By: Louie Psihoyos
I am the Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society and the director of the Oscar winning film The Cove, a documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan. We represent the voice of millions of people around the world that advocate for the well-being of dolphins, whales, and other marine life. My organization would like to express our support for the proposed amendment to the Endangered Species Act listing of the Southern Resident killer whales to include the orca Lolita, the only captive member of the Southern Residents, and to highlight the devastating impact of captivity and isolation on Lolita’s well-being.
Dolphins—including orcas, the largest member of the taxonomic family—share many of the capacities that make human beings special and worthy of protection. Their evolutionary path predates humanity’s by some ten million years and along the way they have evolved a brain that rivals our own in size and complexity. Scientists researching genetics at Texas A&M have recently discovered that the dolphin and human genomes are “basically the same.” Lead researcher Dr. David Busbee concluded, “It became very obvious that every human chromosome had a corollary chromosome in the dolphins.”
Besides a large complex brain and similar chromosomal structure we know that dolphins share our common ability to feel pleasure and pain, and to form complex, lasting emotional bonds. These are the things that make human life meaningful and valuable. Because these capacities are shared by dolphins, and sometimes had to a greater degree, we must recognize that the same things make their lives meaningful and valuable.
Dolphins have evolved highly developed nervous systems and demonstrate a capacity for intelligence, emotion, and self-awareness that is rivaled by few other species on the planet. Their hearing is at least 10 times more sensitive than that of humans and they have evolved an extra sense, an echolocation system to image their environment in three dimensions. Imaging studies have also shown that the dolphin brain contains up to three times more specialized “spindle” neurons than the human brain. These neurons are thought to function in the processing of emotions and awareness, and have thus been found only in the large brains of higher vertebrates.
Dolphins live in highly complex social groups and in the Southern Resident population, families and pod-members spend lifetimes together. Strong emotional bonds are fostered by complex communication skills. Orca pods use sophisticated languages with discrete call types that are unique to that group and are considered pod-specific dialects. Along with language, dolphins also transmit knowledge to one another over generations and have distinct patterns of behavior that are analogous to what humans would consider “culture.” Thus the social lives of dolphins are as richly complex and meaningful as humans’.
Like humans, dolphins demonstrate an intense curiosity about their environment and creativity in manipulating that environment. Their unique sensory capabilities provide highly detailed, three-dimensional images of their physical surroundings using nothing but sound waves. Nonetheless, dolphins kept in captivity are often put on display in tiny concrete tanks surrounded by screaming people and loud music. This is a very distressful environment for a wild animal whose primary way of experiencing the world is through sound.
The chronic stress and deprivation of a life in captivity in addition to being torn from their natural environment and isolated from their pod inflicts immense emotional trauma on these highly sentient creatures. As our understanding of these animals has evolved over recent decades, there is now enough evidence to suggest that it is impossible to adequately replicate a dolphin’s natural environment in captivity. Lolita, in particular, has been confined to a small barren tank that prevents her from engaging in nearly any natural behaviors and without another orca for decades.
The Southern Residents were listed as endangered only after our own species ravaged the population by capturing them to be used for entertainment, and their ocean ecosystem at an accelerating pace through pollution, overfishing, and devastating bottom trawling. Extending to Lolita the protections of the Endangered Species Act, which should include transferring her to an ocean sanctuary in her own natural aquatic ecosystem, is the least we can do to ensure that she does not continue to be harmed and harassed for mere entertainment.
It is clear that Lolita’s capacities to think, feel, experience, and manipulate her environment are on par with the capacities of a human being, but she cannot swim, dive, or even interact with other members of her species. We support the National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposal to amend the Endangered Species Act listing of the Southern Resident killer whales to include the orca Lolita and implore the agency to aggressively enforce the law to prevent Lolita from suffering further.
Join the Oceanic Preservation Society and support the release of Lolita. Use #FreeLolita on Twitter and Instagram to add your voice.