Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Whale Of A Week

Documents show unsettling look at orca Lolita’s life in Seaquarium
Lolita, a Northwest orca whale, breaches in her pool before an audience at Miami’s Seaquarium in 2007. (Erika Parker Price/Special to The Seattle Times)
Lolita, a Northwest orca whale, breaches in her pool before an audience at Miami’s Seaquarium in 2007. (Erika Parker Price/Special to The Seattle Times)

Unsealed court documents offer an troubling look at Lolita the orca whale’s life in a Miami pool she shares with two dolphins. Lolita was caught in 1970 in Penn Cove and is the lone survivor of the Northwest whales sent to captivity.

Lolita, a Northwest orca whale living at Seaquarium in Miami, has suffered scrapes and other health problems, according to recently unsealed court documents that offer an unsettling look at the life of the whale captured in 1970.

The documents were written by four expert witnesses who visited Seaquarium, and reviewed medical and other records, on behalf of plaintiffs who challenged the conditions of the whale’s captivity. They found that 20-foot-long Lolita has a troubled relationship with two Pacific white-sided dolphins that live with her in an oblong pool that is 80 feet across at its widest point.

These dolphins scraped Lolita’s skin with their teeth more than 50 times in 2015. Through a review of the records and their own on-site observations, the plaintiff’s’ experts concluded that the dolphins — rather than being best buddies with Lolita — are often at odds with the whale.

“In reality, they harass and injure her, often to the point she needs antibiotics and painkillers for bleeding open wounds,” wrote John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld killer- whale trainer whose February report was one of four expert-witness reports unsealed recently — at the request of the plaintiffs — by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro after her June decision to dismiss a lawsuit that sought to gain the whale’s release. The plaintiffs include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Washington-based Orca Network.

Another expert witness, Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust, noted that at least one of the dolphins engaged in sexual behavior with Lolita, including pelvic thrusts while mounted on top of the orca. Visser, a marine scientist, described such activity as “completely inappropriate,” and cited records in her report of the whale exhibiting sexual behavior toward a dolphin.

Seaquarium, in a statement responding to the unsealing of these reports, rejected claims that they documented poor treatment of the whale. The statement said Lolita is one of the healthiest orcas ever examined, and “she greatly enjoys her Pacific White Sided Dolphins as companions.”

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are found in many of the world’s oceans. Lolita was captured from the southern-resident population, which spends time in Puget Sound, and is listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The three pods in the population were reduced in a series of controversial roundups by marine parks between 1965 and 1975 that left at least 11 whales dead and sent 36 to exhibitors, according to Visser.

Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was caught in 1970 in Penn Cove and is the lone survivor of the Northwest whales sent to captivity. In February of last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that Lolita, though captive, would be listed — along with the wild orcas — as protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“This is a listing decision,” said Will Stelle, the NOAA Fisheries regional administrator for the West Coast at the time of the decision. “It is not a decision to free Lolita.”

Whale activists have long sought to get Lolita out of Seaquarium. And, they hoped the ruling would give them new legal leverage to see that Lolita was returned to the Pacific Northwest, possibly to live in a sea pen.

And once they secured the ruling, they filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court of Southern Florida alleging that Lolita’s conditions of captivity violated the Endangered Species Act. The act prohibits a “take” of a listed species, which the law says includes harassment and harm.

The plaintiffs tried unsuccessfully to convince Ungaro that conditions of captivity, including an undersized tank, no protection from the shade and the dolphin harassment constituted a violation of the Endangered Species Act, and justified her removal from Seaquarium, where she performs with trainers for the facility’s customers.

Ungaro, in dismissing the lawsuit to remove Lolita from Seaquarium, concluded that the conditions though, less than ideal, had not been found to violate the Animal Welfare Act, which is intended to provide for humane treatment in captivity.

Only if Lolita faced “grave harm” would an exhibitor be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, Ungaro concluded.

The judge also noted that the plaintiffs’ experts opinions about the causes of the whale’s medical conditions had a “speculative and unreliable quality.”

Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation’s director of animal law, says “the court adapted a very narrow interpretation of the Endangered Species Act,’ and the decision is being appealed.

After the June decision dismissing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs moved to unseal the reports of their four expert witnesses that include both their observations of Lolita and notes from their review of Seaquarium records that had been kept from public view through the course of the lawsuit.

