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A loving memoriam – her name was “Cathi”

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A loving memoriam – her name was “Cathi”

By Kelly J. Conner, Save Lolita
April 2012

Cathi was a breeding machine. She performed day in and day out, whether she was sick or not and whether she was pregnant or not for nearly forty years.

One last little note before I sign off on this “blog” or “essay” or whatever anyone wishes to call it. If anyone thinks this is too long, let me inform you that living in a tiny tank for 40 years, swimming in endless circles after having known the freedom of the open spaces of the ocean is also too long. