Can a killer whale be a slave?

Editor’s Note: Carl Safina holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is author of the upcoming book, “Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Carl Safina: Lolita, a captured killer whale, is living in Florida at the Miami Seaquarium in a confined space

Safina: Lolita should be released into her home waters of Washington State so she can be with her family

CNN  — 

“Lolita’s story reminded me of my own,” says African-American actress and singer Robbyne Kaamil. “My own relatives, my family ancestors, were captured and forced into slavery.”

Captured in waters off Washington State in 1970, Lolita is an orca – a killer whale. Kaamil, who perceives clear parallels between Lolita’s life of captivity-for-profit and the human slave trade, was inspired to record “Let The Girl Go: Free Lolita,” a bold music video about Lolita, and a courageous interview on the parallels of captivity between human slaves and performing orcas.

Robbyne Kaamil

Lolita is still living in Florida at the Miami Seaquarium. She’s been the focus of a concerted campaign to win her release. In January, Kaamil participated in a march in Miami that drew an impressive crowd estimated by the Miami Herald to be around 1,000 people.

Can a killer whale be a slave? Literally? “It’s important to understand how horrendous it is to steal a baby orca from her family, force her to perform, and hold her in the equivalent of a bath tank until she dies. It’s a crime,” Kaamil said.

Lolita has spent 44 years in a teacup. She is 20 feet long, living in a tank reportedly to be about 20 feet deep, 35 feet wide and 80 feet long. Free-living orcas usually travel 25 to 75 miles per day. Compared to say, 40 miles, 80 feet is about 1/2600th the size of an orca’s normal daily life.

Carl Safina

Like a second lump of sugar, a whale named Hugo who had been captured from the same free-living whale community two years earlier, shared Lolita’s teacup for 10 years. Hugo died in 1980 after repeatedly ramming his head into the wall of the pool. Did he commit suicide? Free-living orcas never do anything self-destructive. They have never even been seen fighting.

Consider Lolita’s isolation. At age 4, she was taken from her mother. Free-living orcas live their entire lives traveling with their mothers, siblings and children. Unlike any other known creature, unlike elephants and humans, orcas like Lolita never leave their birth family. Free-living orcas frequently live into their 50s or beyond (they can live up to a century). They often cooperate and help one another, and may perform midwife duties.

Forty-year veteran orca expert Ken Balcomb has told me that tooth marks on a recent healthy newborn suggest that another whale, likely its grandmother, assisted her daughter during a difficult birth by pulling the infant from her body.

Thousands of miles away, Lolita’s family has been without her. During these decades, the family desperately needed her. “The captures of young whales in the 1960s and ’70s really caused a long-term problem,” Balcomb told me. The so-called “resident” orca families travel the U.S. West Coast off Washington, Oregon and California hunting fish. Before the captures they totaled about 120 whales. The captures took them down to about 70. They managed to rebuild to 99 whales by the 1990s.

But when the whales removed as babies would have been the next maturing generation, rebuilding hit a wall: too few females. Forty years later, the population—around 80 whales—is losing one or two members a year. The whole U.S. resident population now has just two-dozen females of reproductive age. In some families, the only females are past reproductive age. Those families are doomed.

Lolita, who has never given birth, is now menopausal, her gifts to the future forever withheld by her denatured existence. By continuing to lure paying customers, Lolita continues to make money for her owners. Palace Entertainment, owner of the Miami Seaquarium, claims Lolita can no longer survive in the wild. But that’s not the proposal.

The proposal is to move her into a vastly larger open-water net-pen in her home waters of Washington State. There, she can be in vocal contact with her family. Depending on how that goes and whether after all this time there remains recognition, the possibility of full return to her family could be considered.

Lolita’s fish-hunting skills are by now somewhere between rusty and nonexistent, but free-living orcas routinely share food. Bottom line: What’s proposed for her is better than the situation she is in. Even death might seem preferable—as Lolita’s companion Hugo seemed to think.

“Most of us have a clear understanding about the cruelty of slavery. It is imperative to recognize the inhumanity of forcing any living being into captivity.” Kaamil said.

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