South Florida

To Free or Not To Free? A Veterinarian's Change of Heart On Lolita's Future

by Dr. Ian Kupkee

February 13th was World Whale Day.  What better time to give some serious thought to Miami’s resident captive orca, Lolita.


When I was growing up, my father was in the military.  We moved a lot, and it always seemed to me that we ended up in the coldest imaginable places - Russia, Austria, Germany, Canada.  By the time I finished vet school in Chicago, I was done with snow and ice.  I decided to suss out Miami, and as soon as my feet hit the ground, I knew I was home. 


Determined to get the most out of tropical living, I settled in Key Largo.  It was overpriced, and the commute to Miami was awful.  But the sunsets over the water, and the smell of the ocean more than made up for the hassle. Occasionally, I would take my ocean kayak out just far enough to encounter wild dolphins. It wasn’t long before I was volunteering with marine mammal rescues.  While I lived in the Keys, I had the privilege of working with dolphins, manatees, even a stranded pilot whale.  It was an honor to help heal these amazing creatures, and a joy to release them back into the wild when it was clear our work was done.


On the off-chance you haven’t figured out where I’m going with this, let me just come right out and say it: I am not down with keeping marine mammals in captivity.  Some of them truly cannot survive in the wild, and while it’s regrettable we humans destined them to this fate, it is difficult to undo what has already been done.  Education, awareness, challenging our own preconceived notions - these were the tools needed to change the paradigms of the next generation of theme park ticket-buyers.  I believed we could only focus on the future.  For the poor souls swimming in tiny tanks, performing tricks for food, it was simply too late. Perhaps we could learn from them, but sad though it may be, those particular souls were lost.


Now before you scroll down to the comment section and start frantically sending me hate mail, please note my deliberate use of the past tense.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Think happy thoughts.  Are you still with me? Good. Let’s move on.


One night I was sitting at a bar with another marine mammal rescue volunteer.  I shared the above thoughts on marine mammals currently in captivity, and he asked me if I had similar feelings about Lolita.  Truth be told, I had never even seen Lolita.  I never saw the point. I had seen pods of wild orcas swimming in their natural habitat near the San Juan islands. 


“Uh-huh.” My friend drained his drink and set down his glass. “That’s exactly why you need to go see Lolita.”


Don’t ask me why. To this day, I can’t put my finger on it.  But something compelled me to take his advice. Besides, it didn’t seem right to form an opinion on something I had never seen for myself. So on my next day off, I lined up with the tourists and the stroller crowd, and bought a ticket to Lolita’s long-time home, the Miami Seaquarium.


Animal welfare groups have been at odds with the Seaquarium for years over the size of Lolita’s tank.  The general consensus (read, heated protests, rallying cries and threats of litigation) is that it is too small for an animal that size. Sea World has been criticized for the sizes of its tanks as well, yet Lolita’s environment is roughly half the size of any of Sea World’s tanks.


Arguments have been made that when allowances are made for the work island in the middle of the enclosure, it’s really not so bad. She can just swim around the island.  Never mind that the requirements state that an orca must be able to swim straight across the tank to comply with size regulations. Never mind that she must swim around the island, and she can only do that when the gates attached to said island are open. 


It has been suggested that the question of size compliance all depends on how authorities interpret the data.  It’s clever math for certain.  And apparently it’s good enough for the powers that be who routinely rubber-stamp the smallest orca tank in the country.


But upon seeing it for the first time, my reaction was a barely-suppressed, horrified gasp.  The questionable size of Lolita’s tank is not exactly breaking news.  But somehow, I was not prepared for what I saw.


“Too small” was not the first description that came to mind. Shocking. Disgraceful. Obscene. I could hardly believe my eyes.  And that was just the first thing I noticed.  The isolation from others of her species, the virtual absence of shelter from the blistering sun, the lack of any cognitive enrichment, the sound deprivation broken only by the music that blared throughout her shows... then there were the behaviors that were not a part of the show.


When you watch animal body language on a daily basis, you get a sense of what is natural and what is not.  While not glaringly obvious to the untrained eye, Lolita exhibits repetitive, pointless behaviors such as head bobbing and floating on her side. Like some pet parrots who pull out their own feathers, these captivity associated behaviors are dysfunctions that are never seen in their wild counterparts. As I left the park, I wondered how it was possible for the vibrant, cosmopolitan city I had grown to love to be the epicenter of such a travesty.  While seeing Lolita rattled me to my core, I resigned myself to reality - nothing could be done to save her. She was lost.


