Much heralded announcements by Miami-Dade County officials and the Miami Seaquarium have raised hopes among South Florida animal rights activists that Lolita the Killer Whale might finally be released after half a century of captivity.
If so, the question begs: Where to?
Back in the orca’s native waters in the Pacific Northwest, the reaction to her potential return from state officials is more muted, the excitement partly blunted by the continuing demise of Lolita’s family, the Southern Resident killer whales.
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said it has not taken a formal position on whether Lolita, known as Tokitae in the Pacific Northwest, should be moved back to state waters. Mike Faulk, a spokesman for the governor, said officials have heard “compelling arguments for and against the effort,” which has been led by orca advocates and the Lummi Nation.
More on Lolita:
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- Orca family of Miami Seaquarium’s Lolita on path to extinction as feds mull whale watch ban
“We understand the whale’s importance to the Lummi and to Washington state,” he said. “We have also heard from orca experts that there are significant potential health risks involved in relocating from across the country and readjusting to the waters in Puget Sound.”
In the meantime, there is growing uneasiness about the famed, if not tragic, orca’s status on Key Biscayne. The animal rights group that revealed her poor treatment last fall is concerned that the renewed license permitting the Seaquarium to operate the park “carved out” Lolita, meaning federal regulators at the U.S. Agriculture Department will no longer monitor her care or welfare.
“This means that the tank, and Lolita being there, are no longer being regulated by the USDA,” said Jared Goodman of the PETA Foundation. “So we are in a situation where no one is ensuring that she is being appropriately cared for.”
In Washington state, so far, no permit requests for a Lolita move
The more reserved reaction in Olympia is a sharp contrast to the excitement in the Sunshine State following the March 23 decision by the marine park’s new managers, The Dolphin Co., to allow independent veterinarians to perform an independent medical evaluation of Lolita’s health. That news followed an earlier decision by the Seaquarium to retire Lolita as a performer and from public display.
Local advocates for Lolita’s release interpreted the moves as an opening that raises prospects for her ultimate freedom.
“We have a lot of hope that Lolita, finally, can achieve this goal and have a chance to go back home,” said longtime orca protester Alejandro Ariel Dintino on a Facebook chat on Sunday. “Why not? We have to be positive. We ask everyone — everyone — to be positive, to send positive energy … and to keep praying for her release.”
But in Puget Sound, from where Lolita was taken from her family in a brutal August 1970 capture, the state and federal agencies that would have to approve and manage a move, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, say there is no movement in that direction.
Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA fisheries, said the Miami Seaquarium has not made any proposals about moving Tokitae back to the Pacific Northwest. The federal agency would oversee a move to a location in the region — a transfer to the wild that would require, at minimum, a permit under the Endangered Species Act.
“The Miami Seaquarium, as the owner of the whale, would have to be part of any proposal,” Milstein said.
Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of the agencies that regulate fish pens in the waters of the Salish Sea, is “not aware of or involved in any active applications regarding Tokitae,” according to Julie Watson, a policy lead on Killer Whales for the agency.
Lummi say they are ‘clearing the path’ as grassroots activists inspired
The Lummi tribe, which calls Lolita Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Jeff Foster, who has been working with the Lummi on a seaside sanctuary.
But Lummi member Raynell Morris said during a March 6 discussion on a live stream that while the tribe had not “done the application,” it has been in dialogue with state and federal officials in a process she described as “clearing the path.”
Morris also said the outcome will depend on Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, but “we’ve already begun (the work). It’s been in the works for awhile.”
As in South Florida, Lolita grassroots advocates in the Pacific Northwest are inspired. Nonetheless, the more cautious position taken by state officials is a marked contrast to a vocal, vigorous mid-1990s campaign to repatriate Lolita.
The effort was led by then-Gov. Mike Lowry and Secretary of State Ralph Munro. In press conferences, letters and interviews, the two beseeched the Seaquarium to let Lolita go home. Lowry, who passed away in 2017, and Munro even made personal donations to a Seaquarium conservation fund as a sign of goodwill.
In an interview last year, Munro said the origin of the campaign was a simple protest to raise awareness of Lolita’s plight.
“It was an effort to bring attention to this animal that was been swimming around in a concrete tank and expected to perform every day,” Munro recalled. “We just thought that the whale would be much better off back in the wild or closer to its family.”
Munro declined to comment on current developments saying he is not playing an active role in them.
Orca advocate: “We know it is possible for whales to go home”
But West Seattle orca advocate Donna Sandstrom said today’s wait-and-see attitude in the Puget Sound region isn’t indifference but, rather, reflects a clear-eyed understanding of reality.
A quarter-century ago, Sandstrom organized a symposium that brought together 75 advocates, researchers and public policy experts to brainstorm a campaign for Lolita’s release.
Sandstrom later played a key role in the 2002 reunification of an orca stray, Springer, with her Northern Resident orca pod. Last year, Sandstrom wrote a children’s book about the experience, Orca Rescue!: The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named Springer.
The common denominator between the 2002 Springer effort and the 1996 Lolita campaign was “a compassionate” objective: To have the whales rejoin their family pods.
That’s not necessarily the goal for Lolita today, Sandstrom said.
“In the present proposals for Lolita, reintroduction is not often considered. It seems the goal is actually to return her to a sea pen,” she said. “Return to a sea pen is not the same thing as a reunion with her family.”
