Hollywood ending sought for captive killer whale


MIAMI -- She's no Hollywood star, but animal rights activists hope the story of Lolita the killer whale will have a happy ending much like that of the movie "Free Willy."

After 25 years performing for the public at the Miami Seaquarium, the gentle giant should be set free, they say, released into Puget Sound near Seattle to rejoin her whale family and live happily ever after.

But Lolita's owners say no Hollywood ending is necessary: Their star attraction is faring just fine. The real danger, they insist, would be releasing the 31-year-old mammal, who might starve because she's forgotten how to hunt.

They also charge that some backers of the drive to liberate Lolita simply want to reap free publicity for a "Free Willy" sequel set for release this summer.

"The tie-in is obvious," said Karen Janson, spokeswoman for the Seaquarium, one of Miami's oldest and most popular tourist attractions. "The publicity wouldn't hurt the film. But we truly believe that Lolita cannot survive in the wild."

The tug of war over Lolita's future has bubbled quietly for a year, erupting into a public tussle only recently.

Last year, researchers at the Center for Whale Research near Seattle approached the Seaquarium, asking if they could purchase Lolita for release into Puget Sound.

Seaquarium's owner, Arthur Hertz, declined.

Meanwhile, Jerry Powers, owner of a Miami Beach magazine that caters to jet-setters, began running advertisements calling for Lolita to be set free.

"I had friends from out of town visiting and I took them to the Seaquarium," Mr. Powers said. "I hadn't even seen the movie 'Free Willy' but when I saw this enormous whale jumping up and down in this very, very small tank, it touched my heart."

Mr. Powers' ad campaign attracted little attention until recent weeks, when a Hollywood heavyweight and some powerful politicians got involved.

Richard Donner, producer of "Free Willy," happened to be in Miami and saw one of Mr. Powers' ads. Intrigued, he called Mr. Powers, then quickly signed on with the "Free Lolita" movement.

"Now he's planning a big campaign when the sequel to 'Free Willy' is released," Mr. Powers said. "We want public opinion to turn the tide and force Mr. Hertz to release Lolita."

Also joining the campaign are two high-profile politicians from Washington state, Gov. Mike Lowry and Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who recently held a news conference calling for Lolita's release.

The whale should "retire as a citizen of Washington state," where she was captured, Mr. Lowry said.

Lolita, meanwhile, continues performing for audiences at the Seaquarium, which last year drew about 600,000 visitors. Federal regulations now ban the capture of whales for such purposes, meaning that the Seaquarium and other parks with killer whales must breed the animals in captivity to keep their shows going.

But Lolita probably won't ever bear young. Her mate, Hugo, died 15 years ago. The pair never mated successfully, despite repeated attempts.

Mr. Powers fears Lolita will only live a few more years if she remains at the Seaquarium.

The record for a whale surviving in captivity is 33 years, while in the wild, killer whales often live to be 80 years old, he said.

"The humane thing to do is to allow her a chance to return to the open water," Mr. Powers said.

The Center for Whale Research wants to move Lolita to an enclosed cove in Puget Sound, where trainers will try to teach her how to fish for herself. If she learns well enough, she'd be released to rejoin the same pod of whales she was taken from 25 years ago, which researchers have been tracking.

If Lolita cannot learn to hunt again, she would remain in the enclosed cove to be fed by hand.

At least then she would be in a natural environment that is far larger than her tank in Miami, Mr. Powers said.

Seaquarium officials, however, insist Lolita is content in her home of the past 25 years, where they vow she will remain, publicity campaign or not.

"She's not for sale," Ms. Janson said.

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