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  • Writer's pictureGina Scrofano

Lummi Nation Fights To Free Lolita From Tiny Tank

It has been 17,386 days since Lolita was violently ripped away from her family. She went from the vast ocean to the smallest orca tank in the US, where she combats trauma from extreme confinement to do tricks for what ticket buyers consider entertainment. Despite numerous efforts to remove her from the Miami Seaquarium's oppressive grip, there has been no success. But there just may be hope yet, and it lies with the Lummi Nation, who have taken a stand and have joined the fight for her freedom.

Stolen From Home

Formerly known as Tokitae and renamed by the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita is an orca that was stolen from the waters of Puget Sound at the age of 4. Five orcas died while whale herders used speedboats, an airplane, and explosives to capture her and other baby orcas on August 8, 1970.

John Stone, captain of the Cutty Sark, who provided photographer Wallie Funk a boat ride to the scene that day stated,

“The screams of the whales when they were being harvested, that really did pierce your heart."

Tokitae and the other infants were taken so they could be sold to aquariums, while the adult orcas were released. However, it was said that the adults refused to swim free. Instead, they stayed as close as they could to their young, and cried out while they were taken away.

Lolita's Tank Violates Federal Law

For over 47 years the USDA has allowed the Miami Seaquarium to keep Lolita in a tank that technically violates federal law.

World-renowned biologist, Dr. Ingrid Visser, has documented that Lolita demonstrates abnormal repetitive behaviors, such as repeatedly bobbing her head, as a result of psychological trauma due to confinement.

Federal law requires an average minimum horizontal dimension (MHD/length the orca can swim without obstruction) of 48', and 42' based on Lolita's size (approx. 21' long).

There is a permanent work island barrier inside Lolita's tank that she cannot swim around. That barrier reduces Lolita's tank MHD to a mere 35'.

The USDA acknowledged this for the first time in an audit released last May in which Assistant Inspector General Harden documented,

"...This enclosure is essentially two pools. In this scenario, the largest pool would only have an MHD of 35 feet; this falls short of the minimum requirements for an orca."

Additionally, the water depth is 20' at the deepest point and 12' around the edges. At approx. 21' herself, she is unable to dive. In the wild, orcas swim hundreds of miles per day and dive as deep as 500'. Lolita can't even swim deep enough to escape the rays of the sun.

Battles To Free Lolita

Efforts to remove Lolita from confinement date back to 1999, when the Orca Network started campaigning for her freedom. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals united with the Orca Network and filed numerous lawsuits against the USDA and Miami Seaquarium, citing violations due to the tank size, harmful environment and failure to protect Lolita under the Endangered Species Act. Those lawsuits spanned from 2012 to 2018, with the most recent reaching the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals this January. Despite the substantial evidence against the Seaquarium, the court ruled in their favor, and they were allowed to keep Lolita.

Miami Seaquarium Makes False Assertions About Lolita's Health

The Miami Seaquarium asserts that Lolita is 'thriving' in captivity. However, official court documents prove otherwise. In March 2016, US District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro unsealed court documents prepared by four expert witnesses, including former SeaWorld orca trainer John Hargrove, as well as biologists; one being the president of the Ocean Conservation Society, Maddalena Bearzi, Ph.D. The documents revealed that Lolita is not only suffering psychologically from extreme confinement (as discussed in the video above), but she also suffers open and bloody wounds caused by the Pacific white-sided dolphins that share a tank with her. Lolita suffered 50 scrapes to her skin in 2015 alone. By monitoring her breathing it was concluded that the mere presence of the dolphins causes her increased stress, and she is unable to swim quickly enough to escape them, due to the small size of the tank. She cannot communicate with the dolphins, and her vocalizations demonstrate that she is 'talking to herself', similarly to what a human would do if they were in constant isolation. She suffers from an eye condition that appears similar to cataracts, which could potentially be caused by the chlorine in the water. She has skin and stomach ulcers, as well as skin infections. She's given a daily cocktail including several antibiotics, narcotic painkillers, and antacids, as well as eye drops, to combat these ailments caused by confinement, all of which she endures during her performances every day. Despite this evidence, Judge Ungaro dismissed the case.

