Howard Garrett's Response to the Mayor
Dear Mayor Penelas,
Thank you for your response to inquiries concerning returning Lolita, the orca on display at the Miami Seaquarium, to her home waters. For the past decade we have looked at issues related to the feasibility of Lolita's return, including those you mention, and would like to take this opportunity to provide you with the results of some important empirical research. Recent scientific breakthroughs and events can help reassess Lolita's prospects of returning to where she spent her early years.
At no point in such a reintroduction program is there any significant risk to Lolita, to other orcas, or to humans. Our proposal ensures that:
Prior to Lolita's reintroduction a thorough medical examination is conducted
to make certain that Lolita carries no foreign pathogens that might be
transmitted to her conspecifics in Puget Sound. A model for this examination
is the team of six USDA-appointed veterinarians and pathologists that
examined Keiko in Oregon, prior to his transport to his native habitat
in the North Atlantic;
Basically, efforts to rescue Lolita from her confinement in concrete are in response to an obvious case of animal cruelty if seen from point of view of a formerly free-ranging orca, once accustomed to traveling up to 100 miles each day throughout Pacific Northwest waters with dozens of family members. The circumstances of her captivity since 1970 have required that she adapt to a space barely larger than herself, and yet economic and legal realities are that her continued presence in Miami is seen as essential for the Miami tourism industry. Recognizing the value of a profitable tourist destination, our organization years ago drafted and circulated a plan for a transition of the Seaquarium into a high-tech, experiential marine theme park, benefiting from the marketing and presentation of Lolita's homecoming (Tokitae Foundation letter to Antonio Villamil 1998, available on request).
Even Seaquarium management agrees that Lolita is kept in an obsolete, substandard tank, but honest opinions differ about the probability of successfully reintroducing Lolita to her native habitat. Many well-meaning people doubt that Lolita can be safely returned to Puget Sound, even if cared for in a protected baypen and eventually given the opportunity to swim free only if she so chooses. This skepticism seems to be rooted in beliefs about orcas that are as obsolete as her tank.
Recent developments in scientific literature may help shed light on Lolita's current situation and her capabilities for successfully readjusting to her natal habitat. Although some scientists may believe that animals that have been under human care for more than 10 years are poor candidates for release, this broad statement ignores the wide range of abilities demonstrated by various species and simply does not apply to orcas. Orcinus orca possesses capabilities not found in other animals, including other large mammal species, that when taken together indicate extreme social cohesion, highly developed memory retention and extraordinary adaptability. Lolita's ability to adapt to solitary life in such a small tank speaks volumes about her adaptive abilities. Re-adaptation back to her familiar surroundings would be a much easier adjustment.
Three important and informative papers appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals in 2001, two of which present new findings in our understanding of bottlenose dolphins (orcas are the largest of the delphinids, the dolphin family) and one that documents the ground-breaking conclusion that orcas live as member of cultural communities unlike any other animal known except humans (Pain 2001).
awareness of self is an essential ingredient in cultural identity (Blumer
1969). Although cetaceans have evolved separately from humans in marine
environments for over 50 million years, recent studies show that, for
bottlenose dolphins at least, knowledge of themselves as individuals has
developed in parallel with similar human capabilities. In Reiss and Marino
(2001) Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: a case of cognitive
convergence, the abstract states:
recent and revealing experimental research into the ability of dolphins
to understand symbolic meaning was published by Herman, et al. (2001),
in The Bottlenosed Dolphin's (Tursiops truncatus) Understanding of Gestures
as Symbolic Representations of its Body Parts. From the abstract:
The third paper describes a review of field research on several whale and dolphin species and finds convincing evidence of cultural learning, passed from individual to individual and across generations. The most compelling results were obtained from long-term demographic and behavioral studies on two resident-type orca communities, including the Southern Resident community, Lolita's extended family.
and Hal Whitehead, in Culture in whales and dolphins (2001) find that
orcas appear to have developed distinct cultural traditions that are maintained
over countless generations. The abstract states:
Taken together, these three recent scientific developments strongly indicate that orcas, including Lolita, are aware of their cultural origins, retain cultural knowledge indefinitely (demonstrated by Lolita's use of her family's unique vocalizations), and are able to communicate information about their cultural identity to other individuals that share their vocal traditions. We now know that we are mistaken to lump orcas with other animals when estimating their knowledge, memories and capabilities.
