Is There Hope for Lolita, the World’s Loneliest Killer Whale?

In an effort to send Lolita back to her Pacific home, kids from Philadelphia created a mural of the imprisoned killer whale.
Schoolchildren paint Lolita. (Photo: Gigi Glendinning)
Mar 11, 2013· 4 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

If art can change the world, can big art change the world in a big way?

Gigi Glendinning, who runs the Philadelphia-based animal welfare education group 22 Reasons is banking on it. Glendinning is currently enlisting students at schools across the Philly metro area to complete and sign giant, life-sized murals of Lolita, the loneliest killer whale in the world. It’s part of a worldwide legal effort to send Lolita back to her Pacific home. The murals are “visual briefs,” if you will, for the courts to consider.

Kids instinctively take to Lolita’s long and sad saga. They can imagine what it must have been like for her, 43 years ago, to be yanked away from her family and flown across a vast continent, put in a tiny swimming pool at the Miami Seaquarium, and taught to perform tricks for camera-toting tourists clad in Bermuda shorts.

Activists have fought for years to win Lolita’s freedom and send her for rehabilitation in an enclosed sea-pen in her native Pacific Northwest. Eventually, she might be able to reunite with her family. After all, we know who they are, and we know where they are.

Last week, TakePart caught up with Glendinning about her art-for-the-whale idea.

TakePart: What first gave you this unusual idea of getting students to create and sign life-sized murals of Lolita?

Gigi Glendinning: I wanted the students to get a sense of the actual size of an orca so I decided to create a 22 x 9 feet template for each school to paint. With every animal story that we share, we offer a specific action that kids can take on behalf of that animal. Signing the life-size mural and writing their thoughts about her situation is the perfect way for students to voice their concerns and desire to help Lolita.

Why such large paintings? What is the impetus and hoped-for impact of their size?

Empathy. When you stand right up next to her, it makes her more real—it connects you with her and with the reality that this magnificent creature has been confined in a pool for 43 years. The same thing happens when I show kids the size of a laboratory cage used for chimpanzees—it puts them in the animal’s world for a moment.

Tell us a bit about Lolita and her current living conditions in Miami.

Lolita is beautiful and strong—it’s a miracle she is still alive. Lolita has been confined in an 80 x 35 feet tank for 43 years, 33 years of which she has been without another orca. She is forced to perform tricks for dead-fish treats, one or two times a day, to obscenely loud rock music. In the ocean, she would swim alongside her family up to 100 miles a day, at 30 mph, diving 500 feet deep. Instead, she has spent the majority of her life floating in a tank with her tail touching the bottom. Her living conditions are simply, criminal.

Have you been to see her at the Seaquarium? What was your reaction?

Yes, I went to see her situation firsthand so I could speak from experience. I hated giving money to the park, and I was miserable from the moment I walked through the gates. All the animals in the Miami Seaquarium are living in squalor—it was very upsetting. I did enjoy seeing Lolita after reading so much about her. She “spy hopped” and watched me take photographs of her, but then she would float off to the side, a painful reminder of her daily existence. Once the show started, the whole scene made me angry, especially the spectators laughing and clapping.

What are the students’ reactions when they hear Lolita’s story?

They are shocked. When I show the photo of her tank, the room is silent. People assume zoos and aquariums take good care of their animals, so they are saddened to see otherwise. Learning about Lolita’s situation definitely promotes intense thoughts and conversations about confining animals for our amusement and “education.”

How can this project tie-in with other things children study, like conservation and the law?

There is always a way to tie the stories I share into the curriculum. Students at one school took it upon themselves to apply what they learned in history class to better understand the legal efforts that advocates are now taking to boost Lolita’s case. They identified the branches of government responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act, and in Lolita’s case, they discussed the government’s lack of enforcement of these laws.

An English teacher at another school decided to have the students practice their writing skills and wrote over 50 individual letters to the USDA on Lolita’s behalf. The kids put their personal opinions in writing and advocated for Lolita—it was a win-win!

Tell me a bit more about the two lawsuits—what might they achieve?

Ideally, they’ll get Lolita out of the tank and into a sea pen in the Pacific Ocean. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have filed two lawsuits to do just that. One against the USDA for continuing to award the Seaquarium permits for the tank, which fails to meet Animals Welfare Act minimum standards for housing a whale of her size. And a second lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service to award Lolita endangered species status like the rest of her family. That would mean she can no longer be harassed and forced to perform. The Orca Network devised detailed plans on moving Lolita to a sea pen for rehabilitation. Most experts agree that Lolita is a prime candidate for release because she could eventually be reunited with her family, a pod that continues to be monitored daily by the Center for Whale Research, since 1976.

Lolita performs at the Miami Seaquarium. (Photo: Reuters)

What’s next for this project? What do you hope to do with these murals?

I’d love to hang them together, this summer, for the public to enjoy. I want to showcase the kids’ feelings about this—they care, and they want a better life for Lolita. Most people are open to learning and changing, and they get excited when they can apply what they’ve learned. The kids are excited to help Lolita and they want to be a part of the movement to end the use of animals for our entertainment.

Why is Lolita so important to 22 Reasons, and why do you think she is so important to these students?

We believe animals deserve the opportunity and liberty to experience their natural born lives. Lolita has been denied that opportunity. Sharing her story promotes the critical thinking necessary for action on her behalf, and for change in how we treat animals in general. Children can handle the truth, that using animals as a means for education or entertainment is fundamentally wrong. The fact that we confine and control them to do so is contradictory and kids—when given the choice—don’t go for it.

What can other people do if they want to join the effort to return Lolita to Washington?

Don’t buy a ticket to the Miami Seaquarium, or any marine park for that matter. Visit Orca Network and the Animal Legal Defense Fund to participate in any current or future letter-writing campaigns and to read updates on Lolita’s case. And of course, have me come to your school to create a life-size Lolita! Email me here: