Skip to main content

Chlorinated cruelty: performing prisoners in Florida's marine parks & aquariums


Lolita's chipped & missing teeth - photo courtesy of Shelby Proie 

“There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement” – Jacques Cousteau

You may have remember a recent story here about an ongoing injustice in South Florida:

"The Miami Seaquarium keeps a prisoner in a watery cell twenty-three hours a day, bringing her out twice daily to perform for customers in the name of education and entertainment. She is an orca - an intelligent, sensitive marine mammal - and her name is Lolita. The crime for which she was ripped from her family and has been imprisoned for nearly 40 years, longer than Nelson Mandela's infamous stay on Robben Island: profitability."

Sadly, there's more.

Lolita is not alone in her plight. According to the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF), “Florida is… still the biggest player in the marine park industry, with 13 attractions and 367 captive sea animals, more than any other state”.
(For more details about how to help end Lolita’s inhumane and illegal captivity, please visit and see the information at the end of this article)

Chlorinated Cruelty

Some facts about aquatic mammals held captive in marine parks:

  • Tanks are kept clean with harmful chemicals rarely encountered in natural marine habitats. Because of high chlorine levels in their tanks, dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida were unable to open their eyes, and their skin began to peel off.
  •  In the wild, orcas and dolphins swim up to 100 miles per day, but captured dolphins are confined to tanks that may be only 24 feet long, 24 feet wide, and 6 feet deep. They navigate by echolocation—bouncing sonar waves off other objects—but in tanks, the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, driving some dolphins insane
  • The natural activity levels, sociality, hunting behaviors, acoustic perceptions, and indeed the very texture of small cetaceans’ (any of an order of aquatic marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises) natural environments are severely compromised in captivity.
  • Capture techniques cause intense stress, can be harmful and even fatal. Orcas and dolphins are harassed, terrorized, and chased until caught. Unwanted dolphins are thrown back. Some die from shock or stress; others succumb to pneumonia when water enters their lungs through their blowholes. Pregnant females may spontaneously abort babies. Some drown. Those who survive endure a life of captivity, never seeing their close-knit families again.
  • The risk of dying increases six-fold in bottlenose dolphins during the first five days after a capture, and a similar mortality spike is seen after every transport between facilities. Every transport is as traumatic to a dolphin as a capture from the wild.
  • Of at least 193 orcas held in captivity since 1961, 151 (78%) are now dead. The overall mortality rate of captive orcas is at least 2 ½ times higher than that of wild orcas. Their size and complex physical and social requirements cause them to suffer serious negative consequences when confined in tanks. Twenty-two orcas have died at SeaWorld parks since 1985: four young calves, others in their teens and twenties.

Less than 20 orcas are known to have survived more than 20 years in captivity; only two have survived in captivity for more than 35 years.  One of these is Lolita.

Chicago is NOT a dolphin's natural habitat, and yet... - photo courtesy of wanderingone (

The Liability of Intelligence

A recent 76-page report by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) entitled The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity: The Fourth Revised Edition states, “One of the primary foundations for the moral and ethical arguments against keeping cetaceans in captivity is that they are intelligent. Ironically, it is their intelligence that has made these animals desirable for public display—their ability to understand human commands and learn complex behaviors or tricks has been exploited to provide humans with entertainment”. Studies involving dolphins indicate that they are at least as intelligent as great apes and human toddlers, demonstrating self-awareness and abstract thinking capabilities. The report puts this in perspective:

“…it can be argued that bottlenose dolphins have a level of understanding comparable to that of a two-year-old child, although the linguistic skills of cetaceans hint at intelligence far more developed. Locking two or three young children in a small room 24 hours a day—even one with a window and a dog for a companion during the day—would be considered child abuse. Yet confining dolphins in an equivalent space for their lifetime—with a human caretaker to interact with during business hours—is standard practice for dolphinaria and aquaria”.

While many marine parks claim to provide “educational programs”, the goals of for-profit facilities are to provide entertainment and make money. ARFF explains, “…justifications for marine parks as places of education and conservation have never stood up against examination. Traditional exhibits center on animals performing tricks that are exaggerated variations of their natural behaviors. These tricks prevent the audience from contemplating the barren concrete enclosures… Jacques Cousteau believed that captive dolphins are conditioned and deformed and bear little resemblance to dolphins living in freedom in the sea. It’s like studying human psychology only in prisons, which leads, obviously, to misinterpretations and absurd generalizations”.

