Growing up & growing wiser with Lolita & Sidney
by Beth Clifton
California governor Jerry Brown on September 13, 2016 endorsed into law a bill prohibiting breeding orca whales in captivity, six months after SeaWorld announced that it would end attempts to breed orcas at its marine mammal parks in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio.
Lolita still serving life
While marine mammal advocates celebrated that victory, two e-mails from Russ Rector of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation reminded us of the plight of Lolita, which we really never forget for long, since we need do little more than look out our front window to see some of the last sights she saw while still a free whale.
I was 10 years old when Lolita arrived at the Miami Seaquarium, not far from my parents’ home in Miami Beach.
Lolita is now the last orca left of at least 58 who were captured here on Puget Sound between 1968 and 1973, out-living all the rest by more than a decade.
Captured on Penn Cove
Ted Griffin, who had founded the Seattle Marine Aquarium on Elliot Bay in 1962, and his partner, Don Goldsberry, on August 9, 1970 netted most of all three pods of the Southern Resident orca population at Penn Cove, between San de Fuca and Coupeville, Washington––just around Race Point and Kineth Point from the ANIMALS 24-7 headquarters on Whidbey Island.
At least four young orcas plus one adult were snagged in the nets and drowned. Griffin and Goldsberry blamed the drownings on activists who allegedly tried to cut the nets. Others say observers tried to free orcas who were already snagged and drowning.
Hid the evidence
Whatever happened, Wikipedia recounts, “Griffin and Goldsberry attempted to conceal the deaths by weighting and sinking the bodies, but months later the carcasses washed up.”
Lolita, sold to the Miami Seaquarium, has been there in a tank ever since.
Much has changed since Lolita arrived in Miami to learn to do tricks and spend most of the rest of her life swimming in aimless circles.
Rector had begun a seven-year stint as a dolphin trainer for Ocean World, in Fort Lauderdale, in 1969. He might then have aspired to eventually work with orcas like Lolita and her long deceased companion Hugo. But over time Rector became disillusioned with dolphin training. Forming the Dolphin Freedom Foundation in 1992, Rector generated legal and political pressure that closed Ocean World just two years later.
Rector then turned his attention toward the Miami Seaquarium and Lolita, whose tank predates the space requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, adopted in 1971, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, introduced in 1972.
Hope against passing time
Twenty-two years later Rector remains hopeful that the Miami Seaquarium will eventually be closed and Lolita freed, somehow, because a work platform in the middle of her tank violates federal rules. Rector files Freedom of Information request after Freedom of Information request, and complaint after complaint, writing letter after letter to anyone who might help.
Eventually the Miami Seaquarium will go out of business, and the real estate, much more valuable for development than as a whale jail without a star prisoner, will be sold. But the demise of the Seaquarium seems less and less likely with each passing year to precede the demise of Lolita.
Could Lolita come home?
While Corky at SeaWorld San Diego has been captive a year longer, Lolita is perhaps the last captive orca with genuine star status, not just a stand-in for Shamu, the original SeaWorld orca, who died in 1971.
Locally, our former neighbors Howard Garrett and Susan Berta have been campaigning for even longer than Rector to have Lolita released from the Miami Seaquarium and returned to Puget Sound, where she might be reunited with the living remnants of her pod, and with her descendants.
This seems an especially unlikely, if attractive possibility, in view of her age, and in view of the costly fiasco that resulted from the 10-year effort to gave the orca film star Willy/Keiko about six months of freedom before his death in December 2003.
Nipped by a penguin
From the time I was old enough to walk, I recall having an affinity for animals. Born in Queens, New York, I was still very small when on a visit to the Bronx Zoo I stuck my fingers between the steel bars of a penguin exhibit, and not surprisingly was nipped by a penguin.
As a toddler, I didn’t recognize that the penguins I wanted to touch were kept in an environment which would have been very foreign to penguins in the wild.
Despite being nipped, my Bronx Zoo visit strengthened and affirmed my love of animals.
By 1965 we had relocated to Miami Beach, where the Miami Seaquarium, still a Miami landmark, and the Crandon Park Zoo, closed in 1980, were two of my favorites among the many animal attractions in the south Florida area, just minutes from each other over the Rickenbacker Causeway.
My family and I were frequent visitors to both. Saturday and Sunday mornings my sisters and I would begin working on our parents to take us to one or both of our favorite places to see and be with animals.
Hugo, Lolita, & Flipper
The Miami Seaquarium was best known for the “killer whale” and dolphin shows starring Hugo and Lolita. Household names to us, Hugo and Lolita were not “killers” in our eyes, but rather were very special ambassadors from distant oceans, exactly as management later labored to portray them to audiences who had become increasingly skeptical that any animals want to be captive performers.
