Sunday, September 10, 2017

Hurricane Irma and the Tragedy of Lolita

Dear APHIS & the City of Miami: 

You have warned Floridians not to abandon pets in the wake of Irma. The city has mentioned felony penalties for animal cruelty. The governor issued mandatory evacuation orders for South Florida. The mayor of Miami Beach told residents to leave early. Irma was described as "catastrophic" and "nuclear." 

Why does the Miami Seaquarium get a free pass? 

Executives at the company elected to roll the dice with Lolita's life. Captive orca transports are routine. And while not completely risk free, leaving her to perish in a flimsy facility on Virginia Key is unconscionable. Does the Seaquarium get infinite passes regarding clear cases of animal cruelty? 

They left Lolita, aka Tokitae, in the cross hairs of a major hurricane. What gives? You preach animal safety, but your record in policing the Miami Seaquarium calls into question your ability to enforce the law fairly, especially versus institutions like captivity companies. Lolita's tank is undersized, cruel and illegal. When, if ever, will the city or APHIS take action? Lolita is an endangered Southern Resident killer whale with a known home, living family and obvious potential happy ending. 

Commentary below is from Jeffrey Ventre & Samantha Berg of Voice of the Orcas 

JV:   In 1995 I rode out a hurricane with SeaWorld's killer whales including Tilikum, Katina, Gudrun, Taima, Nyar and others. That storm, much less powerful than Irma, passed over Orlando in August of that year. 

Shamu Stadium 1995 showing concrete pillars & reinforced roof 
Unlike the flimsy undersized-illegal facility where Lolita is held captive, Shamu Stadium in Orlando is generally stout; basically reinforced concrete, steel, cement pillars & reinforced roof

"The hurricane threats to captive killer whales include missile injuries, blunt force trauma, stress, contaminated water and foreign objects in the pool"

In nature whales can ride out storms spending their time predominantly below the surface and at greater depths. The shallow water columns of captivity force the animals to be exposed. In 1995 the whales were extremely agitated when Hurricane Erin passed over, mostly swimming together. Nyar was a sick calf that required tube feedings and we accomplished that in the medical pool under high winds.

In the case of Lolita, her stadium could literally collapse, and she's alone. The Seaquarium was cited in 2003 for a "rusty roof beyond repair" as well as other issues. Unlike the "bunker" of Shamu Stadium in Orlando there's a fair chance that the roof over Lolita could blow off due to high wind velocities from Irma or a future storm. If she was lucky enough not to get hit by collapsing stadium parts, she stands the chance of being sliced by metal from the roof. A second concern is that the storm surge could or could have (we still don't know) undermined the structural elements of her tank including the perimeter glass that holds back the water.

If that were to happen, she'd be in dirty foreign-object-filled water trapped in her rusty whale prison with no way to swim to the sea, which is meters away. Electrical pumps may be out of commission due to power outages and Lolita may be forced to live in contaminated water until power is restored.  

In the context of the original storm forecast, which predicted a CAT 4 or 5 direct strike on Miami, the Seaquarium's decision to roll the dice with her life is callous, immoral, and unjust. If she's still alive, Lolita must have been terrified. While there may have been a skeleton crew on hand, for the most part her trainers were gone. The park is now dark and closed. 

She has no peers like the Orlando captives do. The company executives decided that leaving her exposed to a "catastrophic" hurricane, alone, was better then moving her out of the way. It's unconscionable, especially after the wealth she's created for them. If she survived, more likely since the storm turned West, the public may become physically ill if and when executives return from their silence and say "they had it covered." We haven't heard anything in days... 

The truth, as seen in their actions, or lack of, is that they left her to possibly die, rolling the dice, saving the expense (she's insured), and also likely not wanting to prove that she could survive a transport. Surviving a transport, which she would, undermines the company's prior claims. Spokespeople for the park tell the public that Lolita can't survive a transport as their justification to reject the idea of a sea sanctuary. 

