Photos by: Austin Blackwell
Article By: Erin McKinney
Few zoological animals are under more scrutiny then Lolita, the Miami SeaQuarium’s 50-year-old killer whale. While her living conditions are under debate, The Orca Conservancy, a not-for-profit foundation based in Washington State, has been formulating a plan to place Lolita back among the Southern Resident Killer Whales from whom she was captured at 5-6 years old.
The Lolita Plan is a 10 page document that records a step-by-step process designed to “reintroduce” Lolita to the group believed to be her family in Washington State. The document records in detail the proposed procedure, steps and potential outcomes of the projects.
On page 3 of the proposed Lolita Plan, the Orca Conservancy writes that “Lolita is in remarkable condition- due no doubt to her regular activity regimen, the highest quality medical attention and diet provided by Seaquarium staff, and the provision of clean, chilled natural seawater in her facility.” They even concede that “Her care has been exceptional…in Miami.”
However, out of the 12 possible outcomes recognized by the theoretical Behavior Team, 3 of them end in Lolita’s death. Others end in threats to humans, boats, or even the Southern Residents themselves.
Despite the 25% chance of a fatality, the team behind it seems sure of their plans for Lolita’s future. On their official website, the Orca Conservancy claims that “if given the opportunity of returning Lolita to her home waters, perhaps even back to her family, we will make it work. We know how to do it.”
Mark Simmons, the author of Killing Keiko, who worked with the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, reviewed the plans and said:
The groups and individuals supporting the release of Lolita are the same that subjected Keiko to harsh and unforgivable end. They speak of a paradise that does not exist. They ignore the basic tenants of learning, that which defines who Lolita is today, what she is familiar with and what skills she possesses. Her life is not that of a wild orca, hers is a life of loving relationships with humans. Like Keiko, that is what she will seek – in any surrounding. They spout insidious lies, espouse hatred and promote prejudice toward zoos; our greatest asset in the fight to preserve species in the modern world. It is well past time to change the conversation. It is time to start focusing on the true “work” of conservation.”
The confidence they speak of comes from three other killer whales and their history with humans: Springer, Luna and Keiko. In fact, the Orca Conservancy even calls their plan “the best of Springer, Luna and Keiko” on their official website.
Springer was a member of the Northern Resident community who became separated from her pod and was subsequently captured and relocated to the Johnstone Strait to rejoin them. She was medically evaluated and fed live salmon, but her contact with humans was minimized and she received no training or conditioning, in direct contrast to Lolita’s high level of behavioral conditioning at the SeaQuarium.
Springer’s total time in minimal-contact “human care” was 5 weeks. Lolita’s is 45 years.
Luna’s story is no more promising. An orphan from the Southern Resident population, Luna became habituated to humans, characteristically ramming boats and seeking out interactions with people. After a political gridlock on intervention, Luna was pulled into a tugboat propeller and killed.
Keiko, the star of the Hollywood film Free Willy, has a history well chronicled in film and book, most recently in Mark Simmon’s tell-all Killing Keiko. Keiko’s tragic tale began as after nearly two decades in human care, he became the ward of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and was in and out of an Icelandic seapen for 4 years. Once in the open sea, he sought out humans in Norway, failed to integrate socially or forage, and died after 8 weeks out of the pen after succumbing to pneumonia brought on by lack of food.
There are obvious differences between the situations of Keiko, Springer and Luna to that of Lolita, and the fact that 2 out of the 3 whales suffered painful deaths, but the Orca Conservancy still maintains they were a solid building block on which to base The Lolita Plan. The Orca Conservancy website reads that the plan will “Fly her here, put her in, walk her out. And keep walking her out until she connects. Let the whales do the work.”
There are no examples of this strategy being successful for a whale with a history comparable to Lolita’s. And the probability of a fatality is high, and even the Orca Conservancy themselves recognizes this.
Is this an instance of “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it?”
Or can rationality and science prevail before another whale loses its life for a human agenda?
You can read the full plan here.