Lolita – The Loneliest Orca in the World and How I Failed Her

There once was a time I would roll out of bed, shower, get dressed, scarf down some breakfast, go to school, hang out with my friends and generally go about my day in blissful ignorance, fully unaware that my little society was anything but ideal.

It was a time when I actually believed that us modern day folk were more civilized, more humane than those who came before us. Sure there were those who did bad things, but they were usually caught and dealt with according to whatever law they violated.

I believed this for a long time even as cracks in the façade were revealed little by little. You mean the punishment for mutilating an animal is a mere slap on the wrist? You’re telling me the slaughter of animals for food is nothing like how my beloved dog is gently put to sleep?

As the years went on the cracks became huge chasms. I no longer live under the mass delusion that corporations and regulatory bodies do what is in my, or in any animal’s best interest. And yet, even with that realization, even with the huge chasm that has opened and allowed me to see how brutal our society really is, I’m still horrified on a weekly basis by some new act of animal cruelty–things like hog fighting and crush videos.

And today, I’ve realized that it’s more than the gut wrenching cruelty that makes me so upset.

-I’m upset because every time one of these stories breaks, I realize there is so much more out there that is still hidden, kept behind closed doors so the perpetrators can continue without backlash, without recourse.

-I’m upset because in many instances when these acts are brought to light, there is little anyone can or will do about them. Either the laws are inadequate, or the powers that be have no interest in upholding the law, or in making any real change.

-I’m upset because I believe most people want the delusion to continue. They don’t want to know. They don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to become angry about it, or feel like they should do something about it. I know I often feel this way. That’s why we all turn off the ASPCA commercials featuring Sarah McLachlan.

-I’m upset because no matter how much I love animals, and the fact that I would never hurt anything (all the spiders in my house are escorted outside, not squished), I realize that I am still complicit in their suffering, and I don’t think there will ever be a time when this won’t be true.

Even when I want to avoid products, services or industries that harm animals, the task feels insurmountable, it feels like everything is set up in favor of cruelty. From choosing shampoo, to medications and medical treatments, to clothing, to food, and entertainment, how do I monitor and track the companies to avoid, especially when the information is so hard to come by, and often misleading? How do I weed through the varying agendas to find the truth?

How do I help dogs, cats, horses, llamas, and elephants that are victims of negligence and abuse when the system is stacked against me? I donate when I can afford it, I tweet, I might post a Facebook message, but does this really do anything? I feel like there are so many problems, yet so few people who are both willing and able to do anything about it.

I fear the exploitation of animals is so deeply rooted and pervasive in our society that even if I am not an active participant, I will always be a participant nonetheless, as long as I continue to live and consume.

As most of my readers know, I’ve never blogged about such a serious topic. I’m usually blabbering on about potluck paranoia and why I can’t keep my house clean. But a story struck me a few weeks ago that I can’t let go.

It’s the story of Lolita, the orca who was stolen from the Puget Sound in 1970.

Lolita Miami Seaquarium

Miami Seaquarium by LEONARDO DASILVA via Flickr Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0

You can read her story here.

Her pod was targeted and attacked, so that the “collected” whales could be sold to aquariums for entertainment purposes. She was ripped away from her mother, along with seven other orca, and she is the only one of these orca still alive.

Lolita is now 20 feet long and lives in the smallest orca tank in North America, less than 60 x 80 ft. According to the federal Animal Welfare Act, the tank is illegal due to its small size, and it has no shade from the Miami sun; however, she remains there because the Seaquarium and its substandard tank have been grandfathered in.

Orca are highly sociable animals, living with relatives their entire lives, speaking a unique language that Lolita still understands. But Lolita is considered the loneliest orca in the world because her tank mate, Hugo, committed suicide in 1980, and she has lived without the company of another orca since then.

Lolita Miami Seaquarium

Miami Seaquarium by Ross Cobb via Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s been said that the City of Miami doesn’t want to do anything about it because of the revenue the Seaquarium generates for the city, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has yet to do anything to help Lolita (although that could be changing).

For decades activists have been trying to free her so that she can retire somewhere outside her fishbowl. In 2008, the documentary “Lolita, Slave to Entertainment,” was released to help further her cause. Multiple petitions have been created and signed, a rally was just held in Miami, calling for her release, and yet she remains wallowing in her whale puddle, the curator of the Seaquarium stating she will never be allowed to retire.

After reading Lolita’s story I immediately signed the petition on urging her release into a sea pen in her native waters (the full plan is here), just like I sign so many petitions on the website.

