Thursday, August 6, 2009

When Lolita Comes Swimming Home Again

Orca Network's Howard Garrett has dedicated his time and effort into the "Free Lolita" campaign, and shares his views here with us.

Written by Howard Garrett

Recent photo of L-pod member "Lolita", taken by Shelby Proie on April 2, 2009
Hopefully the USDA will inspect and measure the concrete bowl where Lolita has lived the past 39 years and will find it unlawful under the Animal Welfare Act, and $1-2 million can be found to examine her, transport her to a bay pen along the west side of San Juan Island, and set up a care station with a freezer full of fish and professional care staff. It's all been done before and poses no real risk to her or to her family, but many may wonder what will happen then for Lolita.

After her return to her home waters, as she regains her strength and is led out on swims to experience her waters again, Lolita will be the focus of tremendous attention in the Pacific Northwest and far beyond. Of course security at the bay pen will prevent direct observations except by authorized personnel and media, but live webcam coverage and stories about her can be expected to abound locally, nationally and internationally.

Recent photo of some of "Lolita's" pod members, taken by Howard Garrett on June 21, 2009
When someone reads or sees a story about Lolita they will usually tend to care a little more about how she's doing. The reports will also tell about her family, L-25 and the L-12 subpod as well as all the Southern Resident orcas. People will learn about the orcas' long lifespans, lifetime bonding and no dispersal traditions. They'll hear about these orcas' selective diet - about 80% Chinook salmon and 15% chum - and the need to restore salmon habitat and reduce Chinook catches all along the Pacific coast to keep the orcas around. This alone justifies her return home.

Scientifically, we'll learn if Lolita's family bonds and memories are so strong that she will be able to travel, catch fish and socialize with her family, and we'll see the process of rebuilding the trust needed to do so. If she's not able to rejoin her family, the care station will always be there for her with food and companionship if needed.

Humans live according to their stories, and whales provide great inspiration for all ages to learn more and then act to protect and restore the natural world. When kids hear about Lolita and her retirement where she was raised decades ago, many will want to know more, and will do research and feel moved to write their views about orcas and create artwork about them, developing important language skills and learning how to do good science.

Where Orcas Swim Free (Photo by Katie Jones)
The benefits of retiring Lolita in the Salish Sea won't be easy to measure in dollars, but as a learning and sharing experience among the human community, and as a motivator toward better stewardship and protection of our precious marine environment, Lolita would be a priceless teacher for us all.

By Howard Garrett


  1. I hope we can return Lolita to her family. I think the fact that she has survived for so long without them, in a mud puddle, puts her in the category of "Fantastic Survivor". Such a fantastic survivor deserves the opportunity to regain freedom. She has given herself to us already. If we can give her back to her family, that will be a fantastic gift from humans to the cetaceans. It will be a giant step towards human-kind's eventual stewardship of the entire planet.

    I hope that if we can bring her home, that she will not suffer the same fate as Keiko: total dependance on humans. Also, Keiko's immune system had become so deficient that in only a couple of years, he succumbed to pnemonia. Perhaps the waters here and the waters that L-pod plies southward to California will not be so cold as Keiko's Icelandic waters. Perhaps (hopefully) the better climate will help Lolita make the transition a bit better.

    For those who don't know, Keiko is "Free Willy". He was returned to his family in Iceland. He did not go with them immediately. He preferred the company of humans. We know because he was granted the choice. As his family came near, he would visit with them, then return to the humans and the pen. Over time (a year or so, I believe), he did become attached to his family and eventually swam away with them. Some time later (perhaps another year or so), he returned to the humans and the pen. This is where he eventually died of pnemonia. Apparently, his time in warmer waters and with an easy food supply put him at a disavantaged position to deal with nature's harshness.