Sadly, rather than learning about and gaining respect for the rich lives of these complex and fascinating animals, children come away from marine parks with an understanding that these beings are ours to dominate and exploit, as we do with countless other species of non-human animals.

The HSUS/WSPA report suggests, “The tide may be turning for captive marine mammals” as a result of growing public opinion against these facilities. In the United States, 13 dolphin exhibits have closed in the last fifteen years, while only four new exhibits have opened. In Florida, there was one closure and two openings.

ARFF reports, “As news gets out about traumatic captures, barren concrete tanks, high mortality rates, and aberrant – even dangerous – animal behavior, people are beginning to realize that hidden behind the dolphin’s “smile” is an industry built on suffering… people are becoming concerned about marine mammal suffering and uncomfortable at sea circuses. Citizens are now speaking out loudly that dolphins and whales belong in the ocean”.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) suggests, “Don’t visit parks or zoos that have captive marine mammals unless you are doing so to monitor the animals as part of a campaign. Encourage your local aquarium to stop breeding animals in order to make space for rehabilitating (and releasing) injured wildlife. Report poor conditions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leaflet at the park, write letters to the editors of local publications, and pressure officials to avoid subsidizing these facilities with taxpayer money. Support legislation that prohibits the capture or restricts the display of marine mammals”.

Today, Lolita continues to languish in her tiny tank, but you can help her find freedom.  On Saturday August 8, 2009 from 12 noon until 2pm, there will be a Walk for Lolita in Key Biscayne, FL.  Here are the details:

Walk for Lolita, Saturday, August 8
12 Noon until 2 PM

Please join demonstrators on August 8th from 12 Noon until 2 PM for the Walk for Lolita to express your concerns for Lolita's terrible living conditions and support her retirement plan to a protected bay pen in Washington state.

The Walk will start at the first beach after the toll booths and end at the entrance to the Seaquarium's parking lot.

We will be offering body painting to gain media attention. The greater the number of people with body paint, the more attention the media will pay to Lolita. Anyone who would like body paint should meet at Shelby's condo on 92nd and Collins before the walk to get sprayed. The paint will dry in 15 minutes and be fine for the short ride to the Seaquarium and will wash off in the shower with soap and water.

We hope for a high attendance on this Walk so the news media will take notice and honor Lolita on the date of her capture.

Please pass the word on to friends and family and visit the new Lolita website at  We hope to see you there!

How to protest for Lolita:

When you come to the demo, park in the FREE parking at the beach on the right hand side of the road before the Seaquarium; do NOT pay the Seaquarium to park. If you have any questions feel free to contact Shelby Proie at 412-983-0994. Thanks and we hope to see you Saturday August 8th!

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated" - Mahatma Gandhi


  • sandy 5 years ago

    its no use she's going to die there before ever setting her free. its way too late at 40 years of age. she's not going no where.

  • Niki G. 5 years ago

    Sandy, it's not too late. The day we give up is the day she will die. We cannot give up on Lolita! I have been fighting for her freedom since 2001 because I know in my heart that she will be released, or at least moved to a more natural environment such as a "sea pen."
    Thank you so much for this brilliant article on Lolita, Keith! I hope this has educated a great deal of people. Dolphins and whales are such incredible, intelligent and social beings. The last place they belong is beyond cement walls in a tank!

  • Sara B 4 years ago

    If we put her back in the ocean she is just going to die because she is to used eating dead fish instead of catching it. Why do you think Willy form Free Willy died?

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    Sandy, if Lolita were someone you loved and cared about, my guess is you'd do what you could to help, rather than taking a pessimistic stance. Everyone deserves a chance at freedom and happiness. It's a good thing people with more optimistic attitudes than the one you seem to have never gave up trying to help Nelson Mandela, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, or countless other prisoners who yearned for freedom.

  • Leo M. 5 years ago

    Sandy, Judas Iscariot thought he was a lost cause too. St. Peter didn't think he was after denying Our Lord thrice. St. Peter became the first Pope, spread the Gospel to the Jews, and is revered as one of the greatest saints of all time. As regards Judas, it would have been far better for him had he never been born. Whose rationale are you going to follow?