Dolphins collectively named Flipper, after the famous dolphin from the TV show (which I watched every day after school), were also a revered Seaquarium attraction. Unknown to us then, at least six dolphins played the role of Flipper. As children we believed we were seeing sea life in what we perceived to be a natural environment.
I learned 50 years later that the diver I watched swimming at the Seaquarium in a deep sea diving suit with a steel helmet was Ric O’Barry, the Flipper trainer who beginning on Earth Day 1970 became the most prominent and vocal activist for dolphins around the world.
Sometimes Ric calls ANIMALS 24-7 to share news of his campaigns and I marvel at what a small and yet ever-changing world it is.
Today I watched a YouTube video of Ric in 1970, describing his last moments with Kathy, one of the Flipper dolphins he had spent years training and caring for. A very special bond had grown between them. Kathy had become very ill. Ric raced to be with her at the Seaquarium, where she was no longer on exhibit. Ric jumped into the tank with Kathy and held her in his arms as a parent would hold a dying child. He recalls her dorsal fin was sagging and her skin was black from sunburn.
Ric explained that her fin sagged because staying at the top of the tank caused gravity to drop it downward. Kathy took her last breath and held it. She was gone. Ric tried to revive her but could not. It was at that point that Ric knew he had to speak for captive dolphins.
What Ric and I acknowledged separately, and at different times in our lives, is that we were completely unaware, oblivious to the suffering of captive marine mammals, who are forced to live by human rules and expectations, rather than living and dying as they were put on this earth to live, in the wilds of the ocean.
From Ric’s perspective as a well-paid dolphin trainer, and mine as a young animal lover, we received what should not have been ours to receive.
As an adult, I became a Miami Beach police officer. One evening in October 1995 the Seaquarium was opened for police officers who were attending the National Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference. Hugo had died in 1980, after furiously beating his head against the concrete walls of his tank for some time, but Lolita, the star performer of my childhood, was in her mid-career prime. The trainer asked for a volunteer from the audience to come up to the Lolita’s tank to meet her. I enthusiastically volunteered.
We were told by the trainer that Lolita was going to kiss me. Instead she came up out of the water spitting gallons of icy cold salt water in my face. It was hardly adequate revenge for Lolita’s many years of suffering in an environment that orcas were not meant to be in.
I laughed with the audience and in a sense felt honored by Lolita’s trained prank.
Tilikum & Dawn Branchau
In all honesty, my awakening to the realities of marine mammal captivity did not come until after the SeaWorld Orlando orca Tilikum in February 2010 killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Captured near Iceland in 1983, Tilikum according to the 2013 film Blackfish was bullied by other orcas as he was traded from marine mammal park to marine mammal park, before landing at SeaWorld for use in their now defunct breeding program. He was by far the largest of all captive orcas and it was said that the years of bullying he received from tank mates caused psychological issues for him.
Be that as it may, Tilikum had in 1991 killed trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, at the now closed Sealand of the Pacific marine mammal park in Victoria, British Columbia, and killed a night intruder at SeaWorld San Antonio in 1999.
His past behavior toward humans at other parks and at SeaWorld Orlando brought Tilikum a reputation for being a dangerous animal. Trainers were not supposed to be in the water with him at anytime.
At the “Shamu” show
Battered and bitten to death, Dawn Branchau’s demise reminded me that circa 1993, I took my three children to the “Shamu” orca show at SeaWorld Orlando.
Before each show, a family could sign a waiver to allow their young child to be placed on Shamu’s back, held by a trainer on a platform and displayed on the big screen as part of the grand finale.
I allowed my son Greg to participate. Looking back, I question my judgement to allow him to be put in such danger. As parents the most important responsibility we have is to keep our children out of harm’s way. As a police officer I was constantly aware of dangers of every sort.
Connecting the dots
And yet, at that point, I had not connected the dots that these were powerful, highly dangerous animals, kept and used for the sole purpose of making money, even at the risk of human life.
Many more years of experience and education brought me to awareness of the plight and suffering of captive marine mammals and other animals, including the seals, sea lions, penguins, and other species also kept, in lesser roles, at marine mammal parks.
With my husband, ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton, I have often witnessed the grace and beauty of wild sea mammals in their own habitat.
Sidney the seal
I have even been honored to have been befriended (from a distance) by a wild young seal at a beach near our home. I named him “Sidney.” He was ill when I saw him for the first time. Gradually I seemed to become a soft and reassuring presence to Sidney.
When Merritt and I walk on the beach each day, Sidney swims toward us to say hello, watches us for a few minutes, then resumes his quest for food.
The most enjoyable part of this experience with Sidney is that he is and always will be a wild animal. I respect that and hope that one day before I die, all animals meant to be wild and free will be just that, and that we as humans will enjoy them and learn about them in their natural and wild environments.