The reports included information about the whale’s medical records. Veterinarian Pierre Javier Gallego Reyes, for example, wrote about tooth painthat resulted in some teeth being drilled and found the whale also suffered from dehydration.

The whale also has an inflammatory eye condition that is treated with daily drops, according to the reports.

After the lawsuit was dismissed, Seaquarium attorneys fought to keep the reports under seal, arguing in a court brief that some of the information was “highly confidential and highly sensitive” and that the defendant had a strong interest in “protecting specific medical and highly personal information” about the captive orca.

Responding to the public release of these reports, Seaquarium, in the written statement, said that for 46 years, Lolita has been “lovingly cared for.” The statement added that Lolita plays an important role in educating the public about the need to conserve the marine environment, and will continue to be “an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”

Killer whale abuse: Lolita the orca in Miami Seaquarium, the country’s smallest tank. Since being captured in 1970, Lolita the orca whale has resided at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida. She’s been forced to perform tricks since being stolen from her pod at age 4. Not only that, but her tank happens to be the smallest orca tank in the U.S.
Lolita is roughly 21 feet long and weighs 7000 pounds. For a whale her size, regulations state her tank should be at least 48 feet wide in either direction with a straight line of travel across the middle. Her actual tank is just 35 feet wide by 80 feet across, with a concrete station in the center.

The cramped tank also exposes Lolita to the sun’s UV radiation, which has led to terrible eyesight stemming from a pterygium. At 50 years old, Lolita is the oldest orca in captivity, and her ailments are racking up.

Animal welfare organization PETA has been working tirelessly to have the Miami Seaquarium held responsible for the whale’s suffering due to the poor treatment she’s given, but whether she’s released back into her pod or a seaside sanctuary anytime soon remains a big question mark.

12 Things Lolita Would Want Miami Seaquarium Visitors to Know
1971 Orca capture off the coast of Washington State (Lolita and Family)
Lolita the orca was captured and taken from the ocean when she was only 4 years old. The rest of her life has been a living nightmare at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita’s family pod continues to thrive in the ocean, where they’re protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 1971 Orca capture off the coast of Washington State (Lolita and Family)©Terrell C. Newby, Ph.D.

PETA, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network, is working hard to return her to her native waters, including by successfully petitioning the government to include her in her family’s endangered listing and suing the Miami Seaquarium under the ESA for holding her without the company of any others of her species, with incompatible animals, and in a cramped tank with no protection from the hot sun. While the case was dismissed in June 2016 when the court adopted an unprecedented and dangerously narrow ruling, PETA has filed an appeal to continue advocating on Lolita’s behalf. The Miami Seaquarium designated all the records regarding her health and behavior confidential and fought to keep them from the public, but the judge wouldn’t allow all the court filings to stay sealed.

Here’s what the Miami Seaquarium doesn’t want you to know:

1. Lolita lives in the smallest orca tank in North America.
Lolita Alone in Tank
She’s confined to a space that is, at its longest dimension, just four times the length of her body. The tank is only 20 feet deep at its deepest point and only 12 feet deep at its shallowest, creating an absolutely abysmal experience for a mammal who would swim up to 100 miles per day and dive down hundreds of feet in the ocean. Lolita Alone in Tank © Orca Network

2. Sometimes Lolita’s living space is made even smaller.
According to Miami Seaquarium records, the water level in the tank is often dropped, and Lolita is left with even less depth. At one point, the tank reached a maximum depth of only 11 feet.

Lolita’s historically small tank contains a concrete platform that she must swim around to access the rear portion of the enclosure. And she doesn’t even have access to this back area at all times, as gates on either side of the platform are often closed. In 2015 alone, she was gated overnight for the equivalent of almost a month.
Sad Lolita

3. Dolphins attack her.
Lolita with Dolphins
Lolita is incompatible with the Pacific white-sided dolphins who are confined with her in this abysmal tank. They routinely engage in “raking” behavior, scraping her skin with their teeth. Records show that the dolphins raked her at least 52 times in 2015, sometimes so severely that she apparently needed to be medicated with antibiotics to prevent infection. She was also documented many times appearing anxious or agitated. Lolita with Dolphins© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.

4. Lolita has had eye problems for decades.

In the 1980s, she was diagnosed with pterygium in her right eye, which causes inflammation, a foreign body sensation (a feeling that something is in her eye), tearing, and itchiness. This condition can significantly alter visual function and is further exacerbated by ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, which Lolita has no protection from. The daily use of eye drops and occasional steroid drops suggest that her eyes are in a constant state of irritation, and she has been documented on many occasions closing one or both eyes during shows.

