Her Name Is Not Lolita

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WTVJ/NBC 6 News.

by Dr. Ian Kupkee

In February, I began a series on the plight of Lolita, the solitary orca who has lived at Miami Seaquarium since her capture from the wild in 1970.  I confessed that I, like many others, had been fooled into believing that the release of “Free Willy’s” Keiko had been a failure.  I admitted I had been wrong, that my paradigm had shifted, and that said shift was challenging my long-held beliefs about Lolita. I explained the viable and rigorously studied plan to retire her after 45 years of splashing tourists.

I wrote about her home waters off the coast of Washington, the waters where her family - including her mother - still swims. I wrote of a state whose human residents have spent decades lobbying for the rightful return of a stolen orca calf named Tokitae.  For the sake of clarity here in Miami, I will continue to use the name we Miamians are accustomed to hearing. 


But for the record, her name is not Lolita.  And Miami is not her home.  Which is precisely why I think the plan to retire her will work.


The Human-Orca Connection

The brains of humans and other great apes contain unique and fascinating brain cells. Known as spindle cell neurons, these specialized brain cells are responsible for how we process emotions, interact socially, express empathy, feel love, use speech, communicate with others, show compassion, and suffer emotional pain.  These are the cells that fire on all cylinders when we experience feelings of cultural identity, intuition, deja vu, “gut” reactions, and familial attachment.  Once dubbed “the cell that makes us human” a shocking discovery was made in 2006. 


Orcas have them too.


Additionally, they’ve had them for twice as long as humans, and have three times as many of them as we do - and that’s factoring in the vast differences in size between our brains and theirs.  In point of fact, these cells are so plentiful in orcas, that they branch out to form an extra paralimbic brain lobe.  While we are only just beginning to understand its significance, it is believed this extra brain lobe - something we humans do not possess - is what accounts for the vocalizations, social hierarchies, and strong familial bonds that are specific to each orca pod. It is what makes them so vastly different from most other animals, and the cause of my angst when I hear people claim we should “free” dogs and cats too,  because like orcas, they are “in captivity” as well.  I love my dogs, but they drink out of the toilet.  They are not even remotely the same.


Does this mean whales are as smart as humans? No. And…. yes. Orcas are not capable building rockets.  But they are absolutely capable of building communities. And quite frankly, they are better at it than we are. I believe Lolita’s family will not only remember her, but will play a vital role in the plan to return her to to her native waters.  They are the very core of my belief in the soundness of her retirement plan.


Lolita was approximately four years old when she was captured.  By that age, orcas are well versed in the dialects of their natal pods, a language they begin learning in utero, one which they never forget.  Orca experts who have observed her at the Seaquarium have heard her using some of the vocalizations exclusive to the L-pod community.  While it may take her some time to readjust, she literally speaks the language.  And I suspect she will have plenty of help.  As of this writing, Lolita’s mother, now in her 80’s, is still alive.  I am not a parent, but I can only imagine how I would react if my child were returned to me after 45 years of separation.


Keiko never found his family.  For that matter, neither did we.  When orca captures were banned in U.S. waters, the industry simply picked up its nets, and moved the practice to Iceland.  It is possible his entire pod was captured, hunted, or simply died off.  We will never know.  What we do know is that he lived for five years as a sentient being in his natural environment, enjoying the freedom of making his own decisions. He lived longer than most male orcas in captivity. The fact that he did it on his own simply makes his story all the more remarkable. 


Yes, Lolita is older. But age is neither a disease nor a disability, and scientists have long suspected that older orcas have more advanced coping skills than their younger counterparts. Many of the Southern Resident Killer Whales live much longer than captive orcas.  The L-pod female Ocean Sun, who is probably Lolita’s mother, is approximately eighty eight.  And one of the matriarchs of J-pod, Granny,  is between 102 and 104 years old!


