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Documentary stirs movement to release Seaquarium's killer whale

By Daniella Aird
Staff Writer

14th July 2003

Another show starring Lolita the killer whale closed Sunday to a round of applause. But these fans were clapping in hopes that the Miami Seaquarium's star performer would one day never perform any more tricks.

"Let's free Lolita!" one member from the audience shouted after a showing of the controversial documentary, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.

The film, which premiered this weekend as part of the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival at Cinema Paradiso, gives an hour-long look at the killer whale's life and the ongoing movement to free her from the tank she now calls home.

"She's been stuck at the Seaquarium for 33 years," said the film's director, Timothy Gorski. "We want to educate the public. All they see is a happy whale doing tricks. Lolita has been taken away from her natural home and is forced to swim in circles."

And so goes the decade-long battle over where the 7,000-pound orca belongs. Animal activists say Lolita is treated like a circus act and needs to be returned to her natural home, off Washington's northwest coast. The Seaquarium says Lolita is doing just fine, receiving top-notch care from loving trainers.

In the film, experts such as former Seaquarium trainer Ric O'Barry say Lolita's life is an unhealthy one because she's forced to live in a too-small tank that causes sensory deprivation and isolation.

The movie opens with footage of the black-and-white giants caught in nets, thrashing and squealing in the water. Lolita was captured during this 1960s roundup, when about 40 orcas were taken from their home in Washington’s Puget Sound and shipped to marine parks around the world.

Lolita landed in Miami, where she has been performing in front of packed grandstands for three decades.

Activists kicked off their Lolita campaign after another captured orca, Keiko, star of the movie Free Willy, was freed from a Mexico City aquarium in 1998 and is now getting re-acquainted with the wild off the coast of Norway with the help of trainers.

Activists want the same for Lolita; the Seaquarium says no way. Lolita supporters picket the park every Sunday, calling it the Miami "Seaprison."

Seaquarium officials declined to be interviewed but offered a statement from the park's executive vice president and general manager, Andrew Hertz.

"Miami Seaquarium has created a caring and healthy home for Lolita where she has been thriving for more than 30 years," Hertz said. "She is part of our family, and we will continue to provide Lolita with the very best possible care. ... If she left now, there is no scientific evidence that she could survive in the open waters of the ocean."

So, inspired by the film, Diane Moreton of Lake Worth said she was going to drive to Miami that afternoon to take part in the weekly protest.

"I empathize with Lolita," she said. "I light a candle daily for her release"

Daniella Aird can be reached at or 954-356-4550