But after signing the petition and sharing on social media, I still couldn’t stop thinking about Lolita floating in her little fishbowl. Obviously, more outwardly brutal acts are committed every day, but there is something about that lone orca floating listlessly in a pool that really bothers me. Maybe it’s because she was stolen from her family for the sole purpose of doing tricks in a tiny pool, or maybe it’s because the people who claim to care for her are the ones committing this act of cruelty, or maybe it’s because the act is being committed in broad daylight–heck they’re charging admission for people to witness their cruelty first hand. So not only have they denied her her freedom and the ability to be with her pod, they’re profiting from it, and it’s being advertised in travel books. Maybe it bothers me because of the fact that we’ve let it go on for 40 years, completely oblivious to why this is wrong and taking no action to make it right. Lolita is the very example of American greed, consumerism, perhaps collusion, and how easy it is for a company, or an industry, to delude the public.

Although, what I really think bothers me about Lolita’s terrible tale is how well it illustrates my complicity in the mistreatment of animals, how as someone who claims to love animals, I failed her. How I allowed myself to be ignorant of her story and the stories of the other sea mammals “collected” from the wild. I’ve visited SeaWorld on multiple occasions without a second thought as to how the animals ended up there or what their lives might be like. And over the last few years or so, I’d heard rumblings about the sea parks and mistreatment of animals, but I looked away, not wanting to hear it.


Here I am in my 2011 souvenir photo.

But when I read about Lolita, I finally couldn’t turn away. I read about her capture, the protests, the hopes that one day she’ll be released. And I’ve read the Seaquarium’s statements against her release and I know this will not be an easy battle. I fear that just like with many other animal cruelty issues the law won’t be strong enough, or the organizations in power won’t take a stand. I fear that she’ll remain in that tiny pool, without another orca, until she dies. And while I think the odds are stacked against her, I have to try to do something, a small, but heartfelt effort to help.

So I decided to share her story, in hope of raising awareness, gaining support for her release, and, as I’ve realized while typing this, selfishly to feel like I’ve done something, while also coming to terms with my own shortcomings–an act of personal catharsis, knowing that even with this small action, I’ve likely still failed her.


If you want to speak up for Lolita, you can sign the petition here. You can also share her story on social media and boycott the Seaquarium and its sponsors.

For more information on the controversy surrounding the sea-park industry, you can watch the film, Blackfish, the story of Tilikum, a whale that was captured as a baby and has been involved in the death of three people while in captivity. For their side of the story you can read SeaWorld’s response to the film.

After writing this, I discovered there was another arguably even lonelier orca living in Canada. Her is name is Kiska and while Lolita has the company of dolphins (inadequate, but better than nothing), Kiska truly lives alone in a tank. If you want to help Kiska find a better living situation you can sign her petition here.

23 thoughts on “Lolita – The Loneliest Orca in the World and How I Failed Her

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Just by posting this you’ve done far more than most of us. Lolita’s plight is indeed sad. The more people who know about it, the better. Perhaps the only thing that would get the aquarium to do something is a drop in ticket sales. Posts like this could have that effect.

  2. Marcy says:

    This post made me cry. I have never been more proud of you for your stance on this and your compassion. I am reading a book on the way pigs are treated in this country called THE CHAIN. The torture, the brutal killings, the gestation crates….no wonder Chipotle stopped selling pork rather than use a vendor that they found out wasn’t treating the pigs humanely. I am never eating pork again and trying not to eat any meat and will just hope and pray that the poor sea creatures are left to live in the ocean where they belong.

    • Jennifer Windram says:

      It was quite a divergence from what I usually write, so I was a little nervous about that. And I know the subject can evoke widely varied emotions, but for me it was more about my own internal struggle with having a certain belief but feeling powerless to really affect change, and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that I have done, and will likely continue to do things that are not in line with my beliefs. Thanks for reading!

  3. Nicole Roder says:

    What a thought-provoking and heartfelt post, Jennifer. You’re right, most people want the illusion to continue. I think it’s that way for almost any issue that involves that exploitation or abuse of people or animals. Nobody wants to think that their own actions are contributing to someone else’s suffering, but the truth is, all of us are in one way or another with the products we buy and the people we vote for. I had a friend in high school who had an ever-growing list of products he wouldn’t buy because the company who produced it supported something to do with animal cruelty or the exploitation of people in some way. It was exhausting for him, and it took up an enormous amount of time and energy. And I’m sure he still missed a ton of information that would have affected his actions if he’d known it. It’s wonderful that you’re trying to do something, even if it seems small, to help Lolita. Just know that it would be virtually impossible for you to be perfect in your actions, and you can’t ensure that you never do or buy anything that hurts anyone. Your responsibility as a human being is not to be perfect (nobody is), but to do what you can, when you can. You are doing that better than most people. Don’t beat yourself up!

    • Jennifer Windram says:

      Hi Nicole, Thanks for the positive words. Yes, being perfect is an impossibility, and I try to keep that in mind and do the best I can. But for some reason her story was eye opening for me, especially how I’d been oblivious to it all along. Then it made me think of all the things I’m still oblivious to and how much our lives rely on the exploitation of animals, and I felt incredibly overwhelmed by it all. For me it was sort of like trying to grasp the concept of infinity 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate it!

