flipper days at Seaquarium. On a typical day at the park, tourists flock to Sea Dawg's hot dog stand and Whale Spout Pizza for old-fashioned theme park junk food. A perky announcer in a spangled red top hat, whose microphone alternately booms and cuts out, narrates while trainers in clown getups cavort with seals and sea lions at the Golden Dome Sea Lion Show. A mangrove forest with sea turtles, wading birds, and other natural South Florida wildlife is somewhat on par with modern thinking about how to keep and display captive animals.

But the aging attraction is more than a bit dilapidated. The Reef Aquarium and Top Deck Dolphin Show? Closed for renovation and repairs. The Tropical Wings bird and reptile area? Three of the nine reptile exhibits are covered in brown paper, under construction for the time being. Shark Channel? A few specimens loll at the bottom of the concrete moat, but jack and tarpon are the most numerous fish in this exhibit. Discovery Bay? Well, if you look behind a tree, you might find the chipped and faded sign explaining the American alligator exhibit.

Ten years ago politicians made stirring speeches on Lolita's behalf, and moguls and celebrities lined up next to activists, but now the Free Lolita movement -- such as it still is -- lurks mainly on the Internet. Other than occasional anti-Seaquarium salvos from the likes of Russ Rector, the Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder who has successfully sicced Miami-Dade code enforcement officials and fire safety inspectors on the theme park in recent years, most of those who once clamored for Lolita's freedom have gone on to other things.

For Lolita little has changed over the past decade. She still does the same tricks, balancing trainers on her nose, squealing and grunting for the crowd, whooshing up into the air, and belly flopping hard so that the people in the first few rows of her stadium are drenched in salt water to the strains of Ricky Martin's "Jaleo."

Meanwhile, after a drastic drop in population since 2000, Lolita's family pod, three groups of Puget Sound orcas totaling about 80 creatures, is about to be listed as "threatened" on the endangered species list, according to a December announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service. There is more paper to be pushed before the decision is finalized, but it will likely happen this year.

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