A trainer pets Lolita, the captive orca whale, during a...

A trainer pets Lolita, the captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami in 1995. Credit: AP/Nuri Vallbona

Lolita has called a small, concrete tank at Miami's Seaquarium her home since she was 4 years old, when she was captured in the Pacific Ocean near Seattle. Now 57, the roughly 7,000-pound, 20-foot orca swims alone in a tank that's 35 x 80 feet and just 20 feet deep.

For decades, Lolita, known as Tokitae or Toki until Seaquarium changed her name, performed for visitors, showing off tricks on command. Last year, the aquarium ended her show, but Lolita remained in the tank as humans debated her future.

Now, there's hope Lolita might retire to the waters where she grew up. The Seaquarium announced plans to free the killer whale, returning her to the Pacific, thanks in part to assistance from Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

It's a notion that captures the imagination, conjuring the joyous reunion of Lolita with her mother and other family members, who scientists say still swim in Pacific Northwest waters. But it's not easy. It'll require moving the enormous animal across the country and settling her into a large sea pen where human companions can attempt to teach her to hunt for fish, build endurance, and live in the wild, before possibly setting her loose. If it works, Lolita could have many years of freedom, since female orcas can live to 100.

But after more than half a century of captivity, it's a tough task.

Observers point to the cautionary tale of Keiko, the orca who portrayed the title whale in the movie "Free Willy." The film studio and others raised money to free Keiko, returning him to the wild off Iceland's coast in 2002. But in late 2003, after being unable to connect with other whales, Keiko died of pneumonia.

Not quite the movie's happy ending.

Valid concerns, however, shouldn't doom Lolita to her tiny tank. Even the controlled setting of a Pacific sea pen "sanctuary" home with trainers who can help her adjust and maybe find her family via their still-similar calls is an appealing first step. 

It's worth considering for other captive giants, too. Lolita's story should strike a familiar chord with New Yorkers, who have watched from a tram as Happy the elephant paces his one-acre Bronx Zoo enclosure. Advocates lost a lawsuit last year to have Happy, first captured in 1971, declared a legal person. Last month, City Council member Shahana Hanif introduced a bill that would virtually ban elephant captivity in New York City, by requiring enclosures to include 15 acres per elephant and multiple elephants living together.

If it passes, the Bronx Zoo likely would have to find a new home for Happy and fellow elephant Patty, who lives in a separate space. Like Lolita, Happy and Patty have other options. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, for instance, offers 3,000 acres for 29 elephants retired from zoos or circuses. 

Elephants and orcas are profoundly similar creatures, with an intelligence, awareness, desire for companionship, and emotional capacity few other nonhuman animals possess, and a size and beauty that makes watching them stunningly heartbreaking.

Lolita and Happy and their fellow captive orcas and elephants deserve as much freedom as possible, starting with the safety and space a sanctuary can provide.

But if we really care about future generations of orcas, elephants and others, we'd stop capturing them, breeding them, caging them. Then, they could live their lives in their best homes, in the wild, where they can be truly free. 

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months