  • David 5 years ago

    First of all, congratulations on your work defending animal rights.
    I was wondering, if you managed to secure Lolita's freedom, how would you transport her across the continent to Washington state?

  • Ivy 5 years ago

    Excellent, thought-provoking article, Keith. It was worth the wait.

  • Butterflies Katz 5 years ago

    Also see Rattle the Cage productions
    Tim Gorski's film about Lolita

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    Thank you, everyone, and I apologize for such a long wait this time between articles.

    David, for an answer to your very pertinent question, please go to the Orca Network website at www . orcanetwork .org (sorry, I can't post direct links in the comments section...).

    From the Orca Network website site: "Sufficient funding and logistics are in place to accomplish transport and relocation [for Lolita] to an established and secure baypen where professional marine mammal care staff are employed, sufficient food is available and medical care is on call 24/7".

  • Lisa J. 5 years ago

    Good luck at The Walk. Wish I could be there, but I'll be there in spirit.

    Thanks for all you do for the animals!

  • Shelby 5 years ago

    Great story, Keith. You really reach out and educate people on Lolita's story and the plight of countless other captive marine mammals.

  • Corrine 5 years ago

    Keith thank you so much for your AWESOME article ... people need to be educated on how uneducational it is to have these magnificent animals swimming around in tiny tanks. It is far more educational to observe them in the wild, swimming free where they belong!!

    Sandy .... your negativity has no place here ... I look forward to the day when you eat those words!! Lolita WILL be free, it's not too late, some of her relatives are in their 90's, Lolita has not given up and neither will we!!

  • Larry 5 years ago

    Just for the record: 20 million dollars was wasted trying to free an animal that never wanted to be free...remember "Keiko the Killer Whale" of "Free Willy" Keiko was better off staying at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. This goes to show the arrogance of activist where they think they are so right, that that gambled on Keiko's life...and lost. The money could have been better spent trying to save other whales, dolphins, and porpoises that are on the verge of extinction. But saving a killer whale looks "good and sexy" on camera. We are so fixated in this country by a good looking image, that we don't realize the logic of what we are doing.

  • Jesse 5 years ago

    Yet again another do gooder has proven that they are a complete idiot and do not know a thing about marine animals or their care. No one knows exactly how long wild orcas live and the monitoring scheme is not in place to follow them from cradle to grave, so trying to claim that captive animals live a shorter life is obsured. To claim that 78% of orcas since 1961 have died in captivity does not account for the stable population of orcas being kept, nore that their average lifecycle in the wild is less than 40 years. Even in wild populations infant mortality in resident populations can be over 50%.

    The "Walk for Lolita" again is a complete waste of time. Lolita can not be released to the wild and if Lolita is, it would be like signing a death warrent. Lolita will only eat fish cut to a certain size, too large or too small the food is spat out. In the past a wild salmon for put in the tank for Lolita to eat. Lolita swam to the other side of the tank away from the fish.

  • Lorenzini 5 years ago

    You all make fair statements, and the article is enlightening and any publicity informing the public of the reality of captive animals is a bonus, but the reality is that in the case of Lolita it would be too late to release her. In all likelihood she would not be accepted into existing pods and she would not know how to hunt or survive. It's a sad time when we still consider zoos and aquariums beneficial for education when it is large, wandering or pelagic animals involved. Breeding programs for endangered species are a must but are quite controversial when it comes to species that do not need human intervention. Excellent article Keith.

  • Laila 5 years ago

    As an ethical vegan myself, I completely agree with your article. However, I'm not sure a transfer from Florida to Washington state is going to be an easy or stress-free trip for Lolita. If she dies on the way over, it will give ammunition to folks who already are against animal-rights activists.

    There are so many whales and other creatures killed in the wild every day because of human ignorance, greed and selfishness.

    I think it would be better for more people to sign up for Sea Shepherds or any other organization helping marine life than to focus on a small percentage of marine animals in parks around the country.

    It would be nice if no more whales had to suffer as Lolita has her whole life. But, unfortunately we know that isn't the case.

    Perhaps when elephants are no longer allowed in circuses will I believe people will make the right decision about whales in tanks.

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    Hi, it's the "do gooder" (SOMEBODY clearly watched a lot of Scooby-Doo... Jesse) checking in.

    Oh, and there's really no need for name-calling. "Complete idiot" is way out of line & a bit abusive. It may be accurate, but still... ;-)

    Once again, I'm astounded by the anger directed at those of us who seek to create a more compassionate world.

