In a few days a killer whale known as Lolita will make history. On March 28, 2014, NOAA and NMFS will close a public comment period to consider Lolita as a member of her own family, and thus be granted US federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Whether the US government decides to grant her this protection could help change the course of history.
People around the world are pushing back against corporate tyranny akin to the slave trade that once justified human trafficking (For just two of many examples now, see these recent editorials from Scientific American and the LA Times). Amidst this rising clamor for justice and freedom for highly social and intelligent non-human beings in what many have called the Blackfish Effect, Lolita's story-like the classic novel which made the name "Lolita" synonymous with frightening psychological torment and suppression, as well as cultural tyranny-is a metaphor for an era in human history that is coming to an end.
Years ago, in exceptional heights of irony, the Miami Seaquarium renamed their captive killer whale Lolita. (Note: I've referred to the park as "SeaLand" in the title, as a generic referral to any marine park that holds cetaceans in captivity. Lolita's story rings true for many other captive orcas, thus her name in the title is a tribute to all of them as well. Unfortunately, the name "Lolita" is a far more accurate label than Shamu.) As a youngster the whale was kidnapped from her family in Penn Cove, Washington on August 8, 1970. She was then purchased the following month by the Miami Seaquarium for $6,000. The veterinarian who first attended to her called her Tokitae, meaning "Beautiful Lady, Shining Waters." But just as the narrator/rapist of the novel Lolita renamed his captive step-daughter "Lolita," ripping away her identity and her given name of Dolores, the Miami Seaquarium-in a remarkable testament to unconscious self-awareness-renamed their new purchase after the most appropriately famous fictional character in literature. Just like Dolores, Tokitae was taken against her will from her family and forced to live with her captors.
Both human Lolita and whale Lolita lived traumatic and wrenching lives: forced into subjugation, oppression, and psychological torment. Dolores died very young, while Tokitae has managed to survive an astonishing 44 years in a concrete bathtub in near-total isolation. She is the "last surviving orca from the 45 members of the Southern Resident community captured for delivery and display in marine parks between 1965 and 1973. At least 13 members of her family were killed during those brutal captures." Her existence is diminished in every possible way. She lost her only "friend"-another orca named Hugo, whom she performed with for nine years-when he bashed his head over and over again against the pool walls, killing himself in 1980. And her well-being, like her teeth (and like all captive cetaceans), is constantly pulverized relative to her wild kin in part because captivity itself promotes ill health in whales, and in part because Tokitae's particular situation is well below legal standard for captive marine mammals: her pool is the smallest and oldest of any captive orca, she has no protection from the sun, and she is not offered adequate protection from tourists. Despite this she manages to survive, unlike most of her captive counterparts...making her an excellent candidate for retirement.
But Dolores was fiction while Tokitae is very much alive. She has a family-and a mother who remembers her-that swims wild in Puget Sound, Washington. Ocean Sun is 82 years old and would still be swimming alongside her daughter all these years later had it not been for the capture. Orca researchers know that Ocean Sun is a member of L pod and can be identified on sight. And they know who her family members are, where they forage, and what they've been doing during the 44 years of Lolita's absence. Since her capture, science has shown that, among other crucially relevant data, most wild killer whales stay in their mother's pod for their entire lives. And now, because of the NOAA/NMFS comment period brought about by the unflagging devotion of scores of human beings around the world who've worked tirelessly for decades, Tokitae has a chance to return home.
Meanwhile, those who keep Tokitae captive endorse and justify her continued enslavement...just as the fictional character Humbert Humbert rationalized his keeping of the young Lolita for his own means. In what can only be described as a white paper for orca slavery, the Miami Seaquarium released its take on the reasons Lolita should not be included as a member of her own family, transitioned to well-supported retirement in a large seapen in her native waters, or given a real chance of eventually reuniting with her family. Not to mention contributing a unique and significant level of non-invasive science on the reasons her wild family is endangered.
Language of oppression riddles their white paper: the clear statement that Lolita "should not be included" as a member of her own family, the belittlement of alternative science-based ideas, the expression that the captor must be correct, the implicit assumption that Lolita's only chance at well-being rests with her imprisoners, and the unsubstantiated suggestion that moving her to her native home would be "harmful to her health." And beyond that, any psychologist can tell you about the Stockholm Syndrome and the Stanford Prison Experiments...