  2. This is the first I've read about Keiko actually meeting his family. From what I understand, no one knew who his family was or even where to find them. I do know he swam up to a pod of orcas, but I'm not sure it was confirmed they were his family. They could have been anyone and he swam up to them because he was only curious. I mean, for goodness sakes, he had not seen another orca in years. No wonder he swam up to them immediately; of coarse, I've also read he quickly turned away right when he got to them. He trainers figured he might have just been shy.

    BigTrav, I don't know where you got your information, but I haven't heard or read anything about Keiko ever finding his family. From what I understand, he never did. No one knows if he even remembered his families calls either. Scientist didn't have copies of them, so it's like they were able to test the theory out.

    I've read that he swam away while going on one of his sea "walks", but it was not with a pod of orcas. And he wasn't even officially set free. He just left on his own and was found off the coast of Norway where he followed a fishing boat to Halsa.

  3. I will stand corrected. I am sorry for leading anyone astray on the details of Keiko's story.. perhaps it has been a while since I read about him and I most certainly could have it mixed up. It may not have been his family. We knew where he was taken from, so took him back there. *shrug* It may be logical to follow that the whales in that area are his family. It would also be logical if they were not.

    The point is that returning the whale to the wild is not neccessarily a success story. Sometimes the whale is better off in a habitat that they know. In Lolita's case, she has knows her little tank very well. She has developed many coping skills and probably does not know the difference. I DO want her free, but I fear it would be a very short freedom.

  4. I'm glad the record is corrected about Keiko finding his family. Preliminary studies show there are two genetically separate orca populations in the North Atlantic. Keiko swam with some that shared certain DNA with him, but were probably not from his immediate matriline, since there are several thousand orcas using those waters and Keiko only swam with around a hundred. Icelandic orcas' social systems are very different from what we're used to in the Pacific NW. Rather than the "no dispersal" traditions practiced here, No. Atlantic orcas seem to move around from group to group more freely. The challenges to conduct photo-ID, acoustic and genetic field studies are many, but that's what was needed to locate and keep track of Keiko's family, and it wasn't done when he could have been taken to meet up with them. Keiko supplied himself with fish and thrived the entire time he was in his ocean home, including during and after his 30 day, 1,000 mile trek to Norway. We'll never know the proximate cause of his death, but he was alone and inactive in a remote cove when he died suddenly.

    But for Lolita it's an entirely different story. Her family is well known, her probable mother, L25, is still alive, and L pod visits the San Juan Islands every summer for several months.

    The question of her possible habituation, whether she knows where she is and where she came from, can be answered by referring to the lifelong family bonds among her wider clan, the Southern Resident orcas, and the recent 2001 discovery that dolphins (orcas are dolphins) are self-aware. In other words, they know who they are and they know the difference between confinement in a tiny tank and limitless room to move in their home habitat.

    There is no real risk in bringing Lolita home to a bay pen with a care station on San Juan Island. By all indications and the weight of accumulated evidence, she would regain her foraging skills and grow strong, and possibly even rejoin her family.

  5. Regarding BigTrav's comment of "knowing her little tank very well and developing coping skills," and "not knowing the difference" While sentient beings who survive imprisonment, isolation, solitary confinement, and even torture certainly develop coping skills it can not be said that they either prefer the situation or that they don't know the difference. Many studies would indicate otherwise. For example, "Building an Inner Sanctuary: Complex PTSD in Chimpanzees" Bradshaw, Capaladoa, Lindner, and Grow through a concrete clinical study show that non-human animal responses to trauma were consistent with human responses. I think Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of imprisonment would disagree that one does not know the difference between captivity and freedom.

  6. The problem with knowing anything about what happened with Keiko is that HSUS closely guarded the information and only released info that was consistent with their stated goals and objectives.

    On Keiko's "sea walks," Keiko was led out to open water by constantly rewarding him with dead fish for correctly following the boat. They then hid from him so he would have to find stimulation elsewhere and let the boat drift away. When they were far enough away they would start the boat and race back home hoping that Keiko would stay. 99% of the tim he followed them home, 1 time he got preoccupied or lost and swam the wrong direction. I would not call that a "choice."