Lummi Nation Stands Up For Tokitae (Lolita)

The Lummi People were the original inhabitants of Washington's northernmost coast and southern British Columbia, including Puget Sound (which is within the Salish Sea), from which Tokitae (Lolita) was taken in 1970.

The Lummi are signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty, a settlement treaty signed in 1855 between the US and the Native American tribes of the Puget Sound region. The treaty protects their rights to hunt, fish and gather shellfish; rights that courts have ruled extend to protection of the habitat.

During an interview with Local 10 News, Lummi Nation council member, Freddy Lane stated,

"We're fighters. "We're defenders of the earth"

A notion the Lummi demonstrated between 2011 and 2016 when they fought against the SSA Marine's plans to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal. A terminal intended to export coal at Cherry Point, along the Salish Sea shoreline. That was a monumental war of which the Lummi won.

They may be able to use that precedence, and the power of the Point Elliott Treaty to demand Tokitae is released from captivity and returned to the Salish Sea.

The Lummi Nation council unanimously passed a motion to join the efforts to free Tokitae in August 2017. Since then, the council has sent three letters to the Miami Seaquarium seeking a meeting, which the Seaquarium declined.

Still, along with Orca Network's Howard Garrett, Chairman of the Lummi Nation, Jay Julius, and Lummi Councilman Fed Lane, participated in a Miami press conference on March 13th, initiated by former Miami Beach Mayor, Philip Levine, to support the mission to free Tokitae.

And the Lummi Nation promises that their efforts have only just begun. Similar to what they did when fighting the Gateway Pacific Terminal, they plan to spread awareness throughout the country, gather allies, and fight for Tokitae.

Miami Seaquarium Claims Relocating Lolita Is Unnecessary And Unsafe

In a recent statement Eric Eimstad, Miami Seaquarium general manager wrote, “Having that bigger pool or that large ocean isn't going to help her in any way shape or form,” and “ would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health to consider such a move.”

Considering orcas are highly intelligent and social beings, and Miami Seaquarium has deprived Lolita of her natural environment where she would swim miles a day among other orcas, trapped her inside a bathtub-sized tank, and forced her to perform unnatural tricks for their profit, his comments seem rather uneducated and hypocritical.

The Freedom Plan

The Orca Network does not plan to simply put Lolita in the ocean and leave her to fend for herself. Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research), Dr. Ingrid Visser (Orca Research Trust) and Howard Garrett (Orca Network) have devised an in-depth transport plan. Details include everything from necessary equipment, aircraft, health and safety, to security. A veterinarian will be in attendance for the duration of the transport, and that care will continue throughout her stay within the ocean sanctuary, where her rehabilitation plan will commence. The sanctuary will be a penned off area within the ocean off the coast of Orca Island, an area where biologists say Lolita's family (L-Pod) still frequents. The penned area will gradually be increased based on Lolita's physical and mental health. Experts will also slowly train her how to hunt for food and help build up her fitness and endurance.

Safe For Transit

According to reports, Howard Garrett, orca researcher and co-founder of the Orca Network, recently viewed Lolita. Although she suffers from loneliness, confinement, and ailments due to her captivity, based on Garrett's observations, she demonstrated enough strength to make the trip from Miami to Orca Island.

Inspiration From An Orca's Will To Survive

It is utterly amazing that Tokitae (Lolita) has endured her life in that tiny tank, doing tricks twice a day, seven days per week for nearly 48 years. She is the sole survivor among the other orcas that were captured with her in 1970 and placed in captivity. Tokitae's strength and will for survival are truly inspirational. But at approximately 51 years old, some fear that she's running out of time. If the Lummi Nation is successful in their mission to free her, we can only hope that it will not be too late. As we await the outcome of this most recent battle for her freedom, we can't help but wish we could send her a message. And that message would undoubtedly be, Stay strong Tokitae - we haven't given up on you.

“The songs she heard from her family are very real to her.” ... “That’s what’s playing in her heart. That’s what’s playing in her dreams. We need to do something. Let’s bring this last one home.”

-Douglas James Jr., Lummi Nation

Click here and go to the 'What Can I Do' section to learn how to help Lolita.


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