Then along came Keiko.


In 1993, the movie “Free Willy”, tugged at the heartstrings of movie-goers around the world.  The film depicts a unique friendship between a 12-year-old boy, and a captive orca being housed in a run-down theme park.  The strength and power of this particular human-animal bond inspires both protagonists to dig deep, and achieve what was thought to be impossible - the orca’s freedom.  In the film’s climactic scene, Willy the Whale leaps from his enclosure, swims to freedom, and lives happily ever after. 


The film was a sleeper hit that prompted its fan base to find out more out the whale who portrayed Willie.  We soon learned that his name was Keiko, that he had been captured as a calf somewhere near Iceland. Despite his stardom, Keiko lived in a run down amusement park in Mexico City where he was housed in a shockingly small tank. (Interesting side note: Keiko’s tank was technically larger than Lolita’s. But I digress).  Additionally, he was found to be severely underweight, and suffering from a compromised immune system.  His weakened state made him vulnerable to skin lesions, digestive problems, ulcers, and muscle atrophy. 


Even before the filming of “Free Willy”, the theme park owners had been attempting to sell Keiko to facilities that would better suit his needs.  But as the general public became more aware of his unacceptable living conditions, a new rallying cry was heard.  The cries grew louder, morphing into a vision where life imitated art, where once again, everyone lived happily ever after.  The plan was to return Keiko to the his Icelandic waters, to set him free.


It was crazy. Yet the skeptics came around.  It was a mission.  Yet the volunteers and experts appeared seemingly from nowhere.  It was unaffordable.  Yet the money materialized.  It had never been done before.  Yet it was happening.  The media hit the feel-good-animal-story jackpot, and milked it for all it was worth. My colleagues in marine mammal rescue were delirious with joy, a joy I so desperately wanted to share.  Yet at the risk of sounding like a nerdy Han Solo, I had a bad feeling about this.


I wasn’t the only one expressing doubts.  In many cases, expressing doubt was an understatement.  The debate was heated, and while it was clear that some of the critics were, shall we say, financially incentivized to maintain the status quo, many legitimate questions were raised.  Could he handle the stress of travel?  Could he learn to hunt? Would he ever regain the physical stamina needed to swim with a pod of wild orcas? Would his introduction pose a biosecurity risk for the wild orcas in his native waters? Would his immune system ever be strong enough to keep him healthy in the wild? Would he ever be free of dependence on humans?  Could he learn to use and recognize the unique vocalizations that would enable him to find his family?  Orcas are astoundingly complex, intelligent beings. Could we be so presumptuous as to assume we could “teach” Keiko how to be something about which we knew so relatively little?


No one knew the answers, but the experts all agreed on one key point: if the whale was not removed from the Mexico City facility, he would die in a matter of months. And so began the story of a rescue operation the likes of which the world had never seen before, and has not seen since.


In January of 1997, Keiko was moved to a facility in Oregon to begin his rehabilitation.  His new tank was filled with over two million gallons of natural seawater, something he had not experienced for over 14 years.  The water was filtered to address biosecurity concerns. With the first hurdles crossed, the next steps were to watch, pray, and observe Keiko’s response to his new digs.


By the summer of 1997, Keiko made remarkable progress. He had gained a healthy 1,900 pounds, his skin lesions had healed, and he was beginning to eat live fish in addition to his regular diet.  While his health had greatly improved, his interest in human interaction was a source of concern.  Just the same, by the spring of 1998, plans began moving forward to build a sea pen in Keiko’s home waters in the North Atlantic.  By September of the same year, he was once again flown to a facility that would be his home for the next phase of his rehabilitation. This time, it was off the coast of Iceland, and once again, he seemed to take an instant liking to his new place.  He vocalized more than ever before, his health blossomed, and he weathered the region’s legendary storms like a champ.