    I wonder if those with such strong opinions about how freeing Lolita would be a waste of money/effort and a death sentence for her are marine biologists or have done as much research on the subject as the sources I've quoted, or if these are more examples of America's instant-opinion culture (Larry, did Keiko TELL you he "never wanted to be free", or is that your assumption?).

    A bottom-line question, folks:

    Humans created these problems by imprisoning Lolita and others for profit. This is slavery, plain and simple. What solution(s) would you offer?

    We are, for the most part, still living in the problem and not in the solution.

  • Jesse 5 years ago

    In response to Keith's last post I can confirm that I am a marine biologist and yes I have done research on the health of cetaceans in the wild and in captivity. I am more than willing to stand by my claim that campaigning for the release of 1 captive orca is a waste of time. If you really care about the marine environment try focusing your attention on the following issues:
    The destruction of marine environments through dredging
    Purse seine fishing and the collapse of fish stocks
    Shark fining
    The destruction of coral reefs for lime and ornaments
    Seal clubbing in Canada
    The problems caused by forgotten drift nets
    Whale hunting for scientific research
    The hunting of dolphins for meat which leads to birth defects in humans
    Indiscriminate long line fishing which is killing of albatross
    The lack of "no take zones"
    The dumping of rubbish in the sea resulting in the largest rubbish dump - The North Pacific Gyre resulting in turtles eating plastic bags and chocking

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    Thank you Jesse, for clarifying that your OPINIONS are those of an expert in the marine biology field.

    I assure you that I, and those with whom I associate in the animal activism community, are indeed working on many of the issues you've laid out (and more), but I disagree with your contention that working to bring freedom to one imprisoned animal is a waste of time.

    Human rights organizations working to free prisoners who are unjustly imprisoned and/or kept in cruelly confining conditions (Lolita's practically in a bathtub; check the illegal dimensions of her rusty enclosure and you'll have no dispute) split their focus and energies. Some work on assisting one prisoner at a time; others work to change entire prison systems. Everyone is free to choose his/her battle.

    If you had an innocent relative in prison, would you work directly for their release, or would that be a waste of time?

    With so many pressing issues out there, why "waste time" criticizing me?

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago


    Your suggestions are appreciated. I find it sad that people would look for "ammunition" to use against AR activists. Do people do that same thing when it's a human rights issue, sitting and waiting for a chance to say, "Aha! See?!?"

    Thank you for the comment about elephants in circuses. I'm a veteran of several circus protests myself...

  • Larry 5 years ago

    Well Keith, to answer your question...No Keiko didn't want to be free. After they cut him loose in Iceland, he swam all the way to Norway, where turned up in a harbor seeking human contact. He started interactiving with children, letting them ride on his back, and eventually his rehab trainers had to take him back into their care to feed him, until he died from pneumonia. Does this sound like a whale that wanted to be wild again? or free?

    Also F.Y.I: The Gulf of California Porpoise..."The Vaquita" is down to 150 animals left. In New Zealand: the Maui Dolphin is down 111 animals left. The Chinese River Dolphin..."The Baija" just went extinct. The Chinese have taken the last of the Finless Porpoise in captivity to save it. Are you better off wasting money on one orca as oppposed to the cetacean species are I have listed that are on the verge of extinction?

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    Larry, it sounds like Keiko was institutionalized, much like human prisoners who become so maladapted to living outside of captivity that they can barely function once re-introduced into the larger world. In a sense, he was a recidivist.

    I've read that goldfish kept in a bowl, when put in a larger area, will continue to swim within the smaller dimensions of their bowl, as if still confined. It's maladaptive behavior, the result of human interference with nature.

    According to various estimates by scientists, every day 35- 150 species of life become extinct on this planet, many due to human irresponsibility. So, we destroy the natural habitat of a species and then "valiantly" swoop in to save the last Finless Porpoise, as if we're some sort of heroes?? We create one problem and then solve it by creating another?

    Take it from Einstein, who said, "You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it."

    To be continued...

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago


    Larry, you keep calling it a "waste", but I'm sure if someone you loved was held hostage somewhere, you'd "waste" everything to win their freedom.

    The plan is not to open Lolita's tank and send her swimming off to wherever (maybe someone learned from the Keiko situation?). The VERY detailed & sensible Retirement Plan can be found at www .orcanetwork .org/captivity/2007proposaldraft.html (remove the spaces and there's the link).