Sandstrom worries what it would do to Lolita to hear her family but not be able to return to them and for her pod to know she is there but not be able to join her.
“I have no doubt her pod will recognize her,” she added.
Moreover, Sandstrom said she and many others with experience, knowledge and an understanding of an orca reunification process gained in the Springer effort have not been approached for assistance.
“We know it is possible for whales to go home,” said Sandstrom, founder of the Whale Trail of land-based marine life watching sites in the Pacific Northwest. “We have the benefit of knowledge. But we haven’t seen that knowledge put to use for the benefit of Lolita yet.”
Sandstrom also cautions that conditions in Puget Sound and beyond have deteriorated over the past quarter-century. The supply of salmon has plummeted, the waters are more polluted and vessel noise — from freight ships to whale watching boats — have made it much harder for the wild orca population to hunt.
In fact, the population of the Southern Residents has crashed, from almost 100 in 1996 to 74 today.
“The first concern is what is best for the animal and it’s an open question what a team of orca researchers and veterinarians would say about Lolita,” Sandstrom said. “Certainly she was a better candidate 25 years ago when she was younger and the environment here was healthier and the Southern Resident orcas weren’t endangered. Those are the three things that have really changed since then.”
Marine mammal expert said science should guide what’s best for Lolita
One longtime marine mammal expert said moving Lolita back to the Pacific Northwest is, logistically speaking, a doable task.
Tim Ragen, former executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, said marine parks transport all sorts of large animals, including orcas, porpoises and Beluga whales, on a yearly basis.
In Lolita’s case, a medical exam could determine whether Lolita can “handle the stress” of a move, he said. It’s also true, he added, that a thorough blood workup might reveal or rule out whether she is “hauling something” up to the wild environment.
Ragen, who now serves on the nine-member Washington state Fish and Wildlife Commission, said his biggest worries deal with the “massive” conservation issues facing the region, not least of which is the dire state of the Southern Residents and the potential “unknowns” in a repatriation.
“The biggest risk for me is just should anything happen that has negative effects or consequences for the wild population,” Ragen said. “That population is in such bad shape that it’s almost like it can hardly tolerate another negative impact.”
Even though an exhaustive screening might detect a toxin, or check off the concern, great care is still required. “You just don’t want to have this be the one time you get fooled,” Ragen said.
It’s important, Ragen said, to not let “values” or the human desire to do right by Lolita interfere with the science. The only way to achieve a positive result for the orca is to allow the science to make the decision, he said.
“It will guide us in terms of bringing her back here and telling us how to do this in a way that she will survive and we will achieve the sort of value that we aim for, or hope to achieve, which is to get her back to a natural environment,” Ragen said.
And also for the science and knowledge of conditions in the Pacific Northwest, where it’s not just the Southern Residents under extreme duress but also the salmon populations, or runs, that the food chain so desperately needs.
“We would all, I think most of us here in the Northwest, would be very happy to have her back and in place in a healthier environment,” Ragen said. “But right now, Washington is facing huge conservation issues.”
All this as population growth from Vancouver to the southern reaches of Puget Sound continues to grow, chewing away more habitat and putting more stress on the natural resources.
Ragen understands the rationale for Lolita’s return, both from humane and symbolic perspectives. But the overriding need is to save the Southern Residents from extinction, he insisted.
The wild population is “in really bad shape and it’s going to get worse in the next 15 years,” Ragen predicts. A rebound, he said, will require foresight and public policy thinking that “looks two, three, four or even five generations” into the future.
“I tell people now I will never see the Southern Resident killer whale population in a recovered state. I’m not going to live long enough,” Ragen said. “But I would rather focus on that because I think we can make things better by focusing on it. And there will be young people that will come along behind us and they will then build on what we’ve done and hopefully, we will get them back to a recovered state and ideally that population will go on for thousands of years.”
PETA: While Lolita’s future is decided, present-day oversight is still necessary
In the meantime, the group that has exposed Lolita’s poor living conditions over the past year says it is uneasy over the new terms of her care.
Yes, there is a new management team at the marine park, said Goodman, PETA Foundation vice president and deputy general counsel for animal law, but now there is a regulatory black hole.
Since she is no longer performing, the Seaquarium’s new license excluded Lolita from the USDA’s supervision. Goodman said he appreciates that Miami-Dade County officials have stepped in to provide some oversight, but more transparency is needed.
Goodman said the new management needs to clarify in detail her health status, by releasing medical records and behavioral logs with regular updates on the park’s website and social media accounts.
“If they really do want to assure the public that Lolita isn’t suffering in this tank that has caused her to suffer for more than half a century, then release this information,” Goodman said.
It’s all the more critical given the reports under the last management company of Lolita being fed “rotten” fish to eat, forced to perform tricks that were harmful and living in poor water quality, he said. The reports exposed by PETA brought pressure on the new management team and the county to take action.
“We are hopeful that this is genuine,” Goodman said of the additional oversight by the county and the involvement of third-party veterinarians. However, without making her medical records and exams public then “your guess is as good as mine as to whether this is a legitimate transparent effort,” he said.
Orcas splash in the wake of a fishing boat in Mexico
Orcas followed a fishing boat in La Cruz, Mexico.
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