|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
HG: Howard Garret
BN: Howard Garret is with us, who is with the Orca Network.
MF: We’re going to be talking about Orcas in general, and one specific Orca named Lolita who is in a seaquarium in Miami. Howard and his group have been leading the charge to see if they can get her saved. There’s some interesting news that’s been announced about her status. Welcome back to Animal Wise Radio, Howard.
HG: Thank you. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
BN: Howard, I’m not quite sure where to start today. I might defer to you a bit. One of the reasons that we did reach out to you is that Mike and I are always thinking about the work that you do out there on some level. We’re curious about the Orcas. We’re curious about the Pacific Ocean and what’s happening there. We’ve been thinking about Fukushima and if radiation is causing impacts that you’re seeing.
I reached out to you, and I saw a bunch of news that I had not been aware of, one being the story about the federal reconsideration of Lolita and her protection under the Endangered Species Act. Another is that you just had a big conference. We always love checking in with you. Why don’t you start where you want to start, Howard?
HG: Okay. That would probably be the news that was front page in the “Seattle Times” on January 25th, the announcement from NOAA Fisheries that they had agreed to include Lolita as a member of her family. That should be a big no-brainer, but it took a petition, and they have come to that determination. The wheels of mercy turn very slowly, and it will take another two-month comment period, and then a year, maybe more, before a real final determination will be made that then we can base further action on to actually get her out of there.
BN: Tell us about Lolita’s past, and why you care so much about this particular Orca.
HG: Sure. Her story is just gripping and tragic, and yet also inspirational, really, when you look at her. She was captured as a young juvenile female. We don’t know the exact age, but about 3 to 5-6 years old, which is, for an Orca pretty well advanced. They are very precocious at a very early age, catching all their fish and vocalizing with a full vocabulary, and the whole thing. She was shipped off immediately in 1970 and sent to a little tank in Miami, and she has been in that same tank which measures 35’ x 80’ x 20’ deep every since. That’s 43-1/2 years she has been in that same little tank.
I just don’t know how she survives, and yet she has some inner strength. She has some will to live, I guess. I attribute it to her fresh, clear memory of where she came from, of her home and family where she was born and raised. I do mean raised; taught the traditions of her family.
MF: That’s probably a great place for us to take a break.
HG: Okay. I could go on and on, obviously!
MF: Listeners might be thinking, “Wow – that sounds like a really old whale,” but the fact of the matter is she could live, if she were in the wild, up to 100 years of age or possibly longer. What does that mean? What are the implications of that decision that she’s actually part of her family and an endangered species? What does that mean for her care?
BN: Her captivity?
MF: And more. We’ll be back with all of that.
BN: We think of change-makers, and we think of the lifelong work of Howard Garret and his colleagues at Orca Network who have been tirelessly working to make the public aware of a specific Orca named Lolita who comes from the pod from the Salish Sea. He told us a little bit about how she spent formative years, up until about age five, with her family, the pod, in the Puget Sound area. She somehow has managed to survive since 1970 in a tank 35’ x 80’ x 20’ feet.
MF: Most Orcas – and correct me if I get any of this wrong, Howard – but Orcas in captivity just don’t tend to live that long. The fact that she has lived to be what is in effect a middle-aged whale is kind of surprising, that she has lived since 1970 when she was brought into captivity until now. It’s surprising, but if she were a normal, healthy whale in the wild, she could live up to about 100 years old. Is that right?
HG: That’s right. She is in amazingly good shape. It’s really kind of a miracle, but the photos show she has all of her teeth. They’re not worn down or chipped. She seems energetic. She has the occasional bout with an infected tooth or something, but she seems to rebound and be right back in the swim of it. I think besides that, her routine that she does twice a day, she does laps – she actually does her own exercises in that confined place. She goes around in circles fast. I guess she keeps herself in shape. You can imagine a 45-year-old woman that works out, and that would be the kind of shape she’s in.
MF: It’s fascinating. You just said something that’s kind of amazing to me, because I’ve done some reading into the psychology of when horrible, horrible things happen to people. For example, I read this paper about Holocaust survivors and how they dealt with that situation, and that fact of the matter is they were expecting that everyone that they checked would have these horrible psychological permanent effects, but there’s a small group that didn’t. What you just told me tells that whales are as uniquely individual as humans are, and that she’s developed some strange coping skills that have allowed her to tolerate that, which I find fascinating.
HG: I think that’s exactly right. It’s kind of a mystery, but it sure bears an investigation to try to understand how that is, not that we’ll probably ever know. She’s just remarkable. It just comes down to she is amazing, even among Orcas, who are all amazing. She just stands out.
BN: We left the conversation in the first segment with this announcement that came out from NOAA Fisheries, from the federal government, saying that she really should have protection under the Endangered Species Act, and that just begs the question, “What does that mean for an Orca that’s basically living in a bathtub in a circus-like environment?” We aren’t really supposed to be doing that. Howard, we asked you on break, but could you flesh out that idea? We know there’s a comment period. There’s a whole lot of the story that we want to get back to at this point.
BN: Right. It doesn’t guarantee that her inclusion under the ESA (her family was listed as endangered in 2005) that she’ll come home; it just means that she has to be wherever she is safest. She has to be taken care of. NOAA Fisheries could decide that she’s safest right there where she is, and that is the conventional wisdom. That’s what the industry has been putting out for four decades – once in captivity, always in captivity. They can never learn to catch fish, and so on.