    After 1865, would it have been ethical for Southern plantation owners to retain & continue to exploit a slave or two because they were still able to work? I'll answer for you: No. They deserved their freedom. Why? Because slavery is wrong, always.

    Lolita is a slave, and that's not ok. She is kept where she is because she's profitable, not because her captors fear for her safety in the wild. When she's no longer profitable, what do you think will happen to her? Something nice?

    I'll answer for you:


  • Troy 5 years ago

    The above dophin photo that says "the ocean is right outside" is NOT the ocean LOL.It is, I believe Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and the view is of lake Michigan....been there,done that.

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    oops... Troy's right.

    Fact-check, Keith.... fact-check... ;-)

    Off to change the caption....

  • Lora 5 years ago

    As a studying marine biologist I agree with much of what Jesse has to say. There are problems on a much larger scale that need to be addressed and if not can easily lead to the downfall of many marine, estuarine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. However, this does not mean that I disagree with what is being done in regards with Lolita. Pressure can and shoud be applied in areas such as the captivity of large cetaceans or any animals who naturally live in a large habitat or wander, but is it really different than keeping other species such as guinea pigs, rabbits or pet fish. It's a question of personal ethics and beliefs and unfortunatly people will never agree with each other 100%. It does always seem to be the 'poster' animals that gain publicity, the cute, cuddlies that people like to associate with. Issues such as sustainability, climate change, sea acidity levels should have as much importance in 'salvation' as the cute and cuddlies.

  • WDF 5 years ago

    Would someone be able to supply reference/s for the bullet pointed facts on captive marine mammals in the article?

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago

    WDF, references to the bullet points can be found on the websites linked in the article. Simply click on the links and you should be able to find what you're looking for there.

  • margarita 5 years ago

    I think that I got tired already and I was just starting to participate in the demos for Lolita's freedom. It turns out that it seems there is not much that can be done, because every area you want to cover there's something going against it. So I see it pointless and a waste of time to continue trying to do something on behalf of Lolita.

  • margarita 5 years ago

    I was able to leave a message using my real name instead of the other name that I sometimes use which is noelya. I don't know why it wouldn't let me leave a message with that other name.

  • margarita 5 years ago

    The reasons why I think it is exhausting to try to continue to do something on behalf of Lolita are:
    The fact that the protesters don't realize the importance of having as much media coverage as possible.
    The fact that it seems or so they told me that the SQ owners are also part owners of the news media, so there's no much of a chance to see the protests on local tv or newspaper.
    The fact that there is some strong opposition for Lolita's release, so the SQ uses that to their advantage.
    The protesters could have an impact with the protests but with big participation from people, which they don't have.
    With a big enough participation the news would have to present the protests.
    The fact that knowing that the SQ is not up to regulation, they don't put pressure on the APHIS or USDA to force the SQ to release Lolita or have better accomodations for her.

  • margarita 5 years ago

    For anybody interested, this the latest update from Orca Network:

    How can you help on Sept. 13th!
    If you ever wanted to tell the Seaquarium how you felt about their refusal to let Lolita retire? Sunday, Sept. 13th is the time to join others and let them know.
    Anyone from around the world can help! You do not need to live in Florida to help Lolita, any more than you need to live in Taiji to the help the dolphins!
    This event is schedule for Sunday Sept. 13th to mark the 39 years that Lolita has been in captivity.

    Ways you can help,
    Call (305)361-5705
    Go to their website and comment on their comment box.
    Need an idea of what to say on the phone, letter or comment, go to

  • Bobbie 5 years ago

    I see that you say that keeping an animal is slavery.

    I have a cat. Am I a slaveholder?

  • Keith Berger - Boca Raton Animal Rights Examiner 5 years ago


    If you were, say, keeping a whale in your bathroom (granted, that would have to be one HUGE bathroom) and making it do tricks for the public for a price, then I'd say you were a slaveholder.

    I think you would agree that there is a world of difference between ripping an animal from its natural habitat, keeping it confined in a tiny enclosure for 40 years, trotting it out twice a day so it can make money for you - this is called "exploitation" - and providing food, nurturing and a safe home for a domesticated animal such as a cat.

    I can't imagine how my article led you to ask that question, but I hope I've answered it satisfactorily.