Re the Jan. 18 article Animal advocates march on Miami for the release of Lolita and the Jan. 16 piece Lolita, Miami Seaquarium’s orca, may win federal protection: When hundreds of people took to the streets recently in support of Lolita, a killer whale at Miami Seaquarium, I was overwhelmed by their good intentions. But I was also chilled by the possibility that she might be returned to the wild.
Just 14 years ago, I was part of a team organized to release Keiko, a killer whale whose story inspired the movie Free Willy. Like Lolita, Keiko received international attention, and goodhearted people donated tens of millions of dollars to fund his release.
Unlike the movie, however, Keiko’s story ended in heartbreak. The animal-rights activists in charge of his release were solely focused on a single outcome — release at all costs — despite undeniable evidence that he could not survive in the wild. He never learned to forage for food because whales don’t hunt alone. He was shunned repeatedly by other wild whales thought to be part of his “family.” No matter what we tried, Keiko never lost his dependence on humans, who had cared for him for more than 20 years.
The “wild” has been depicted as an environment rich with wide open spaces and freedom, but for whales like Keiko and Lolita, it can be a dangerous, deadly place. Wild oceans are harsh, unforgiving environments unsafe for an animal who isn’t equipped with even the most basic survival skills or an adapted immune system. Even if Lolita could be taught to forage for food — something Keiko couldn’t accomplish with more than three years of training — she would be especially vulnerable to toxic heavy metals, pesticides, garbage ingestion, oil spills and the effects of overfishing.
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Keiko suffered a long, slow and physiologically punishing death. We can’t let the same thing happen to Lolita.
Mark Simmons, executive vice president, Ocean Embassy, Orlando