    I would also not say he "thrived" between Iceland and Norway. He arrived having eaten, but not enough to sustain himself. He had lost weight and had horrible parasites requiring antibiotic treatments and he had worms trailing out of his anus.

    His pneumonia was not caused by the coldness of the water, but by water being aspirated into the lungs and causing an infection there. Captive orcas are used to spending so much more time at the surface than wild ones do, so the harsh weather and surf contributed to that, not the temperature.

    Don't let Howie fool you into thinking he is some sort of expert. He is just reading the same stuff on the net you are, he's just acting like he knows more with tossing "DNA" into sentances here and there. I know what I know because I know people that were on Keiko's training and veterinary teams in both Oregon (where he should have stayed) and Iceland and Norway (where he died).

  7. There are some personal judgements in Croc's post. So, for the record:
    One consistent misconception is to see Keiko as driven by instinct to follow food. Orcas are the most socially bonded mammals known to science, and Keiko's de facto family at that time were his caretakers. He followed them on sea walks more to maintain those bonds than for dead fish. But it is true that those trainers hid from him and tried to sneak away, probably raising Keiko's anxiety levels. We can't know why Keiko swam east to Norway, but there's no reason to deny that he made the choice to do so.
    A blood test administered on September 8 revealed that Keiko's white blood cell count was moderately high, an indication of a minor illness, stress, exercise, or excitement. Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko's veterinarian since 1996, examined Keiko and found that: "After 60 days at sea and traveling more than one thousand miles, Keiko is strong and does not appear to have lost any weight whatsoever. There can no longer be any doubt that Keiko has foraged successfully."
    There is no official record of what killed Keiko. The sea temperature would not present a problem, but if Croc has any source or documentation that he aspirated water please present it.
    It's interesting to compare notes from our different perspectives. Most of the people on Keiko's training and veterinary teams in Oregon, Iceland and Norway had experience with captive orcas, but not so much with the natural history of orcas in their habitats, which I've been closely involved in for 28 years. Croc is pretty much repeating the marine park perspective. Obviously their experience with captives was important for his care, but the marine park industry culture tends to disregard the knowledge gained from decades of field research, especially about the social and family ties shown by orcas worldwide. If they had appreciated Keiko's family bonds and cultural identity, and had done the field work (granted it would have been difficult and expensive) to locate and keep track of his family so they could have placed him near them, he might have rejoined them instead of heading east to Norway.
    I don't think it's helpful to engage in personal disparagement.

  8. The "record," as Howie likes to quote, is what HSUS has been releasing in their reports and press releases for years since they killed Keiko. And the reason there is no "official record of what killed Keiko" is because HSUS buried him without a necropsy. They were not interested in furthering any scientific record of what happened on their watch, they buried their very expensive mistake and moved on.

    Howie is a very dedicated guy who has learned everything he knows about orcas by observation of Puget Sound orcas and reading other people's research, so forgive him if he doesn't understand the behavior patterns of a trained animal, or an Icelandic orca for that matter. He has no hands on experience, so of course he rejects what doesn't fit his limited personal experience.

    Howie's missive on Keiko's "choice" is laughable. So what could have been a mistake in an orca's directional judgement is declared to be a "choice." And 1+2=12.

    The Dr Cornell account you quote is part of HSUS's PR campaign and very far from the truth. All of Howie's info seems to come from the same tained source. You don't have to believe me, but as I said before I know several people that were on Keiko's care team, and 90% of what HSUS released to the public was false information meant to continue to spur donations.

    But Howie, if you have that blood test results and you can substantiate your claim...please present it.