In light of these findings, a fresh look at some of the points often raised by the Seaquarium may be helpful in assessing the potential for Lolita's return to her home waters in a gradual, phased and monitored reintroduction program, the outcome of which may range from long-term care in a protected baypen to complete reunification with her extended family.
letter from Regina Suarez, Director of Constituent Services for the Miami-Dade
County Office of the Mayor, says:
Food-sharing among delphinids is well documented, and the various cultural communities of orcas worldwide have often specialized in diets that remove direct competition for resources from their behavioral repertoire (Ford, et al. 1998). Thus, the species lacks the "flight or fight" reaction to threats found in virtually all other animals. This fact adds detail to the emerging picture of the orca as a species that must be considered apart from our conventional assumptions about animal behavior. Lolita's ability to build trusting relationships with humans is a positive indicator that she is adaptable to resuming normal, trusting, social relationships within her community.
There is no evidence to support the assumption that Lolita has lost her ability to hunt for live fish. Only once has any marine park allowed a scientific investigation of the theory that a long-term captive would lose its ability to catch live fish. Two researchers (Newman and Markowitz 1993) released live coho salmon with two orcas in a tank at Marine World Africa USA. The two orcas, captive for 24 and 13 years, echolocated on the fish, then caught and ate them within minutes.
recently released movie star orca, also demonstrated his ability to catch
live fish when he was first given the opportunity to do so. According
to the Seattle Times (May 16, 1998):
Here again it is important to recall that orcas demonstrate capabilities not found in most, or possibly any, other animals. Keiko showed his foraging competence after 23 years in captivity when he traveled over 900 miles during sixty days on his own in the North Atlantic in the summer of 2002 and arrived well-fed. For at least four years prior to Lolita's capture she was chasing and catching her own fish, and may have been participating in complex, cooperative "pack hunting" techniques. A fair test of her ability to catch fish would be to introduce live salmon to her tank water.
According to a former trainer, since 1976 the Seaquarium has announced plans to build a new whale tank to government agencies and the public. Given the current reality that it is impossible to purchase an orca anywhere in the world (the massive new tank at Nagoya Park Aquarium in Japan opened last fall without any orcas, and Six Flags park in Ohio is unable to find a companion for a solitary orca), and given current economic conditions and forecasts, it is unlikely that such a large investment would provide sufficient revenues to cover expenses in the foreseeable future. This time-worn promise to "build a new tank for Lolita" is not in itself an economic investment, but only a promise that tacitly admits her tank is woefully undersized.
It is naïve to say that "in order to survive, Lolita would need to become part of a pod and achieve acceptance among other whales - an event that almost certainly would not occur." Resident killer whales are members of the only mammalian population in which no dispersal of either sex has been recorded (Baird 2000). Family bonds, once established, presumably at birth, endure for life. Lolita was forcibly removed from her family in 1970, but many members of her family who were alive then are still alive, and all the members of her family today can recognize the vocalizations Lolita continues to produce (Deecke, et al. 2000, Thomsen, et al. 2001). Lolita remains a member of her pod. A fair test of this ability would be to set up telephone communication between Lolita in her tank and her family in Puget Sound.
Several females in Lolita's extended family have given birth past the age of forty. Lolita still has time to bear young. Her return to her family is therefore under consideration by the National Marine Fisheries Service for conservation purposes. Reproductive success is not essential for Lolita to find a role in her community, however. Orcas join humans among the very few mammal species known in which females survive for decades after the birth of their last offspring. Two living females in the Southern Resident community are estimated to be over 90 years old.
Lolita endures tragic abuse on a daily basis. Domination, confinement
and social isolation had taken the life of every other orca captured from
her family, 44 in all, by 1987 (Hoyt 1990). Hugo, the adolescent male
also captured from the Southern Residents, repeatedly bashed his head
against the walls and windows of the same Seaquarium tank where Lolita
is held today until he died in 1980 of a brain aneurism (NMFS 1993). For
several weeks in 1970 Hugo and Lolita, while kept in separate tanks 100
yards apart, called out constantly and loudly through the air to one another.