  4. April says:

    It is frustrating to feel like one little voice will make a difference. However, if more of us understand what is taking place our voices can be added. For Lolita’s sake, as well as all the other animals captured for us to fill our need of curiosity by leering over them. I can’t watch those commercials either–the ones with the sad eyed children is also a very difficult experience. I will join you. Thanks for telling Lolita’s story.

    • Jennifer Windram says:

      Thanks, April. Yes, it’s very frustrating when you feel like you can’t to do anything to make change, and at the same time also feeling like you will always be a part of the problem yourself. I guess we just do the best we can.

      • julie says:

        Those commercials. I have to change the channel, not for why you think. I simply cannot have them all in my home. I would want to adopt each and every one of them. Perhaps that is what I will do when I become a kajillionair. Save them all.. That football player that was involved in dog fights. I don’t even want to say his name. He should never been allowed to return to professional football. Never.

  5. Jeff | Planet Bell says:

    You bring up some interesting issues here. I’ve seen orcas in the wild and they are one of my favorite animals. It is shocking that we take a massive animal that is used to roaming and migrating vast distances in the open oceans and put it in prison.

    It is difficult in our society to eat food from responsible sources and use products that are humanely tested as you mentioned. All we can do is our part and when there are bigger injustices like this one, we can spread the word. I appreciate your passion on the subject.

  6. Jennifer Windram says:

    Hi, Jeff. Seeing orca in the wild must have been thrilling. We took a kayaking trip in the Puget Sound a few years ago hoping to spot orcas – and now that I think about it, possibly Lolita’s pod – we didn’t see any but it was still a great trip and just knowing they could be out there was exciting. Really, my most memorable (and usually heart pounding) encounters with animals happened in their native habitats – canoeing with alligators in Georga; running into (well, not literally thank god) bears, mountain goats, moose, big horn sheep (we practically did run into him) while hiking; sailing with blue whales. My hope is over time, more and more people begin to appreciate seeing animals in the wild, versus doing tricks in a park. Thanks for reading and commenting. I know it wasn’t the most uplifting post 🙂

  7. julie says:

    Thanks Jennifer. I haven’t been to see you in so long and I come back and you make me cry. I want to personally fund a bigger pool for her, and then give her the company of the Canadian orca. I worry about her if she were to be released, (Whales are still hunted aren’t they?) and I think the whole thing just sucks. She is providing many a chance to see an orca, many that would otherwise only see them in books or movies. I agree what happened to her is unthinkable, and how she is forced to live deplorable. People suck and right now I am kinda ashamed to be one.

    • Jennifer Windram says:

      Eeek. I didn’t mean to make anyone cry. Yes, I believe whales are still hunted, but her plan is pretty solid. They will create a sea pen for her in her native waters where hopefully she can be reunited with her family, maybe even her mother who they think is still alive. There will be people there to help her acclimate just like they did with Keiko a few years ago.

      There is ongoing debate about whether sea parks offer any real benefit. Many of them do rescue and rehab injured animals, however, it seems the orca end up being mistreated and exploited. Again, this is part of my frustration. It’s hard to see through the agendas to find the truth.

      • julie says:

        Do you think she would be smart enough to avoid being captured again? Or has her captivity taken away her (what I would assume to be) natural aversion to humans? Or do they have a natural aversion to humans? They are quite a bit larger than we are, maybe they aren’t leery of us at all? I hate agendas, yet they are all around us. Just be honest. And kind. It isn’t that hard really.

  8. Trent Lewin says:

    Wow… yes, not the typical post from you Jennifer, but I’m glad you posted this. I’ve resisted watching Blackfish… I think it’s going to dig deep into me, I know it will. I’ve been to these places before, and I struggle with them now. The way you describe Lolita’s loneliness really gets me… this is a living creature, isolated, excommunicated, stolen. It’s so bloody unfair. But I don’t think you’ve failed her. We’re not always right all the time, sometimes we have to learn the lessons and look back and wonder why we thought certain things… honestly, I have a hard time taking my kids to the zoo. There’s a huge one in Toronto, I’ve never taken them there… I don’t know what they will think, seeing animals impounded. I don’t know what I will think. Too sad, really it is. And I’m glad you wrote about it, it’s good to know others feel the same way.

    • Jennifer Windram says:

      Thanks, Trent. Yeah, I’ve been on the fence about animal captivity and grew up thinking it was okay – my dad is a zookeeper and I spent one summer working with hoof stock at the Denver zoo. I think for some animals it might be okay, but for others it’s obvious they’re miserable – pacing, circling – doing what’s called stereotypical behaviors – essentially they’re bored out of their minds.

      I think awareness is the first step and then taking the time to question our long held beliefs. Even if we don’t change our minds, at least we’ve taken the time to think about it and perhaps study all angles, instead of just accepting the norm as being right or okay.

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