The recent documentary film Blackfish brought the issue of killer whale captivity into the pubic consciousness like nothing has before. Hearing from whale trainers, former and current, and seeing the visual impact of captivity moved people to reevaluate how society treats orcas by keeping them in confinement for public performances.

Theatrical release poster
Theatrical release poster

The film illustrates the obvious conflict in keeping a highly intelligent and social creature that has evolved to cover long distances and deep water in a comparatively miniscule and solitary environment. The orcas in the film suffer from problems ranging from immediately visual and obvious such as dorsal fin collapse caused by limited movement, to less obvious behavioral and emotional distress from being kept isolated. Orcas are highly social animals that travel in pods ranging from 5 to 30 whales. No one knows precisely what harm is inflicted on whales enduring a life in a tank absent that social stimulation, but it is not a natural environment.

Tilikum, the orca that is the subject of the movie Blackfish, suffers from dorsal fin collapse and his behavior could be reasonably interpreted to suggest a level of emotional distress. He killed a trainer in 2010 and had reportedly been involved in the deaths of 2 others.  This could be a result of an isolated existence, it could be the relatively small surroundings in which he spends his life, or it could even be—as the filmmakers suggest — as sophisticated as resentment toward handlers who deliver or withhold food depending on his performance. The film asserts that there have been more attacks on trainers at SeaWorld than has been reported, behavior that could be attributed to life in a highly unnatural setting.

It’s not just SeaWorld.  Another Florida facility–the Miami Seaquarium–has had an orca at its site for more than four decades. “Lolita” as she’s been named, was captured in the Puget Sound before the Marine Mammal Protection Act outlawed the taking of whales. She was captured along with six other orcas in 1970 and shipped to Miami.

"Lolita" performing at the Miami Seaquarium
“Lolita” performing at the Miami Seaquarium

In the 44 years of her captivity, she’s been housed in a tank measuring just 80 feet by 35 feet and 20 feet deep. Lolita is 20 feet long and weighs approximately 7,000 lbs. Clearly, this is a very confined space offering limited mobility for an animal her size.

Animal welfare groups and activists have tried for years to force the USDA to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and require the Miami Seaquarium to provide a larger tank to no avail.

Now, there may be another remedy for Lolita. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has begun accepting comments on a proposal to protect her under the Endangered Species Act. The pod from which she was taken, in addition to the larger community (Southern Resident Killer Whale or SRKW) were granted Endangered Species Act protections in 2005. But at that time, NMFS explicitly excluded Lolita, or any other captive SRKW whales and their offspring, from that listing. Facing mounting pressure and changing views about captivity, they are revisiting that exclusion.

These are uncharted waters. If NMFS does grant ESA protections–what next? While the Endangered Species Coalition does support this listing, it isn’t immediately clear what the ideal next home for Lolita would be. Because she has been held in confinement for nearly her entire life (she was approximately 6 when she was captured 44 years ago), it isn’t at all definitive that she would be able to survive in the wild. She could be moved to what some are calling a “retirement seapen”. This would be an enclosure in ocean waters that is protected from predators or other unwanted interactions. She would be near her family and could potentially reunite with them. It’s been reported that her mother may still be alive.

The television show Dateline NBC brought a recording of her pod to her in her current facility and she appeared to at least acknowledge if not recognize the sounds. Could she remember her pod after 44 years well enough to reunite with them? It’s not known–in large part because whales aren’t generally separated from their pods for decades in the wild and there has been no reason to conduct similar research.

If granted protections under the Endangered Species Act she would likely not remain in her current facility. The Act does allow for possession of listed species under some circumstances but captivity for the purpose of performances is not one of them. It’s unlikely her owners would bear the cost of caring for her without having the ability to sell tickets to see her perform tricks–something that Act certainly does not allow.

The NMFS, however, has indicated that this listing would not guarantee her removal from the Miami Seaquarium. It has said that requiring a “Section 10 permit” (an authorization agreement that oversees what might otherwise be a violation of the Act) is not in its view necessary and that the continued confinement alone would not be a violation of the Act. Whether the negative effects of that confinement or the likely continued public performances would in their eyes be a violation isn’t clear.  In supporting the listing, the Endangered Species Coalition is also asking that a Section 10 permit be required if she is to remain in the Miami Seaquarium.

