Relocating tamed animals from zoos and aquatic parks is in vogue. The Miami Seaquarium recently announced Lolita — a 7,000-pound orca whale — will be returned to her native waters in the Pacific Northwest. Although the news tugged at the heartstrings of animal lovers everywhere, it seems those behind the deal are overlooking major obstacles.
History can be a valuable teacher. And in this case, it suggests the aquatic park and its owners, The Dolphin Company, should rethink its plans. Lolita’s welfare hangs in the balance.
As someone who worked with and around orcas for decades, including overseeing the release of world-famous Keiko — of “Free Willy” notoriety — I can tell you release situations rarely have a Hollywood ending. The outcome of Keiko’s relocation from human care to the Atlantic Ocean in 2002 was tragic. It’s the most famous case of animal abuse the world doesn’t understand.
Keiko passed away in the wild, yes, but not happy or carefree. Neither was he on his own. His entire time in the North Atlantic required human support. When money, willpower and support ran out, the orca died a slow death — seeking human companionship until his final moments. After all, he was under the care of humans for two decades — relying on us for food, socialization and protection.
As a postpartum report from the Society for Marine Mammalogy confirms, “Keiko’s release to the wild was not successful.” And as the author went on to explain, “while we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so.”
At the time, the fatal result of Keiko’s release was predicted by experts. Now, fast forward to today, and a similar, horrifying future is being foretold about Lolita. The question is, will history repeat itself?
Lolita has been in human care for more than 50 years — which means her skills depart greatly from that of a wild whale. The orca has effectively never had to hunt, navigate open waters, or avoid predators like her wild counterparts.
Yet the most impactful difference may also be the least obvious. It is not the human-made environment that singularly affects a whale’s behavior, but the continuous influence of systematic, intentional operant learning — the deliberate cultivation of positive relationships with humans. In most ways, she is no more wild than a pet dog or cat.
Supporters of the relocation plan will argue that’s why a sea pen, or netted-in area of ocean, has been chosen over a full blown release into the wild. But, both options — each posing separate sets of challenges — are equally as perilous for Lolita.
Sea pens, for example, aren’t filtered. That means Lolita could face oil from boats, chemical run-off, sewage and other pollution that she has little chance of escaping. Unfamiliar pathogens are also a concern. While wild animals have been exposed to these germs and organisms since birth, Lolita’s immune system would have limited ability to mount a defense.
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To complicate matters even further, Lolita is old, very old. In recent years, she has battled chronic and recurrent health issues requiring expensive and elaborate treatment. Setting aside the health feasibility of surviving in unfamiliar waters, should she be transported thousands of miles across the country, regardless of the destination?
It’s clear the announced move is in someone’s best interest. But it’s not Lolita’s.
It’s extremely costly to care for an orca. The animals consume roughly 200 pounds of fish a day and receive five-star care from trained professionals — including veterinarians and experienced caregivers. On top of funding upkeep for areas intended for park guests, owners must also maintain pool pumps, filtration systems and temperature regulators.
Given Lolita hasn’t performed for guests since 2022, it’s not difficult to imagine executives of The Dolphin Company — which manages the Miami attraction — viewing the animal as a money pit. Now, Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has agreed to bankroll the relocation. The opportunity to dump the liability is too attractive to ignore.
If this stunt was truly about Lolita’s needs, she would be moved to a new and improved habitat nearby her current facility that has been her home for more than five decades. It would be nearly identical, but bigger and deeper, as well as have a proper medical pool to address health challenges.
“Returning” Lolita to the wild makes for a perfect Hollywood script. But reality is not like the movies, and we’ve seen this one before. Keiko didn’t deserve his fate; Lolita doesn’t deserve the same. Those involved in Lolita’s relocation plans need to put animal welfare first.
Mark Simmons is the author of “Killing Keiko: The True Story of Free Willy’s Return to the Wild.” He was director of husbandry on the Keiko Release Project in Iceland and a former SeaWorld of Orlando killer whale trainer. Simmons has consulted worldwide on marine mammal issues, legislation and welfare. He has worked with open-water enclosures and habitats of numerous species and participated in whale and dolphin rescue and field research for 35 years.