In my  opinion, of all the whales in captivity, worldwide, Lolita is the best suited for release. Her teeth are good. Her mother is still alive, as are her family members. 

After swimming circles in her illegal tank for over 45 years, retire the girl. Learn from Irma. With any luck she could have another 20 years of life, in the ocean, and with or near her pod in a seaside sanctuary.

Jeffrey Ventre MD DC
Former SeaWorld trainer
Blackfish movie cast member 

------------ Below is From Samantha Berg ----------

My biggest fear for Lolita was always that she would die in her tiny illegal sized tank mere yards from the ocean, never having had a chance to be reunited with her mom, Ocean Sun, and the rest of her Pacific Northwest Southern Resident Orca family.

WATCH this powerful short video: 

Sadly, it appears that in the hours during and after Hurricane Irma, Lolita stands a chance of not only being injured but possibly dying in that woefully inadequate kiddie pool of a tank. Her pain and suffering will be made worse by the fact that she has been utterly abandoned by her owners.

Even in the best case scenario where Lolita is mostly unharmed, she will likely spend a harrowing amount of time being tossed around in a pool with flying projectiles and possible storm surge pouring into her enclosure and she will have absolutely no where to go.

Her tank is not deep enough for her to submerge and find refuge from flying debris. And, in an ironic turn of events, she even faces the potential of drowning if the surface of her tank becomes sufficiently blocked by falling detritus. Or maybe the filtration system will fail and she'll have to spend days or weeks floating around in her own excrement. Her tank may over-heat if the power goes out and this could easily lead to a slower death from disease and injury.

None of the options are good.

As bad as I imagined the end of Lolita's life on earth, this is a significantly worse fate - and it would be the final injustice in a long-line of injustices perpetrated against this magnificent animal and her family members.

Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that this could have been avoided. Killer whales can be moved to safety in the event of a natural disaster - and Irma's likely path has been more or less obvious over the past 7-10 days.

Why didn't the Miami SeaQuarium prepare for a hurricane? 

Although there are no Seaside Sanctuaries for killer whales yet the Whale Sanctuary project is working on it as is The Orca Network

MSQ could have easily established a training program for Lolita that involved regularly lifting her up on a stretcher to get used to the procedure. 

A transport box could be standing by AND if no suitable inland temporary tank could be established, even Seaworld would be a better option for a short-term holding facility to ride out the storm.

Although Shamu stadium in Orlando was built in the mid 1980's - it's still a bunker compared to the death trap where Lolita currently resides.

And, yes, I'm calling out Seaworld. SeaWorld management should have stepped up to take her once the dire nature of Lolita'a situation became obvious. SeaWorld prides themselves on being a "rescue, rehab and release facility" - I think this situation more than qualifies as a rescue - and they could sort out the logistical and financial issues after the emergency has passed.

After all, Lolita has earned millions of dollars for her captors and owners. She deserves better than to be left alone to fend for herself just because there are some details to sort out.

Lolita's plight couldn't be a better example of why large, social complex, intelligent animals like killer whales don't belong in captivity.

But, honestly, at the moment, I don't care about how Lolita ended up where she is - I just want the Seaquarium to do the right thing - which would be to mobilize every resource at their disposal to relocate Lolita to a safe place.

And if by some miracle Lolita survives the latest undeserved ordeal being thrown her way, I will make it my life's mission to see that she is at least given the chance to return to her family.

Miami SeaQuarium is a disgrace and they should be ashamed of their actions.

Samantha Berg Samantha Berg, M.Ac., Dipl.Ac.
Former SeaWorld Trainer
Blackfish movie cast member

-------------------------  City of Miami & APHIS Contact Info  --------------------------

Mayor TomΓ‘s Regalado 
3500 Pan American Drive
Miami, FL 33133

Office 305-250-5300 
Fax 305-854-4001

USDA-APHIS Animal Welfare contact info: