Lolita: 50 Years Ago TODAY, I Was Abducted From My Ocean Home

Published by Katherine Sullivan.

On August 8, 1970, at 4 years old, I was violently torn away from my family and ocean home. My name is Lolita, and this is the story of my 50 years in captivity.

orca lolita captured in net© Terrell C. Newby, Ph.D.
Lolita in a net

It took place in Washington’s Puget Sound. High-speed boats and big nets surrounded us. Dozens of my orca friends and family members were rounded up that day, too, and seven—including me—were later sold to marine parks. Five others drowned during the seizure, including four babies.

lolita and family being captured© Terrell C. Newby, Ph.D.
Lolita and family being captured in 1970

Half a century later, I’m the last surviving orca of those of us who were captured, but what I have is hardly a life—it’s more of an existence. You see, on September 14, 1970—roughly a month after my abduction—I was sent to the Miami Seaquarium and put into the world’s smallest orca tank. I’ve been here ever since.

lolita at the Miami Seaquarium© Orca Network
Lolita alone in the Miami Seaquarium tank she’s been held in for 50 years

During the past 50 years, things have gone from bad to worse. Before being captured, I was free to swim up to 140 miles each day and dive thousands of feet below the surface of my native waters—but here at the Miami Seaquarium, I can’t swim any meaningful distance. I can’t even seek shelter from the scorching Florida sun—my concrete tank is completely exposed to the elements, so sometimes my skin cracks and bleeds. And I’m so lonely—I haven’t seen another orca since my tankmake, Hugo, died after repeatedly ramming his head into a wall 40 years ago.

Instead, the folks here at the Miami Seaquarium keep me confined to this abysmal tank with Pacific white-sided dolphins. They scrape my skin with their teeth. Sometimes, my injuries are so severe that I think staff members medicate me with antibiotics to prevent infection. It’s not the dolphins’ fault—you’d think that marine park staff would recognize that we’re incompatible.

lolita at the Miami Seaquarium© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.
Lolita with dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium

When I’m not being injured by my unsuitable tankmates, I float listlessly or swim in small, endless circles—or I’m forced to perform meaningless tricks for gawking tourists.

orca lolita imprisoned at the miami seaquariumMIAMI SEAQUARIUM | LEONARDO DASILVA | CC BY 2.0
Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium

Marine mammal experts know that captivity has caused me extreme and unnecessary stress, torment, and injury—but according to my Miami Seaquarium handlers, all is well and the show must go on.

trainer rides on orca lolita's back at the Miami SeaquariumIMG_4683 | Matthew Hoelscher | CC by 2.0
A Miami Seaquarium trainer rides on Lolita’s back in 2008.

Sometimes I’m forced to perform two or three times a day, and some of you might remember times when I was forced to perform despite being unable to keep my eyes open—my handlers even made me do tricks after I’d recently undergone invasive procedures.

trainer stands on orca lolita's face at the Miami SeaquariumMIAMI SEAQUARIUM | LEONARDO DASILVA | CC BY 2.0
A Miami Seaquarium trainer stands on Lolita’s face in 2011.

Apparently, my trainers’ idea of addressing my inability to engage in natural orca behavior is giving me a ball or a wetsuit for enrichment. If you’ve noticed me swimming in the same repetitive pattern, rubbing against the sides of my tank, or maybe biting the metal gates of my enclosure—all forms of abnormal repetitive behavior—now you know why.

trainer gives orca lolita a wetsuit to play with at the Miami Seaquarium© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.
A Miami Seaquarium trainer gives Lolita a wetsuit to play with.

Speaking of gnawing on my enclosure, my teeth have become permanently damaged. Marine mammal veterinarians recommend avoiding any deliberate cutting and drilling of the teeth to expose the pulp cavity, but that hasn’t stopped Miami Seaquarium staff from drilling into my sensitive teeth more than a dozen times.

orca lolita's drilled teeth© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.
When Miami Seaquarium staff drilled into Lolita’s teeth, they likely exposed nerve tissue and caused her considerable pain.

Dental damage is just one of many ailments that I’ve endured as a result of captivity. I’ve also gotten infections and ulcers, for which I’ve been given antibiotics, antifungals, pain medication, steroids, hormones, and antacids. My Miami Seaquarium keepers have even given me drugs without any clinical evidence that they were needed, including an antacid to prepare for the busy tourist season.

Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. She has her head above the water and her mouth is open.

Don’t be fooled by what resembles a smile—at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita has been living a nightmare for five decades.

Word in the pool is that there’s a global lockdown—that the reason the Miami Seaquarium is closed is because humans have been told to stay at home. I feel your pain—I’ve been in “lockdown” for 50 years. I’ve been socially distanced from my orca friends and family for decades. The stress of confinement can be terrible—it likely got to Hugo, and it’s nearly unbearable for me, too.

Is your lockdown temporary? I hope mine is, too.

Orcas in my pod, maybe even my mother, swim freely in the open ocean. I probably can’t return to the open ocean—the events that unfolded exactly 50 years ago today sealed my doom in that regard. But there is a way for me to feel waves again, listen to the songs of my wild brethren, and finally have some semblance of a natural life: being released into a seaside sanctuary.

lolita the orca belongs in the ocean

Thousands of you have already urged the parent company of the Miami Seaquarium to retire my fellow captive orcas and me to a seaside sanctuary. Some of you have also asked the Miami-Dade state attorney to investigate the Miami Seaquarium for cruelty to animals. If you haven’t, please click on the button below now—it’s the only present I ask for to mark my “anniversary.”

Help Get Lolita Retired to a Seaside Sanctuary

Ask Officials to Investigate the Miami Seaquarium

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind