‘PR stunt’, ‘Death sentence’: Ex-trainers pan proposal to move Lolita from Miami Seaquarium

MIAMI – Three women who worked with famed orca Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium panned Thursday’s announcement that the attraction’s owners plan to return the captive whale to her “home waters” in the Pacific Northwest.

The three women, who either served as trainers or otherwise worked alongside the 56-year-old cetacean, did not mince words as they denounced the proposal in an interview with Local 10 News Friday.

Lolita — also known as Tokitae or Toki — has been in captivity at the Seaquarium since 1970 and efforts to free her have ramped up in recent years.

Thursday’s announcement that Lolita would be moved from her tank to a semi-wild sea-pen in Washington state’s Salish Sea was met with acclaim from officials like Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. Officials said it could take up to two years.

Watch Thursday’s news conference:

But the plan isn’t getting praise from Shanna Simpson, Carley Gonzalez and Tricia Nicewicz. All three worked for the Seaquarium at one point and say they’re among a group of former trainers and marine mammal experts banding together on social media to fight the move.

Simpson and Gonzalez both worked as trainers with Toki. Nicewicz, who is now an attorney and worked in the rescue and rehabilitation field, worked alongside Lolita as a trainer for Pacific white-sided dolphins.

“A lot of the trainers, the former and current trainers, found out about what was said (Thursday) through social media,” Gonzalez said. “That’s not fair to anyone. It’s not fair to Toki.”

Gonzalez called the move a “PR stunt.”

“The agenda that they’re putting forth and how they’re kind of riling up the society around us like ‘Yes, we can free this whale’ and ‘Yes, it’s going to be so amazing,’ when in fact it’s a death sentence to Toki,” she said. “It’s very disheartening.”

Would Tokitae survive the trip?

The three women question whether Lolita is in good enough health to complete a 3,000-mile journey to the other side of the country.

“Her health is not great,” Simpson said. “She’s extremely geriatric.”

Simpson said she and others believe the level of stress a move would put on Toki could be deadly. She said she and many others do not believe the 7,000-pound what would survive a transport.

“You drain the pool, you put them on an airlift, you clean them out of the pool,” she said. “Obviously that’s stressful. You know, you’re putting them in a transport, crate-type apparatus that has water in it. You’re driving them to the airport. How are you going to drive a killer whale to the airport?”

Simpson said transferring Lolita to an airplane would require a crane and a long flight to Washington state.

“I’ve transferred so many animals across the country and I can’t even imagine transferring a killer whale, especially a geriatric one,” Simpson said. “So then you’ve got the flight with pressurization. Just, if you just imagine the fear that this animal is going to go through during this.”

Life in a sea pen

“Toki does not do well with change,” Gonzalez said.

And moving Tokitae from a tank to a sea pen would be a big change.

Simpson said if Lolita makes it to the pen alive, she will have to contend with polluted waters.

“The resident population of killer whales in Washington State (is) on the decline. They’re not doing well,” Simpson said. “They don’t have a great fish population, their food population for them is on the decline. The waters are polluted, the temperature is up.”

Nicewicz also questions the logistics of building and maintaining a sea pen.

“If you put her in a sea pen, those sea pens are expensive, who’s gonna pay for the building of that, who’s going to pay to maintain it?” she asked. “With a killer whale like this in a sanctuary-type environment, you’re going to have to have around the clock staff. Who’s going to pay for that?”

She pointed out the lack of detail presented Thursday.

“This dream of releasing her sounds good on paper, but the devil’s in the details here and without any of those details, it’s really hard to assess if they’ve actually thought about any of this,” Nicewicz said.

What would a return mean for Lolita’s pod?

While advocates at Thursday’s news conference cheered over the idea of Lolita being reunited with her home “L pod,” Nicewicz said there’s no guarantee she’d be accepted back in after decades away from home, saying “that’s not something we have verified facts (for).”

“The idea that like, ‘Oh, her mom’s still out there and they’ll recognize her’...those are human thoughts and conventions being applied to an animal,” she said.

Nicewicz also said that Lolita’s decades spent living in confinement around humans means a move northwest wouldn’t be “doing her L pod any favors.”

She said Lolita’s been exposed to numerous pathogens in captivity that her resident pod, already in a precarious situation, may not have immunity to, like morbillivirus, which was believed to be spread from dogs, to sea lions to seals and then onto other marine mammals.

“It has a very high mortality rate. So that’s just one example of vector transmission when a disease crosses from one species to another and we take that risk if we move Tokitae to a sea pen,” Nicewicz said. “So even if she were to survive, there are still risks to that southern pod.”

Move faces legal hurdles

Nicewicz, the attorney, said concerns over disease, for instance, would likely fall under under laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would have to sign off on a move and would have to consider those laws before doing so.

