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For 51 years this killer whale has lived in a tiny tank. Now her health is at risk

An Orca, Lolita at Miami Seaquarium.
An Orca, Lolita at Miami Seaquarium.

A federal inspection report has found serious violations in how marine mammals have been cared for at one of Miami's oldest attractions. The Seaquarium is where the Flipper TV series was filmed in the 1960s. For 51 years, its star attraction has been Lolita, one of the oldest killer whales in captivity. The federal report raises concerns about Lolita's health and has renewed calls for her to be relocated.

For a decade, animal rights groups have held demonstrations and filed lawsuits seeking to improve her conditions at the Seaquarium. Members of the Lummi Nation have sought her release to her native waters in the Pacific Northwest.

Lolita's not doing shows right now. Miami Seaquarium says its whale stadium is temporarily closed for repairs. At 56 years old, Lolita is considered elderly for an orca. In a show recorded earlier this year, the orca breached and used her flukes (tail fins) to splash the audience. A trainer told visitors, "Here at Miami Seaquarium, we're proud to have all of you join us here to know that Lolita is happy and healthy." The killer whale has been doing some version of this show twice a day since shortly after she was captured in Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. She's a Southern resident killer whale, a group of orcas that's listed as an endangered species, with just over 70 left.

At the Seaquarium, the orca show narrator says, "This makes Lolita a very special whale because she too was listed as a very special animal and serves as an ambassador for all whales, including the southern resident killer whale population."

Activist Michelle Morrow tries to convince visitors to turn around at the entrance to the Seaquarium
Greg Allen / NPR
Activist Michelle Morrow tries to convince visitors to turn around at the entrance to the Seaquarium

For many years protestors have complained about Lolita's care

But every Sunday, outside the entrance to the Seaquarium, protesters offer a different message. Thomas Copeland says he's been coming here on weekends for four years, to talk to visitors in the parking lot and at the entrance. Through a bullhorn, he says, "This place is horrific for animals. It is torture. ... Fifty-one years of captivity for that orca and you won't even get to see her, to see her condition."

For decades, the complaints about Lolita's care focused on a single major concern—the size of her tank. It's 80 feet long, 20 feet deep and just 35 feet wide.

"Thirty-five feet," Naomi Rose exclaims. "She's 20 feet long. And she's lived there for 50 years. It's ridiculous." Rose is a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. For years, she says efforts to improve conditions for Lolita at Miami Seaquarium gained little traction, in large part because the company that owns Lolita, her trainers and veterinarians were providing the proper care.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last month showed that may no longer be the case. The 17-page document detailed dozens of problems: "critical" issues with the pools and enclosures for dolphins, seals and the killer whale; poor water quality and inadequate shade for the animals. The inspectors said dolphins had been injured and some had died because incompatible animals were often housed together.

Lolita and other animals were fed rotting fish

For Rose, perhaps the most surprising finding in the report is that the Seaquarium deliberately fed Lolita and other animals fish that was going bad. "They fed the animals rotting fish against the advice of their veterinarian," she says. "Their veterinarian quite logically said, 'This fish smells bad, don't feed it to the animals.' And they did anyway." According to the USDA report, Lolita's bloodwork showed inflammation after eight days of eating the bad fish.

The report says Lolita's trainers continued to override objections by the Seaquarium vet. They cut the amount of fish the orca received each day by 30 pounds. And, despite an injury, they continued to have her perform head-in jumps. Rose says, "She injured her jaw because they were making her do things that she was just too old to do. And the vet told them not to make her do them anymore. And they ignored the vet."

The Seaquarium wouldn't make anyone available for an interview to NPR. In a statement, it said it's "dedicated to delivering the best care to all of our animals" and is working with USDA on issues identified in the report. The current owner, Palace Entertainment, recently sold the attraction. The new owner, the Dolphin Company, which operates 30 marine mammal attractions around the world, has promised to make improvements to the facilities and to allow the county to make unannounced inspections.

Protesters display messages outside the entrance to discourage visitors to the Seaquarium
Greg Allen / NPR
Protesters display messages outside the entrance to discourage visitors to the Seaquarium

Advocates hope the federal government will support Lolita's relocation

The head of Miami-Dade's County-owned Zoo, Will Elgar, evaluated the new owner's plans, including one specifically for Lolita's care. At a recent meeting, he encouraged Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners to sign off on the deal. He said, "It's a great opportunity to have a company that is actually animal focused and conservation-centric coming in to take charge if the transition moves forward of the Seaquarium."

Outside the Seaquarium last Sunday, protester Thomas Copeland was skeptical that the new owner will be able to make significant improvements to the conditions Lolita has lived in now for more than 50 years. He says, "You cannot put an orca in captivity where it is an environment that's big enough that matches what it sees in the wild. They swim hundreds of miles in a day. But they can't do that here in a tank that's only 20 feet deep at its deepest point."

Advocates hope that given the findings in the USDA inspection report, the federal government will eventually support Lolita's relocation. There are plans underway on the West coast and in Canada to build sea pens that someday may provide a protected sanctuary for captive killer whales.

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