By spring of 1999, he had begun focusing less on his human caretakers, and more on the world beyond his pen.  While this was certainly an encouraging sign, some of the trainers who worked with Keiko began to doubt his ability to integrate successfully with other orcas.  For the next two years, he was allowed to swim freely in the ocean, chaperoned by trainers who monitored him from boats and a helicopter.  While he successfully interacted with his own species on several occasions, he did not appear to be ready to join an existing pod. A series of national headlines implied the project was not going well, despite having cost donors roughly $23M. To add insult to injury, the bursting of the dot com bubble decimated the portfolios of some of the projects most vital benefactors. 


Additionally, plans were announced to build a salmon fishery in the area, a project that would have likely polluted Keiko’s water, and potentially damaged his hearing. Since Keiko had been spending more and more time away from his pen, it was hoped he would soon find and rejoin his family, which would allow the the project to wind down.  Yet in September of 2002, Keiko unexpectedly appeared in a small, Norwegian fishing town.  While a veterinary exam showed he had lost no weight and was clearly foraging on his own, the fact that he chose to interact with the public was seen as a problem.  Shortly after, he was led to an area with more whales, abundant fish, and less human contact.  His caretakers were housed nearby so they could intervene if necessary and continue to track his progress. 


In 2003, despite being physically fit and well-fed, Keiko began to show signs of lethargy.  He was diagnosed with pneumonia and started on an aggressive course of antibiotics.  Two days later, the world woke up to the sad news that Keiko had died.  For the sake of brevity in an article that is already too long, I have brutally truncated Keiko’s story.  For a fair, more detailed, and very interesting read, click here.


By now, you’re probably wondering “What does this have to do with Lolita?” Honestly? Nothing.


And everything.


Within hours of hearing of Keiko’s death, the media outlets exploded. The same sources that painted plans for Keiko’s release as a fairy tale come to life, showed no mercy in shredding the project. Forget the fact that he died after living in the freedom of his native waters. Forget the fact that he was only expected to live for a few more months in his glorified cesspool of a tank.  And while we’re at it, let’s conveniently forget that roughly 20 orcas died in captivity while Keiko was living in the wild.


The headlines shouted accusations of animal cruelty, squandering of funds, an exercise in tree-hugging doomed to failure from the start, proof positive that captive orcas could never be successfully reintroduced to the wild.  The subtext was loud and clear - don’t even think about freeing any other captive orcas. It pains me to admit this, but the press really got to me. It was my fault.  I let it happen, but it happened just the same. Keiko’s death cut me to the core, leaving a wound that to this day has not fully healed.  It reinforced that gloomy voice that nagged me years ago, the nagging voice that said Lolita was doomed.  She would never leave that park. Not after this. Knowing she would die in that tank only deepened the wound. 


The thing about wounds is that they leave scars. It’s all a part of the healing process, but those scarred places tend to get desensitized. And scars can make those places downright ugly.  I suppose that’s why every time I heard of a “Free Lolita” campaign, I would simply shut down.  I was done with lost causes and heartache. After Keiko, I’d had enough.


Which is probably why I was not particularly enthusiastic when my wife asked me if I’d heard about the “Free Lolita” rallies at the Seaquarium last year. I shot her down.  Those nice people were wasting their time.


“Have you read the plan to free her?” she asked. “It’s a solid plan. More like a retirement plan..”


I began to rant.  She reminded me that I hadn’t answered her question. 


When scar tissue begins to break down, it hurts.  I suppose it was from that well of hurt that my reaction sprung. Which is a poetic way of saying that I blew a fuse.  Lolita had lived in a concrete box for over 40 damn years. She was institutionalized. It would never happen. Orca pods don’t just take in strays. She would never be accepted by any group other than her family, a family that she, like Keiko, would never be able to find. She would be adrift…abandoned...




Head’s up, guys. When your wife “last names” you, it’s never good. Just stop talking.


“This isn’t ‘Finding Nemo’.  She doesn’t have to ‘find her family’ We’ve seen her family. She’s a Puget Sound whale. She’s L-pod.”


She had me at L-pod. 


Somehow, in all of my wallowing, I had missed this very vital memo. Stunned into silence, I read through the plan. I read it again. And I changed my mind.


In the next installment we’ll talk about the plan,and why I think it will work. We’ll talk about how she’s different from Keiko - and I promise I’ll explain “L-pod”! I won’t apologize for changing my mind, but I will explain how I came to the conclusion that it’s time for us to set Lolita free.


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.

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