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Activists, Natives issue new call for orca Lolita’s release; Next Seaquarium totem journey to begin

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is using the occasion of a change in leadership at Miami Seaquarium’s parent company to push once again for the release of the orca Lolita.

Lolita is one of the few remaining orcas in captivity. She has performed in shows at the Seaquarium for decades.

Parent company Parques Reunidos recently renamed a former CEO to lead the organization – José Díaz. Díaz is returning after a five year absence and PETA said a lot has happened since then that they hope will sway him to their position.

The animal rights group, which is against the use of animals for entertainment, said awareness and activism has grown around orcas in captivity at marine parks in recent years.

PETA sent the CEO a letter in February urging him to not only release Lolita, but move orcas in the company’s other marine parks, located in France, to seaside sanctuaries.

“Lolita has spent nearly half a century in a cramped tank, where she’s been without the companionship of any member of her own species since 1980, when her tank mate, Hugo, died in an apparent suicide after ramming his head into the tank wall,” PETA said in a statement.

Along the trek in 2018, supporters lay hands on the totem pole created by Lummi Nation artist Jewell James. (Courtesy Lummi Nation Councilmember Fred Lane.)

PETA was set to confront Díaz at the company’s annual meeting in Madrid, Spain, March 28. The group also said it purchased stock in Parques Reunidos in 2017 specifically so that it could influence management decisions and communicate with shareholders.

Seaquarium spokesperson Maritza Arceo-Lopez told the Seminole Tribune via email March 12 that nothing had changed regarding the release of Lolita and that the Seaquarium had no further comment on the matter.

Totem journey to start

PETA isn’t the only group working to free Lolita.

Lummi Nation tribal leaders, tribal members and their supporters work throughout the year to have Lolita, called Tokitae, returned to the Salish Sea. It was the Salish Sea in northwest Washington State where Tokitae was captured in 1970.

Lummi artist Jewell James originally created and donated a 16-foot totem pole depicting Tokitae. Last year, to raise awareness, it traveled from Bellingham, Washington, to Miami – making several stops along the way including at the Big Cypress Reservation.

Tribal leaders have planned another trek this year. They expect to have support from Seminole and Miccosukee members as they did last year.

The Lummi said it is a sacred obligation that Tokitae, who they consider a family member, be released and returned. They said they have a plan for her reintroduction and call her important to the ecosystem of the Salish Sea.

Seaquarium officials have previously said that Lolita has received excellent care since she arrived decades ago. They said her release now would be too dangerous.

“Miami Seaquarium has the utmost respect for the Lummi Nation … However, [they] are not marine mammal experts and are misguided when they offer a proposal that is not in the best interest of Lolita the orca,” Seaquarium officials said last year.

Lummi officials said they have a well thought out plan for Tokitae’s return to the Pacific Northwest, so she can live out her remaining years safely and in comfort.

Long journey

Lummi Nation Councilmember Fred Lane and Dr. Kurt Russo of its Sovereignty & Treaty Protection Office told the Seminole Tribune that the journey is set to begin from Bellingham in late May or early June.

There are stops planned in many cities along the way, including Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Flagstaff, El Paso, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Tallahassee, Gainesville and Miami.

The final stop, after an almost 3,500 mile journey, is set to be the Seaquarium, where a ceremony will take place within earshot of Lolita’s tank.

Shows ending

The public’s enthusiasm for live orca exhibitions – made most famous at SeaWorld locations in the United States – has waned in recent years. Pressure to free orcas in captivity was ramped up significantly in the wake of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which told the story of the orca Tilikum, who performed at SeaWorld Orlando. The documentary showed the complex and often damaging effects of keeping orcas in captivity.

Tilikum, who died in 2017, was involved in the deaths of two trainers and a trespasser.

SeaWorld decided in 2016 to end its orca breeding programs and phase out live shows. It is thought that the decision was made at least in part because of the fallout from the documentary and continued public pressure from animal rights groups like PETA and activists like those within Native tribes.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a staff reporter for The Seminole Tribune. Prior to moving to Florida, he was a reporter and editor for print and digital publications in his home state of New Mexico. When Damon’s not working on a story, you’ll probably find him at a hot yoga class or splashing around on some South Florida beach. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.

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