IMAGE: LOLITA
Orca Network
Lolita, seen inside her 20-foot-deep tank at the Miami Seaquarium, is the focus of a freedom campaign.
By
updated 4/14/2008 5:25:42 PM ET 2008-04-14T21:25:42

Hollywood producer Raul Julia-Levy's current project involves an impressive cast ranging from Johnny Depp, Lindsay Lohan, and Harrison Ford to Elton John, 50 Cent, and Plácido Domingo. He's attracted high-powered producers including Cameron Crowe, Ed Elbert, and Ron Howard. It's a veritable A-list role call, and he's still recruiting.

But the brightest star in Julia-Levy's lineup -- and no doubt the biggest, at 7,000 pounds -- is Lolita, a 40-year-old killer whale living in a 20-foot-deep tank at the Miami Seaquarium.

Taken from her family while still a juvenile, Lolita has been performing for sunburnt tourists twice a day over the last 37 years. The tank she lives in is just four times her size at its widest; she'd have to circle it more than 600 times to travel the same distance her still-wild family members might in an average day. Her only companion -- another killer whale from her pod, or family group -- died 20-some years ago after repeatedly bashing his own head against the enclosure walls. In her native Pacific Northwest waters, whales like Lolita have lifespans similar to humans; in a tank, that life expectancy is cut in half.

"The conditions that she lives in are barbaric," Julia-Levy shouts to me over the phone, unable to contain his anger. He decided to get involved in the campaign to free Lolita last year, when he learned that it was in need of star power. But as spokesperson for the glittery troops he's amassed, Julia-Levy -- the son of actor Raul Julia -- emphasizes that he and the other Lolita-loving producers and celebrities are involved as regular citizens, not activists.

"We are people who have consciences," he says, "and everyone in this campaign from Hollywood has a mind of their own, and we believe that what we're doing is the right thing simply because animals should live in their normal habitat."

Their fight is not a new one. In fact, activists have been trying for years to convince the Seaquarium to retire Lolita -- at times, offering up to $1 million for her release. She made national television in 1995 when played a recording of her pod's vocalizations and viewers watched the whale cozy up to the speaker and listen. In 2003, a documentary about Lolita, Slave to Entertainment, hit film festivals across the country, garnering more attention for the cause. But only in the last few months has the campaign begun to gain momentum again, making news as more and more big names join up.

Julia-Levy's passion for this campaign was evident just a few moments into our conversation -- and his fervor shows no signs of waning. When asked what's next, he hinted at a plan "involving a 'big stick,'" but said he couldn't elaborate just yet. No doubt when he does, he'll have plenty of star power behind him.

How did you first hear about Lolita and get involved in the campaign?
I knew about Lolita for a long time, but it was probably about a year ago when I really got involved with the campaign. I was actually a little depressed because my little dog had just died -- he was 9 years old. It was a very tough time for me, and I was looking at pictures of my dog on the internet and then I came across ... [a video] of Lolita and the conditions of where she lives. And I got even more depressed.

Then I did a little bit of research on the situation and I contacted the Keiko Foundation, which is [under the umbrella of] the Earth Island Institute. They're the ones that have the vast experience relocating animals to their natural habitat -- like Keiko [the star of Free Willy] and Springer.

Who all is on board so far?
The latest one to join the campaign is Elton John. We have some of the most powerful producers on board: Jonathan Sanger, Ed Elbert, Richard Donner (who was behind the Keiko campaign and was extremely instrumental in the release of Keiko), David Permut, Steve Longi. We have a wide range of celebrities, too, including Johnny Depp, 50 Cent, [Hayden Panettiere, Lindsay Lohan, Plácido Domingo, Janet Jackson, Ringo Starr], Harrison Ford ... the list is pretty extensive.

We really just want to send the right message. We want people to educate themselves and to learn and know that it is not possible for an animal of that magnitude, that large, that in her normal habitat is used to traveling long distances -- at least 80 to 150 miles a day -- to be confined in a small, little tank, day after day, night after night for the past 30-something years. That's not normal. That animal needs to go back to her normal habitat.

What does it say about our culture that it wasn't until these famous faces got attached to the campaign that people started to pay attention?
Unfortunately, in our society nobody listens to your next-door neighbor when he raises his voice. ... When celebrities speak loud and stand up, it seems like everybody listens, it seems like everybody takes it more seriously, and I don't understand why normal people do not do the same thing ... This is work that we all have to do as citizens. We all have to raise our voices when something is not right. Why do we have to wait for celebrities to raise their voices first?
Is it the responsibility of celebrities then -- because they are influencing the public this way -- to research these organizations and get involved?

I think it's everybody's issue ... every citizen in this country has the same responsibility as any celebrity in Hollywood. Everybody should be responsible for taking care of our environment, our water, our animals. This responsibility belongs to everyone.

The bed we're gonna be sleeping in tomorrow, we're making it today.

What do you say to the argument that Lolita shouldn't be moved?
Those who oppose this are extremely arrogant. Who are they to say that animals cannot be relocated? If you put a person in a cage for 30 years and you ask him to choose -- "Do you want to get out of that cage or do you want to stay there?" -- what do you think he's going to say? He's gonna say he wants to get out of that cage. Unfortunately, animals cannot speak. That's why we need to speak for those animals who cannot speak for themselves.
For those who say, "Oh, the animal is happy here because we love him," it's completely erroneous. Animals need to be loved by humans -- but in their normal habitat. Meaning: Respected. We need to respect their habitat; we need to respect their privacy; and we need to respect their freedom.

I don't want to love animals in captivity; I want to let them go. And this animal surely deserves to go back to her family, to her normal habitat. This animal has paid the highest price of her life: Being confined to a cage for 37 years. I can tell you 100 percent that animal cannot wait for the day to come that she's going to be free.

Speaking of raising voices -- tell me about the benefit concert. Is that still in the works?
It's part of our plans to put on a benefit concert -- absolutely. We want to do it in Miami, a couple of blocks from the Seaquarium. We're planning a series of events.
But right now, our team is in the process of negotiations with the Seaquarium. We will try every single diplomatic road to resolve this situation properly for both parties. This has to be a winning situation for both parties.

I think [Seaquarium owner Arthur] Hertz should really think about this because he's got a whale that's not going to live more than five years in that tank. And he can come out of this one looking like a hero. It's up to him. But like I said, our team is putting together a diplomatic plan to negotiate the situation, make both parties win, and do the right thing.

So that's the first step ... and if that doesn't work?
Then the campaign goes to a whole new level ...

Sarah van Schagen is Grist's assistant editor.

© 2013, Grist Magazine, Inc. All rights reserved.

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