Southern Resident Killer Whales image credit NOAA
Southern Resident Killer Whales image credit NOAA

None of this would be an issue if she hadn’t been taken from her pod–an activity which would today be illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is worth considering whether captive-bred whales that are held in similarly small confinements should be somehow protected as well. We know, or can surmise from Tilikum’s outward appearances and manifestations, that captivity as we know it has a negative effect on these individual animals. Is it worth exacting that price in order for there to be what the aquarium industry refers to as “ambassador animals”? The industry argues that they support conservation and that they introduce people to species and “raise awareness”. That is often the case. But it is of little consequence to animals like Tilikum or Lolita that endure, if not suffer, in unnatural environments in order for this awareness-raising to occur. And in the case of Tilikum, that suffering extended to his human trainer.

You can take action in support of this listing by signing our petition to NMFS asking that they protect Lolita under the Endangered Species Act and taking actions that support orcas..


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10 comments on “Closing the Book on Orca Captivity?

  1. Please. Please release this amazing animal. The image of her potentially reuniting with her family and living as she should….wow what a blessing.

  2. Lolita should be taken out of that small pool, and allowed the chance to be freed. Ownership of a (animal) slave is a non logical concept. Kahil Gabrin says you don’t even own your children; You only are entrusted to care for them. You don’t own life. Her life was robbed. Give her back what she has left.

  3. My friends were met to ride the tides.. to race with speed, and leap with the joy of freedom. My friends in captivity have learn to do this for there food.. My friends have killed humans in there demands to be free. My Friends were take from there homes, there families and forced to do silly things like toss Humans.. When they should be leaping in the waves, and singing for all to hear. My Friends only do this now .. Screaming for there freedom.

  4. I am a 50 year old man, with a degree in Biology and although I have enjoyed the outdoors my whole life and nature , to be honest my appreciation includes hunting and fishing not unlike the love that Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed and is part of my life from birth. But I have never experienced such an injustice as this captivity of these Magnificat Orca’s. The cover up of the trainer’ death’s. only raise this matter to absolute and immediate necessity. The commitment of the Trainers and their love for these creatures to be betrayed by deception in the interest of stock holders or dollars just makes me sick to my stomach and mocks the supreme sacrifice of these beautiful people and their families . RELEASE THEM NOW. I have been on whale watches, that’s plenty.

  5. STOP with the whales. STOP separating calves from mothers. Whales should be left alone, they are not like slaves waiting for explotation. No one I know will ever visit a Sea World or anyplace else where they hold large fish in small aquariums.

  6. the documentary Blackfish simply expresses how wrong it is fot hese beautiful creatures to be kept in captivity their whole lives. Although whales have not been forecfully removed from the wild in quite some time, it is unfair for them to be kept in a small pool to live their lives. Baby whales who are born into captivity are forced to only know a life of show business and will never know what it is like to be able to swim hundreds and hundreds of miles a day. I would love to say we should empty the tanks and set these animals free but becuse they have been forced to live in captivity for so long i do not know if they would be capable of surviving in the wild.

  7. With all the information that I’ve read regarding the release of the captive whale, I believe a sea sanctuary would be the only viable solution. Since captive whales existence, either captive bred or wild caught (depending how long they have been in captivity), would present an extreme difficulty situation in desensitizing animals from their human caretakers. Such as Keiko’s release in 2002, which was still a far better fate than all his years in captivity. However regarding recently wild caught whales, reintroduction to their native habitat such as Springer in 2002, would be considered a triumph to activists since she is still traveling with her pod in the open oceans. The history of each of the whales should be taken into consideration versus a blanket statement as to “release the whales back into the oceans”. Proper determination as to whether to release the orca to the wild would depend on the amount of time spent with human intervention versus the alternative of a sea sanctuary.

    If all the sea aquariums, as well as zoos, wish to maintain a future taking care of all these animals properly, effective consideration from proper experts in the field regarding their socializations and natural expansive habitats are vital for all these species to thrive. I also believe, for educational and scientific purposes, that all sanctuaries such as elephant, sea sanctuaries, etc. should be accessible to the public. Separating orca calves from their mothers, transporting these animals park to park, circus type behaviors and keeping them in small concrete tanks are all unacceptable. These institutions of aquariums and zoos, especially the money derived from these exploitations, should work in coalition with the animal activists as to creating the best sanctuary, care and habitat for these magnificent animals. This concentrated effort in creating this special environment would be a model in the 21rst century for the other countries of the world to follow.

    Projecting forward, regarding pollution and other contaminants affecting chinook salmon populations which many of Pacific orcas thrive on, as well as, the number of sea park aquariums opening in China is of utmost concern. The continuous opening of these sea park aquariums in China as well as the tortuous acquiring of the orcas and other marine animals will have devastating effects on already dwindling populations. Proper international legislation is long overdue in preventing these gruesome crimes against nature ever occurring again.

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