The Miami Seaquarium's white paper reads like a classic example of bondage psychology. Briefly, the Stockholm Syndrome refers to the emotional bonds that may arise between captor and captive, despite (and perhaps because of) the trauma involved. Note the justifications for keeping Lolita captive focus on her bonds with her trainers and her round-the-clock daily shows, and that these are "important to her well-being." But the only evidence for this is her longevity (prisoners can live a long time in jail), and how she has bonded with other dolphins (what else can she do under the circumstances?).
Meanwhile the Stanford Prison Experiment had to be called off because humans can become aggressors-rationalizing their acts to confine others-so easily and predictably when given the right conditions (power, resources, the language of belittling or dehumanizing others, instructions to confine, etc). Everything in the white paper's list of justification is just that: rationalizations based on the Seaquarium's own best interests, not Tokitae's.
Consider the absurdity of this quote: "There is no scientific evidence that the 48 year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved from her home. It would be irresponsible, reckless, and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety."
It almost reads as if the park is projecting their own fears about their role in abducting this whale from her home and family 44 years ago when it was without doubt, "irresponsible, reckless, and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety." In fact, with the greatly reduced lifespans of captive orcas in general, science affirms it is astonishing she survives at all after 44 years in captivity. Even her tank mate killed himself in 1980. Further, the paper continues to use the term "home" in reference to Lolita's captive pool in Miami, a gross perversion of her history. They also object to the idea of feeding Lolita contaminated fish similar to those her family eats in Puget Sound, but they make no mention of the fact that this whale must perform tricks over and over, day in and day out, for decades, in order to eat at all. Or that most fish in the world today is contaminated by industrial pollution. Using frightening language about the non-invasive plans for Lolita's retirement, as well as offering the outdated and misleading argument that she is an ambassador for her species (ambassadors choose their professions, captive whales do not) to garner support for her continued enslavement utterly avoids the real issues at hand: classic examples of rationalizing captivity.
This psychological understanding of why those at the Miami Seaquarium continues to hold her is clear and compelling evidence for NOAA/NMFS that this whale absolutely requires the protection of the ESA given the systematic oppression she endures. As with the fictional Lolita, in Tokitae's case the Stockholm Syndrome and the learnings from the Stanford Prison Experiment underlie the Seaquarium's justifications, especially given what science has shown: that orcas are highly intelligent, self-aware, social, family-bonded beings (even beyond most humans), with regional culture, language and dialects that they pass on from generation to generation. In fact, no less than five countries have already banned cetacean captivity for these very reasons: India, Hungary, Croatia, Chile, and Costa Rica.
In a chilling and revealing statement, Robert Rose, the park's longtime curator unwittingly echoes Humbert (the fictional Lolita's captor) when he said, "The activists really don't genuinely care about Lolita, but we do. I've been with Lolita longer than my wife. Lolita is our family member, and we are going to take care of her until the very end."
One only hopes that Rose's wife had a choice in her marriage. Lolita most certainly did not.
(Also, note Rose's disparaging comment about activists lack of "real" care for Lolita; another example of the language of oppression. Abusive boyfriends also say such things.)
One also hopes that NOAA and NMFS see that maintaining prison conditions because it's the best thing for the prisoner-as the Miami Seaquarium would have us believe-is unconscionable and preposterous. If Lolita has the capacity to bond with her captors (as many or most marine mammals are forced to do given their extreme capacity for social bonding that rivals human beings) then she'll certainly be well-suited to bond with her liberators and those who will help offer her a wild life once again. Not to mention other wild whales and her actual family members.
Finally, like the tremendous success of Lolita as a novel that defined a cultural zeitgeist crying out for change, Tokitae's prospects likewise signify something much larger than her individual story. For the same reasons that Reading Lolita in Tehran (in the tradition of the great novel Lolita itself) defined and exposed a culture of oppression and remained on the NYTs bestsellers list for over 100 weeks, this whale's chance at freedom encapsulates a swiftly tilting arc of justice that will not be stopped.
A Day in the Life of Lolita, the Performing Orca