“One of the things that NOAA is going to look at is going to be the stressors that Shanna mentioned, it’s going to be looking at the environmental aspects of when you put her in a sea pen, it’s going to look at the transportation and how you get her there, it’s going to look at whether or not she’s got dietary or medical restrictions that would prevent her from surviving out there,” Nicewicz said.

She said the announced plan doesn’t really outline how Lolita’s move would comply with various laws.

“Right now, their plan is nothing more than a pipe dream,” Nicewicz said.

‘We do have to do what’s best for this individual animal’

Simpson agrees that Lolita never should have been taken from the Miami Seaquarium in the first place.

“Toki being taken from the wild in the ‘60s, I think we can all agree that that was not ideal,” Simpson said. “I mean, it’s not OK.”

Members of Washington’s Lummi Tribe, which inhabits the area around Tokitae’s home waters, also feel that way, but feel differently about moving the orca.

Some members were present at Thursday’s news conference and praised the move.

Simpson told Local 10 News that talking about the issue as it relates to the region’s native population is a “touchy subject,” Lolita’s health has to come first.

“I will say, with the utmost respect to the tribe, we do have to do what’s best for this individual animal,” she said. “ I know they think of them as their family. And I would want what’s best for my individual family member, not what is best for me. So I just hope that they can focus on that aspect of it, and do what’s best for her as an individual.”

Gonzalez, who called moving Lolita a “bad, bad idea,” promised to fight any plans to move her to a sea pen.

“I know myself along with all the other advocates for Toki are 100% onboard, we’re going to fight this,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to keep her safe. We’re going to keep her healthy and hopefully not release her because that is not in (her) best interest at all.”

The Miami Seaquarium denied Local 10 News’ interview requests for this story on Friday.

“We won’t be asking our team to take care of interviews at this time, rather we are allowing them to maintain their focus on caring for Lolita,” a spokesperson said.

In a news release following Thursday’s news conference, the Seaquarium said it hopes relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months.

“At present, Lolita receives round-the-clock care by a team of dedicated, highly-skilled, medical, nutrition and behavior experts. Her most recent independent health and welfare assessment completed by Dr. Tom Reidarson, DVM DACZM, Dr. James McBain, DVM retired and Dr. Stephanie Norman, DVM, Ph-D indicated that her energy, appetite and engagement in daily activities is becoming reasonably stable,” the news release said.

Q&A with longtime trainer

Local 10 News’ Christina Vazquez also engaged in a Q&A with Heather Keenan, a former trainer at Miami Seaquarium who said she spent 18 years as “Toki’s trainer, teacher, and friend.”

Here’s what she had to say.

Christina Vazquez: What are some of your concerns about Lolita’s welfare when it comes to a plan to potentially relocate her to a “sea pen”?

Heather Keenan: The simple stress of moving a geriatric animal from their home of 50 years to a completely unfamiliar environment is enough to compromise her health both physically and mentally. This state of shock she may never recover from. She is very sensitive to change and has shown this over her lifetime with even small changes to the sounds around her, the animals she lives with, and even the introduction of live prey.

Sea pens are never a good option for such a large animal. Sea pens offer very limited access for hands on medical treatments. She has needed significant medical intervention in the past few years and as she continues to age, this will not decrease in likelihood. Constant problems and physical risks from structural breaks, jagged edges, tangled nets, currents, etc. and there is a physical risk of entanglement and drowning for an animal that is not familiar with netting. Maintaining appropriate water quality has been a large concern for her health over the past few years and Friends of Lolita invested heavily in her water quality. A natural sea pen can suffer from toxicity issues, pollution, pathogens, and the additional hazard of Toki ingesting foreign objects (which can be common among animals that go from concrete pool to sea pen type habitats). Keiko’s bay pen cost $1 million to build and over $12 million to keep afloat over the four years it existed.

Vazquez: What are some alternatives to a “sea pen” that would address the concerns from animal rights advocates about her current enclosure?

Keenan: Other zoological facilities have the appropriate habitats for an animal of her age and health status and would allow for a more more suitable relocation and possibility to adjust to another environment. SeaWorld Orlando has a large habitat that would provide her with continuity of care and reduce the stressful event of moving her to only a few hours instead of days. This decreased time frame would increase the potential for a successful outcome for Toki.

Vazquez: What is Lolita’s ability to adjust to all the requirements to live in the wild after spending decades in captivity?

Keenan: She has not known the wild for 50 years. It is not a magical place but full of pollutants. Studies have found that the Southern resident population of Killer Whales are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world making them more susceptible to disease. This environment is not suitable for any animals much less her.

Vazquez: What are your concerns about Lolita being able to catch her own food if released to a “sea pen”?

Keenan: It was stated by the parties looking to relocate her that she is like a child that needs us to take care of her and she depends on us. She is absolutely 100% dependent upon people and is not capable of catching live fish. Regardless of live fish or not, she will also need to continue to receive medication to keep her health issues from escalating for the rest of her life.

Q&A between reporter Christina Vazquez and Heather Keenan

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.