Both are healthy and continue to thrive, swimming 75-100 miles per day.  Post-reproductive females play a vital role in orca societies. They serve as foster parents for orphaned calves, and step into the role of surrogate mother for adult males who might otherwise die following their own mother’s deaths. In the past few years, L-pod has lost two senior females to old age.  They left behind an alarming void that could further endanger the survival of the pod. 


Furthermore, the majority of the most recently born calves are male.  That’s a lot of future orphans who will need a “madrina” when their biological mothers pass away. 


Lolita is needed far more in Puget Sound than she is here in Miami.  Deep in the folds of that extra paralimbic lobe lie centuries worth of long-term social memories and societal expectations. I believe she will find her place in her natural world. She has a mother who will help her, who has never forgotten her. She has a family awaiting her return.  And it doesn’t hurt that said family is arguably the most studied group of orcas in the world. 


Lolita has been part of Miami’s iconography since long before most of my employees were even born.  We think of her as part of our history and traditions, but she came to us with a history and a culture of her own, one that we humans are just beginning to understand.  We claim to hold onto her for the sake of education, but all of the knowledge we have about orcas was gained by studying them in the wild.  The late Jacques Cousteau stated that observing them in captivity was like attempting to learn about mankind by studying prisoners in solitary confinement. 


Lolita’s existence at the Miami Seaquarium is, at best, out of context.  It provides neither scientific data, nor educational value.  While the recently revamped orca show boasts a greater emphasis on education and conservation, the information presented is painfully inaccurate. Imagine a science museum teaching your children that the earth is flat, and you’ll have a pretty solid picture of the educational value of this spectacle


Perhaps Lolita prefers certain tricks, or likes some toys more than others, but these quirks in no way make her an ambassador for her species.  They make her a glorified circus act, a mere source of entertainment and amusement.  It is time to do some soul searching on this type of entertainment.  We’ve done it before - humanity used to view public hangings, circus freak shows, and gladiatorial fights to the death as fun for the whole family.  But we searched our hearts, and realized we were wrong.  It took us awhile, but eventually, we did the right thing.  And it seems as though lately, a new cycle of awakening is beginning to take root.


In a move that stunned the animal care community, SeaWorld made the astonishing announcement I was certain I would never live to hear: effective immediately, the breeding of orcas at all their facilities would stop.


The generation of killer whales currently in their care will be the last.  It is only a matter of time before the scrutiny that once focused solely on Orlando will begin turning further south. Yet recently, a one of our federal judges refused to even hear a case that might have paved the way to her freedom.


We are not looking good, Miami.  We’ve got some serious catching up to do.  And that’s not all.


In response to changing public sentiment, Ringling Brothers is phasing performing elephants out of their circus, allowing them to retire in a sanctuaryAnd the long-awaited sequel to “Finding Nemo” sends an anti-captivity message that’s about as subtle as orange paint. 


While such moves are hailed by most as a major step towards progress, there are many still who bemoan the impending loss of things that bring their children such wonder and  joy.  Without animals like orcas in captivity, they claim, children will learn nothing of the natural world, or of some of the more extraordinary beings with whom we share it.  A mom in Canada begs to differ.  If you don’t want to listen to parenting advice from me, check out the lessons she taught her son by shunning marine mammal parks.   One of them struck me especially hard:


We do not take what is not ours.


Lolita was taken from her home and her family so that ours might enjoy an occasional, fleeting smile.  The education argument does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.  And even if it did, what exactly would our children be learning?  The next generation of human beings will be running the show when you and I are too old and weak to have a voice.  For the sake of our own survival, these little humans must learn humanity.  And we must be their teachers.


We do not take what is not ours.


Her name is not Lolita. She is not ours; she belongs to her family.  Our generation took her away. We are morally obligated to give her back.  We owe it to the generation coming up behind us to search our hearts once more.


A colleague of mine is fond of saying, “We used to walk to New York, but now we fly.”


We have walked long enough.


It is time for Lolita - Tokitae - to go home.


And it’s time for us to fly.


Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Send him an email by clicking here.

Click here for special deals and discounts exclusively for NBC 6 viewers.

Contact Us