The latest in a years-long string of protests at Miami Seaquarium took place Tuesday, which happened to be the 47th anniversary of the capture of Lolita, a killer whale that has long been at the center of an international animal rights campaign.
Only about 30 activists showed up this time, managing to hang in for nearly two hours under the blistering sun. Though few in number, some had come a long way to make their case: Free Lolita.
Jennifer Potter and her family drove from Maryland to vacation in Miami, which included a visit to the Seaquarium — but not for typical tourist reasons. She said she has been attending Lolita protests at the Virginia Key attraction regularly for over two years, and this year she brought a small brigade to stand by her side.
“As a mom, to think of the suffering Lolita has endured everyday being separated from her mom, left here all alone without another orca, it makes me so sad,” said Potter, who got emotional as her 3-year-old daughter, Cora, stood next to her with a miniature inflatable orca toy in her hand. “I watched ‘Blackfish,’ which started me on this path, and personally I have never, in my whole life, supported zoos or anything where animals are captive.”
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Advocates for Lolita have pushed the Seaquarium to move the whale from a tank that they say is too small and keeps a highly social species in isolation. They hope to see Lolita live out its days in either a coastal sanctuary or a rehabilitation center with the goal of eventually re-introducing the orca into the wild. This summer, their case was bolstered by federal regulators. The USDA released an audit report in June that said the tank may, in fact, be too small, but they have yet to reach a final conclusion.
The managers of the attraction have rejected the appeals, arguing that moving the aging whale across the country might wind up being a death sentence. Andrew Hertz, the general manager at the Seaquarium, said there is no evidence that Lolita could survive if the orca were to be moved from the tank to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, where Lolita was originally captured.
“It would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety in order to appease a fringe group,” Hertz said in a press statement. “Lolita will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”
The documentary “Blackfish,” which highlighted the plight of orca whales in captivity around the world, has added fuel to the Free Lolita campaign. Nearly half the protesters waving banners and urging cars to turn back from entering the marine park were from out of town. Potter, the protester from Maryland, brought four children who wore t-shirts with ‘Free Lolita” or “Retire Lolita” on the front and held posters with pictures of orca whales roaming the open ocean. In total, the Potter family brought 11 people to the protest.
“My youngest daughter, Cora, sees images of these animals and asks why they are in jail,” Potter said. “All my children understand that these animals are intelligent and that living in a concrete tank is inhumane.”
They were not the only out-of-state protesters. A group of demonstrators from New York held signs with Lolita slogans and were dressed in all black clothing, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) insignias on their shirts.
One of the event organizers, Matt Bruce, is a campaign specialist at PETA and is based in Los Angeles. He, too, flew to Miami in order to participate in the anniversary rally.
Others were from Florida cities, some close by, such as Pembroke Pines, others farther, such as Avon Park.
A group of daring protesters wore orca outfits made of black felt in the 90-degree heat, and held signs that said: “Orca’s for Lolita’s Release,” sponsored by PETA.
Chris Lagergren, 47, has been protesting every weekend at the Seaquarium for nine years. He said it was because of Lolita that he became an activist, after moving to Miami from Rochester, New York. He hopes a Lolita move will eventually come, and he vowed to keep protesting until it does.
“I will be here every weekend till I see her released,” Lagergren said.