  9. In 1965 a young male orca was captured in the town of Namu, BC. He was sold to Ted Griffin and towed in a pen to Seattle, where he was promoted extensively and made into a worldwide celebrity. Namu died after 11 months of captivity, but by then Sea World had captured their first Shamu from Puget Sound and the revenues from killer whale shows started a stampede to capture and sell orcas from Washington.
    For ten years the captures were led by Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin, who became public enemies after they tried to violently obstruct news coverage of their operations. They caught over 100 in that time, but claimed there were plenty of orcas here so the captures would make little difference on a population level. There was no science to dispute that until the mid-1970's when Canada and the US contracted with marine biologists Mike Bigg and Ken Balcomb, respectively, to conduct a survey to find out how many orcas there were in Washington and BC. They found only a few hundred, mostly north of Vancouver Island, meaning the captures had removed about a third of those resident to Washington waters.
    Goldsberry, Griffin, Sea World, and the marine park industry in general disputed the scientists' findings and methods because they didn't like the results, and thus began a deep animosity toward field researchers on the part of the marine park industry. That dislike and disregard for the natural history of orcas that Bigg and Balcomb and many others revealed over the years became part of the marine park culture and continues to this day. The longevity of orcas, for example, was known from field research to be many decades longer than what marine parks told the public in their educational materials. Needless to say, any organization that criticizes the captivity industry or that attempts to rehab, retire or release captives receives special scorn from the industry (which includes many people on Keiko's care team).
    Croc seems to be expressing the views and attitudes of the marine park industry here, and that's unfortunate because there could be some areas of agreement and cooperation if we could trust one another's information. But for those within the industry survival of the business is often more important than survival of the orcas, so rather than defend against these innuendos, unless there are disputed facts I'll try to give the background for the argument and leave it at that.

  10. So...being critical of your "plan" to take a healthy whale living in clean water, receiving top quality food & health care and putting her in a toxic sludge pool that is Puget Sound is "expressing the views and attitudes of the marine park industry?" Wow, you seem to spit out the phrase "marine park industry" in a demonizing tone like Republicans talk about "liberals." I am simply interested in the continued well being of Lolita.

    And the three paragraphs of history lesson highlight the difference between the cowboy macho mentality of the marine industry in the 60s and the scientific approach today. Believe it or not, the people in the marine park industry are cut from the exact same cloth as the people like yourself who criticize the industry.

    But Howie, as I have stated elsewhere, the scientific method requires you begin the process with a question and then seek to test that theory. YOU and Kenny B started your process 15 years ago with your conclusion and you have been working to convince everyone that you are right in the absence of any proof. Right and Ken are the Goldsberry & Griffin in this discussion disputing the "scientists' findings and methods" because you don't like the results. You have the "deep animosity toward" the marine park industry and, in your words, "that's unfortunate because there could be some areas of agreement and cooperation if we could trust one another's information."

    Well this is all just fun talk because the Keiko fiasco insures that your Lolita experiment is not going anywhere.

  11. Croc, you're not being critical, you're bashing away with complete certainty of your authority. That doesn't qualify as scientific method. I haven't seen where the marine park industry of the 60's is noticeably different from the attitude seen in your messages, which are degenerating into the grade school chant of "Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you."
    Here's the bottom line: There is significant risk to Lolita every day she remains in a marine park. For proof, see:
    Small, R. and D. DeMaster (1995a). Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 11:2, p. 209-226.
    ABSTRACT (abbreviated to specify killer whale survival)
    Survival in captivity was calculated for 72 killer whales (KW), based on data in the Marine Mammal Inventory Report (MMIR) of the NMFS. Mean annual survival rates (ASRs) between 1988 and 1992 was 0.937 for KW. For non-calf KW, captive animals survived at a slightly lower rate (KW 0.938 vs 0.976 P < 0.001) than animals in the wild. KW: Olesiuk et. al. 1990). Quote: Survival of the wild population Olesiuk et al. studied, based on approximately 250 non-calves, was significantly higher than our estimates for non-calf captive killer whales (0.976 vs. 0.938, P<0.001).
    That means survival of KW's in captivity is significantly lower, and conditions have not improved in captivity. In the past 12 years the population of orcas in captivity has decreased from 55 to 41, a net loss of more than one per year, which spells the end of the captive orca display industry in a few more years.
    Conversely, other than your sample size of 1 (Keiko) and your uninformed description of the waters of the Salish Sea, you are unable to show any significant risk to retiring Lolita in her home waters.
    You've been hiding behind your username all this time. What is your name and where do you work?