5. Lolita’s lack of shade causes her skin to burn.

Records show that Lolita has dry, wrinkly, and cracked skin, which could be caused by her constant exposure to solar radiation and total absence of shade during portions of the day when the sun is strongest. A former trainer even stated that Lolita’s skin would often crack and bleed. In the wild, orcas are able to escape the sun’s rays by diving deep into the ocean, an opportunity that Lolita is denied at the Miami Seaquarium.

6. Trainers fail to provide her with adequate enrichment.
Lolita Playing with Wet Suit
Throughout 2015, Lolita was only given four “toys” as enrichment: a wetsuit, ice, a hose, and a ball. Most times, she was given only one or two of the items. These are woefully inadequate for a week, let alone an entire year. Orcas are extremely intelligent and complex animals, and this blatant disregard for Lolita’s well-being is neglectful. Lolita Playing with Wet Suit© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.

A 2013 study that was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research discusses environmental enrichment for captive marine mammals and states that “their physical-cognitive skills are not being challenged to a high level by floating ‘toys’ in the pool.”

7. Trainers have failed to create and maintain a meaningful relationship with Lolita.
Of all recorded sessions in a one-year period, only 243 play sessions were documented. And only 138 “relationship” sessions—where Lolita isn’t required to perform—were recorded, the lowest number of all documented categories, even though it’s the most important, according to the Miami Seaquarium’s training manual.

8. Drugs are commonplace.
Lolita was administered antibiotics, antifungals, pain medication (including narcotics), steroids, hormones, and antacids to treat ulcers. Many times, she was given drugs without any clinical evidence that they were required, such as being given an antacid when repair work was being done to the area surrounding her tank or in preparation for “the busy season.” There was not a single day in 2015—and there were only four days in 2014—when she didn’t receive at least one medication. The sheer volume of medications that she is given indicates that she isn’t healthy. All the treatment that she receives is for ailments caused by her captivity.

9. Her teeth have been drilled.

Lolita's Teeth
Lolita, like many orcas in captivity who are frustrated and desperate to escape, has developed permanent damage to her teeth, likely from gnawing at the sides and gates of the tank. Marine-mammal veterinarians recommend avoiding any deliberate cutting and drilling of the teeth to expose the pulp cavity, but that didn’t stop the Miami Seaquarium from drilling into Lolita’s sensitive teeth more than a dozen times, likely exposing nerve tissue and causing her considerable pain. Lolita's Teeth© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.

10. The show must go on.
Despite Lolita’s declining health and neurotic behavior, the Miami Seaquarium continues to put on show after show with its money-making star. Sometimes, she’s forced to perform two or three times a day, and there were several instances when shows went on even though she wasn’t able to keep her eyes open or had recently undergone invasive procedures.
11. Her environment distresses her.
Lolita often exhibits signs of distress and frustration in the form of actions toward the trainers that are recognized as precursors to aggressive behavior. The long list in the Miami Seaquarium’s own animal behavior records covers almost every warning sign, including head-bobbing, a tense body, an open mouth, slapping with her flukes (tail) or pectoral fins, jaw-popping, wide-open eyes, ignoring signals, unusual vocalizations, avoidance, sinking under the surface, and deliberate, slow movements.
Lolita has been documented as having scratches, rake marks, scrapes, blisters, rubs, cuts, bumps, bites, bruises, cracks, sores, wrinkles, abrasions, discolorations, and more.

12. She is going crazy.
As is the case with many captive animals, Lolita shows signs of “zoochosis” (obsessive, repetitive behavior). Pattern swimming and rubbing against the sides of the tank—rubs on various body parts were documented several hundred times by her trainers, including “all over her body”—are two examples of such behavior displayed by an animal whose life is entirely unnatural and revolves only around being fed.

Lolita deserves better than this. Won’t you help her?


Are Orca-Friendly Products Coming to Your Home Improvement Store? Ace Hardware stores near the endangered Southern Resident killer whales’ home are using a new label to show what products won’t hurt the marine environment.
Orca breaching; inset: orca-friendly product and signage. (Photos: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images; Pacific Whale Watch Association)

Move over, dolphin-safe tuna and bee-friendly pesticides, and make room for orca-friendly products on the shelf.

