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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.
"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."
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.