Campaign Heats Up To Free Lolita the Orca

Captured 40 years ago as an infant, the orca known as Lolita symbolizes the movement to free captive animals.

A pod of southern resident orcas in Boundary Pass, north of San Juan Island, WA.
A pod of southern resident orcas in Boundary Pass, north of San Juan Island, WA. (Howard Garrett / Orca Network)

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(An infant orca was captured in 1970, named Lolita, and has lived ever since in a tiny pool at the Miami Seaquarium. The following is about her life and a growing movement supported by Earthjustice to have Lolita reintroduced to her native waters and possibly rejoined with her family pod in Washington state waters.)

The whale trappers were exhausted. For months the southern resident orcas of Puget Sound had been outsmarting them, dodging their traps and distracting their ships away from the younger whales. But the trappers meant business, and they returned with faster boats and loud explosives. On August 8, 1970, the trappers corralled the orcas into a cove and captured them in nets.

The trappers took home seven infant orcas, those still young enough to be trained and sold as entertaining distractions to marine parks. But the event soon unfolded into a larger scandal—a fisherman later found the purposefully sunk corpses of four infant orcas—galvanizing public opposition and leading to an agreement banning orca captures in Washington state waters. By the time these captures stopped in 1976, 13 orcas had been killed and 45 more had been removed from their families. The demographic hole left in the population caused a decline that, along with other factors, led to Endangered Species Act protection for this population in 2005.

More than 40 years later, Lolita—the sole surviving captive orca from those days—is still captivating audiences at the Miami Seaquarium. She is of course unaware that activists and scientists across the nation have taken up her cause, seeking to improve her living conditions and maybe—just maybe—return her to a natural environment. Public attitudes toward orcas have shifted dramatically over the years since Lolita’s capture, owing to improved scientific understanding, several high-profile deaths of trainers and eye-opening documentaries including 2013’s popular Blackfish.

Though Lolita is but one individual, some view her case as emblematic of the broader fight over how to treat captive animals. Lynne Barre, branch chief for protected resources at the National Marine Fisheries Service, admitted as much in an article in The Seattle Times.

“It does raise some of larger questions about overall consideration of captive animals under the ESA,” she said. “We are looking, along with Fish and Wildlife and our general counsel and headquarters, at how we handle that.”

Aquarium and zoo officials point out that, by giving members of the public the opportunity to observe and interact with exotic species, they are helping to foster an ethos of compassion for the animal kingdom. This is especially true for children, whose first memories of animals tend to come from cartoons, zoos, and pets, rather than natural encounters in the wild. Many facilities go above and beyond, with active education, advocacy, research, and conservation programs designed to ensure the longevity of the species for which they care.

Lolita’s role at Seaquarium, however, is designed more for commercial purposes. Her tricks and splashes entice people to pay the daily admission rate to the park. But as she bobs listlessly (orcas, like other cetaceans, do not fully sleep in the same way humans do) in her barren tank, one wonders how an endangered species could be so far removed from its biological requirements.

Orcas are highly intelligent and social animals, yet Lolita has not shared space with a fellow orca since her companion Hugo—another southern resident orca captured a year earlier—passed away in 1980. Her sensitivity to sound may be aggravated by the large crowds, loud performance music, and nearby concrete walls that bounce back noises. And her tank, which reaches a maximum depth of 20 feet, hardly provides the space for an animal that swims 80 miles a day on average.

The Endangered Species Act, prohibits the “take” of any listed species. To take is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” When anyone engages in activities that by their nature may harm species—such as offshore oil drilling or sonar testing—they must get approval from the government for “incidental take” permits. Animal advocates hope that this strong language would require substantial improvements in Lolita’s care.

But immediately unleashing Lolita into the wild could put her in an unsafe situation. As the Seaquarium points out, her trust in humans may be dangerous in a setting that includes heavy boat traffic and other human activity. Though her mother is still alive—orcas can live to reach 80 years old in the wild—Lolita would encounter new members of her pod and would be without constant human management for the first time since Nixon was president. Both the Seaquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have suggested that releasing Lolita into the wild may endanger not only herself, but her peers as well.

To address these concerns, Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research, and Howard Garrett from the Orca Network have devised a plan to reintroduce Lolita to her home. Their proposal calls for a large “transitional coastal sanctuary sea pen” where she will be rehabilitated under human care as she is taught to fish for herself and acclimate to the open sea environment. Efforts would be made to reestablish her into her family, but if she is too habituated to human interaction, she would spend her days in retirement off Washington’s San Juan Islands.

On behalf of scientists and others, Earthjustice has weighed in to support Lolita’s protection under the ESA and has urged the National Marine Fisheries Service not to hastily predetermine what’s next. Potential reintroduction into her native waters would likely benefit both Lolita and the rest of the population, and continued captivity would likely cause continued harm—but those determinations are best in a case-by-case review of specific proposals.

In the meantime, our Northwest office continues its litigation efforts to protect the southern resident orcas. The orcas face threats based on their close proximity to development and the diminished numbers of healthy salmon, their primary food source. Our legal efforts helped secure the original Endangered Species Act protections for this distinct population segments back in 2005. Earthjustice has had several victories that have helped minimize toxic runoff into the Puget Sound ecosystem. And attorneys up and down the West Coast have worked to improve federal salmon recovery efforts by removing unnecessary dams and ensuring adequate water flow in key streams.

Just last year, almost 100,000 Earthjustice supporters sent public comments opposing a petition to delist the southern resident population of orcas. That petition originated from large California agribusiness interests, who see the orcas as obstacles in their attempt to pump even more water from salmon runs.

The petition was ultimately denied by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but the ongoing battle demonstrates that Endangered Species Act protections are just the start of the long journey toward recovery. Perhaps Lolita and her allies will soon reach that perilous but promising path themselves.

Alexander was the eCRM Administrator from 2011 until 2014, educating Earthjustice supporters about timely issues through email alerts.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.