This week, two Ace Hardware stores in Washington state will begin placing “Orca-friendly” tags on products that won’t harm the marine environment of the Puget Sound, the seasonal home of endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

“We weren’t really calling attention to the fact that products are going down the drain or running off from gardens and into the water, so what better way to make a statement than labeling certain products as orca safe?” said Randy Burgess, owner of the two Ace stores. One store is in Anacortes on Puget Sound, and the other is in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, where orcas frequent the waters each spring and summer.

“The consumer has lots of choices, but someone who owns a business has the ability to persuade others to buy products that won’t hurt our orca friends all around us,” Burgess said.

The stores, in conjunction with the Pacific Whale Watch Association, have marked about 100 items with the tags, including Method and Mrs. Meyer’s cleaning products, Dr. Earth insecticides, and E.B. Stone and Gardener & Bloome fertilizers.
 (Photo: Pacific Whale Watch Association)
Hobbes Buchanan, owner of San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours and Black Fish Tours, broached the label idea about a year and a half ago.

“So many products are devastating to our environment, and the more I looked at the condition of our oceans, I knew we needed to do something,” Buchanan said. “I realize it’s just baby steps, but...we have a bunch of whales and wildlife in our area hurtling toward extinction, and we really need to help them.”

“We’re thrilled about this,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the 38-member Pacific Whale Watching Association, which has a long history of promoting efforts to save killer whales. “Ultimately it’s about providing consumers with choices, and there’s no better place to facilitate greener choices about household products than hardware stores in orca country.”

By all accounts, orca country is a troubled place. The Southern Resident population, which numbers 83, was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005. Dwindling salmon stocks, especially Chinook—the whales’ preferred prey—and environmental toxins are their biggest threats.

Peter Ross, director of Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program and a leading ecotoxicologist, said two broad categories of contaminants affect orcas. The first includes persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT, which accumulate in whales even though they were banned years ago.

Some household products, including antibacterial soaps containing the chemical triclosan, “are a bit persistent and do accumulate in food webs,” Ross said.

In the other category are products made with water-soluble ingredients, which are far less persistent and bioaccumulative but nonetheless toxic. They include many cleaning products, some pesticides, and the common herbicide atrazine.

Those contaminants might not accumulate in orcas and other marine mammals, but they could have a negative impact on salmon and other prey fish.

As for fertilizers, Ross said organic compounds are preferable to synthetic ones because they don’t contain metals and other dangerous contaminants. But excessive nutrients from any fertilizer runoff can cause fish-killing algal blooms.

Still, Ross said the orca-friendly label was “a great idea and a good way to connect consumers with the protection of killer whales and their habitat.”

But Ross had a caveat.

“It’s really important to make sure the right kind of chemists and toxicologists and environmental scientists are reviewing the data and being really critical about how we define orca-friendly,” he said.

Burgess, who was in Chicago attending an Ace Hardware corporate convention at the time of this interview, said he was planning to show the label to about 40 Ace Hardware store owners from western Washington.

All 4,700 Ace stores are privately owned, and merchants have considerable leeway in deciding what to stock.

Last year, Ace said it would phase out the sale of pesticides that are known to kill bees. Burgess said he had eliminated those products, and the orca-friendly label was unrelated to that move. Officials from Ace Hardware Corporation did not respond to interview requests.

"Cataclysmic Carousel of Greed": Oscar-Winning Actress Emma Thompson on Oil Drilling in Arctic

California Lawmakers Pass Bill Banning Orca Shows, Captive Breeding. Legislation sent to Gov. Jerry Brown also prohibits the export of killer whales.
(Photo: Brigitte Hiss/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The California State Legislature on Friday approved a historic bill that would ban the breeding of captive killer whales and orca performances in that state. It would also prohibit the export of captive orcas out of North America.

Violators would face fines of up to $100,000.

The legislation, presented in the State Senate as a rider to a budget bill, passed 26–13, strictly along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor of the measure and Republicans opposing it. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Naomi Rose, a killer whale expert and a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, which cosponsored the bill.

“It took us long enough, and it was quite the wild ride, but it’s done, although it still has to go to Governor Brown,” Rose said. “But we hear he is inclined to sign it.”

“The governor has until Sept. 30 to take action,” Deborah Hoffman, Brown’s deputy press secretary, said in an email. “We generally don’t comment on pending legislation.”

The move to ban orca breeding and shows in California, home to 11 killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego, was introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Richard Bloom in March 2014.