MF: It seems to me that there’s some facts and data that we have available to us that disproves that pretty readily. The fact that so few Orcas lives anywhere near their normal adult life expectancy would fly into the face of that.
HG: That’s right. It depends on exactly what you count and don’t count, but the average lifespan whether from capture or captive birth is under 10 years in captivity, and she’s been there for 43 years.
MF: And in the wild she could live to be 100.
HG: Right. She is a healthy, middle-aged female. She could live a long, long time.
BN: Howard, you said there’s this comment period that’s opening up so that people can write to the federal government to make their position known. That means that apologists for the entertainment, the seaquariums of the world, the Sea Worlds of the world, can lobby hard to keep this perpetuating Orcas in captivity, but we’re talking about trying to reach out to people who might have other things to say. What might people want to say if they’re going to weigh in on this? What would Howard Garret say?
HG: It really is kind of us against the industry. It’s time for us to shift that paradigm, just like “Blackfish” the movie has shifted the overall paradigm about how people feel about Orcas in captivity. Now we’ve got to hone right in on Lolita’s situation and shift the paradigm that says she’s safest in a tank and it would harm her to return her to natural habitat against the industry’s lobbying.
You’re right. I’m asking everyone to sign on, write letters to NOAA Fisheries. It goes until March 28th. Let them know they have done the research – and you can find it all on our website, www.orcanetwork.org – that Orcas are much safer in their natural habitats. The move is routine, the transport is safe when done correctly (and of course it would be) to her native habitat, and that there isn’t any phase, any stage of that whole retirement plan that we have spelled out on our website that would harm her. There’s no real danger, no real risk. She would be immersed back in the waters that she knew so well before capture and I’m sure remembers. It will all feel familiar.
Really, the only precedent for this, for a long-term captive Orca to be returned to their native habitat was Keiko, the “Free Willy” whale. The actual results were that he loved it. He thrived immediately when they lowered him in the sling into the water. He was able to swim free and paddle under his own weight. He had been in that airplane strapped in that sling for 6,000 miles, about 18 hours. It’s amazing that he was in that straightjacket, but then he immediately stretched out and began to swim around the whole parameter of that net pen in Iceland in his native waters, and began diving deep and scouring every little nook and cranny throughout, breaching and slapping his tail, and just showing every sign of excitement and happiness. She will, too. There’s just no question. Why would she not?
MF: She still vocalizes, I’m guessing, in her family’s native dialect.
HG: That’s exactly right.
MF: Chances are when her family comes by this place where she’ll be held, there will be some recognition there. They’ll be some known communication between them. The information that we could get about Orcas simply by documenting that is worth the entire project.
HG: What a moment that will be. First, she’ll hear them, because they won't know that she is there the first time. They return sometime in the summer, June or July. Her family comes back or other members of L pod or J or K – maybe not the immediate family, but members of the extended family come down the west side of that island where she will be in a protected cove. She’ll hear them for 10 miles. They’ve got very acute hearing. I’m sure she’ll call back in their native dialect. They’ll return and that will all be recorded, that initial conversation and then the meet-up. I don’t think it’s going to be an immediate bonding. I think there’s going to have to be quite a bit of transition of reintroduction, rebuilding of the bonds of trust.
MF: Especially because that’s a matriarchal line.
HG: That’s right. There’s a sort of hierarchy, a system that’s already in place, so she’ll have to find her role in that again. I think she will. If she doesn’t – we have to accommodate the possibility that she may not, so we have a contingency plan of long-term retirement. We’ll take care of her. We’ll have a care station right there. All she needs is companionship, basically, and maybe some supplementary food. That also is not a problem and not even expensive.
BN: Howard, a question about what you think the greatest objections are going to be from the industry, from the apologists. Is it going to be the same playbook that got pulled out when Keiko was being released, or is there something new on the horizon? What is your sense of that?
HG: I don’t think they have anything new. I think it will be the same myth-making that the water would shock her, that she would be alarmed and stressed by being back in her water.
BN: Better living in chlorine, right?
HG: Yes, I know. It doesn’t make sense, but you have to deal with them. They will throw up the idea that she may carry diseases that could spread to her family. Of course, that has to be dealt with in the same way that it was with Keiko, and that was a team of six veterinarians and pathologists examined him thoroughly. None of them could lie, because they’d have to all lie, and nobody could arrange that. They had to report that he was completely negative for any kind of infectious disease or pathogens. That cleared the way. There were none. The same thing would need to be done for Lolita to verify that, so that’s not an issue.
There isn’t any real issue. They just throw out this sort of scare tactic that it would kill her or her family and leave it there. Some people believe it and pass it on.
MF: As if by magic, because they take that position, they can have her in captivity and charge tickets to see her.
HG: It’s worked for four decades. Exactly.
MF: Thank you, Howard, for your work. If people want more information, they can find Howard and information about Lolita at www.orcanetwork.org, and Lolita has her own page. Quickly, Howard, tell us where to find the Lolita page.
HG: From the home page you’ll find “Lolita” and there’s a drop down menu. There’s a lot about Lolita, but right at the top is “Free Lolita.” Click on that, and you’ll find out all about this ESA listing and points to make in your comments and where to send them are right there.
MF: Thank you so much.