  12. "your uninformed description of the waters of the Salish Sea"

    Funny, I googled "Puget" "Sound" "Toxic" and came back with 158,000 hits including articles in the last few years in the PI and the Times about mothers with flame retardent in their breast milk and the increased cancer risks to the people who live near the sound and breathe in all of that "fresh" ocean air.

    You and I cannot imagine what these chemicals are doing to animals that live in these toxic waters and have their mucus membranes contantly exposed to pesticide run-off, PBDEs and mercury laden water. That's in addition to eating toxins in the salmon that gets stored in their fat layer and requires an orca carcass to be handled by workers in hazmat suits.

    I'm well informed on the toxic sludge you are trying to peddle off as clean water.

  13. There are some misconceptions here to be cleared up again.
    The toxins you refer to are bioaccumulative endocrine disrupters, like PCBs, not infectious pathogens. No immunity can be built up, and since it takes decades for dangerous levels to accumulate in blubber layers, and the effects occur mainly only as a result of the effects of malnutrition, the toxins would not be a factor for Lolita. The belief that she would catch a disease is spread by the staffs at marine parks, but it's not connected to reality.
    The shortage of chinook salmon is a real issue, and we're doing all we can to restore salmon by habitat restoration and reduced harvest, etc., but remember that we'll have a care and feeding station for Lolita any time she would want it. Just as Keiko immediately caught his own live fish after two decades in captivity, I'm sure Lolita will regain those skills in short order.
    It's easy to impugn anyone's motives, but given that we've examined and answered all these and many more questions over the years and found that there is no real risk in any phase of our retirement plan, and the fact that captivity for orcas is known to cause early death, we are confident that we're doing the best thing for Lolita, if only by telling her story to the world.
    "You and I cannot imagine what these chemicals are doing to animals that live in these toxic waters and have their mucus membranes contantly exposed to pesticide run-off, PBDEs and mercury laden water."

    The science is pretty clear about those toxins. Google Peter Ross or Peggy Krahn for the science.

    "That's in addition to eating toxins in the salmon that gets stored in their fat layer and requires an orca carcass to be handled by workers in hazmat suits."

    That's answered above, but the part about the hazmat suit is legend, but not true.

  14. Wow, you have repeated the "no real risk" part of your stump speech so many times you actually believe it. You are so simple and naive on that subject it is scary.

    And because Lolita has ZERO pathogens in her system currently does not mean it is a good idea to expose her to toxic levels now.

    I like the way you admit you are not a scientist by always leaving the science to others, good job. It seems pretty clear to even a non-scientist that if the water is toxic enough that living near it is proven to increase a human's risk for cancer and other chemical illnesses, than living in it must be detrimental to an animal's health. And it would be idiotic to take a perfectly healthy animals and subject it to any level of these chemicals just to prove a point.

  15. There is no real risk to our retirement proposal, whereas there is a known risk to her remaining in a marine park.

  16. "there is no real risk to our retirement proposal."

    Because no whales die in Toxic Sound? It is whale utopia where whales live forever in harmony in a clean and pristine enviromnet with an abundance of fresh healthy fish to eat?

    Seriously Howie, do you even read how many things you say here are contridicted by the alarmist things you say elsewhere?

    My position has been consistant...Puget Sound is toxic water populated with whales that are going hungry. Those are two worries Lolita will never have in her current home. That is a no risk scenario.

  17. Your consistency has been to obstruct with prejudice any consideration of relocating Lolita to a safe baypen in her home waters, with the option to swim free and even rejoin her family. Your consistency is about who your friends are, what you've learned from them and who you want to be associated with, and not about what's best for Lolita.
    There is no real risk to our retirement proposal, whereas there is a known risk to her remaining in a marine park.


Candace Calloway Whiting