That bill, which also required that killer whales be sent to retirement in sea sanctuaries, was opposed by SeaWorld and the Assembly majority leader at the time, Tony Atkins, who represents San Diego. It was tabled in committee.

This spring Bloom reintroduced the measure, without the sea sanctuary provision, and it passed an Assembly vote on June 21.

“Today is a victory many years in the making,” Bloom said in a statement. “The Orca Protection Act is a product of scientific consensus, immense public support, and a concerted legislative effort to protect this intelligent and majestic animal.”

SeaWorld, which did not oppose the current version of the bill, unexpectedly announced in March that it would immediately end its captive orca breeding program and phase out killer whale shows at its parks in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio by 2019, replacing them with more “natural” displays with a strong educational component.

“As a result of our recent announcement, SeaWorld worked with Mr. Bloom on this legislation, but we do not have a position on the bill itself,” the company said in a statement in March. “SeaWorld is already making the changes called for in the legislation.”

“Importantly, the bill does allow for SeaWorld to rescue and rehabilitate stranded orcas, with the goal of returning them to the wild,” the company added. “And, if the federal government determines that the orca is not releasable, that animal could stay in SeaWorld’s care.”

Even though SeaWorld has voluntarily agreed to the provisions contained in the legislation, the bill is far from symbolic, Rose said.

“Corporate policy can change at the drop of a hat,” Rose said. “[SeaWorld CEO] Joel Manby could decide that he’s done his job, and he leaves. And the next guy goes to the board and says he’s decided he wants to renege.”

“A law is far better than any corporate policy,” Rose said, adding that she would like to see similar bills pertaining to beluga whales, dolphins, and ultimately, all captive marine mammals.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld is fighting to defeat a similar federal bill introduced last November by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

Federal records obtained by the Animal Welfare Institute show that SeaWorld has spent at least $300,000 lobbying on the congressional bill.

“They say they are just holding educational meetings with Congress members, but several offices have told me [SeaWorld officials] are actively lobbying against the bill, saying that it’s unnecessary because they’re already doing those things,” said Chris Hyde, the institute’s deputy director of government and legal affairs.

SeaWorld did not respond to an email seeking comment on its federal lobbying efforts.

Still, opponents of orca captivity applauded the California legislation.

“I’m elated,” said Samantha Berg, a cosponsor and a former SeaWorld orca trainer who was featured in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which inspired Bloom to author the legislation. “It’s historic and sets a precedent for the rest of the country.

Blackfish director Gabriel Cowperthwaite said she was “a little speechless” at the passage.

Seal jumps on boat near Vancouver Island to escape pod of hunting orca whales

Breaking: SeaWorld’s Deep Decline in 2nd Quarter 2016 Results

Half a million people can’t be wrong…

…494,000 (to be exact) fewer people attended SeaWorld’s park locations in the second quarter of 2016 as compared to last year, according to a press release issued this morning by SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. That’s a 7.6 percent decline in attendance. Total revenues are down by $20.5 million, compared to the second quarter of 2015.

This report follows on the heels of the company’s first quarter 2016 results, where SeaWorld reported a staggering net loss of $84 million compared to a net loss of $43.6 million in the first quarter of 2015.

What do all these numbers mean?

People like you are making a difference. It’s NOT okay to keep dolphins and other whales in captivity. 
Free World not SeaWorld!
Free World not SeaWorld!

In an age where it’s mainstream knowledge that keeping dolphins and other whales in captivity was a failed experiment, with the National Aquarium in Baltimore leading the pack with plans to retire their dolphins to a seaside sanctuary, it’s no wonder SeaWorld is tanking.

Too big to fail? We think, not.
SeaWorld stock 8-4-16
SeaWorld’s refusal to acknowledge the real reasons behind their deep profit loss could result in a collapse of their present business model. Their refusal to allow for the retirement of dolphins and other whales has not gone unnoticed by the paying public.

"Our focus remains on implementing and delivering on our strategic plan of creating experiences that matter, providing distinct guest experiences that are fun and meaningful…” ~ Joel Manby, President and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.

Experiences that don’t matter to the animals, and are clearly not mattering to people, either.

How to Help
Take The Pledge to Not Visit a Dolphin Show!
SeaWorld went public on April 19, 2013 at $27 per share, rising 24 percent on its debut. From its all-time high of $39.65 hit on May 20, 2013, the stock is down over 50 percent. In the last 12 months alone, the stock has declined 4.5 percent.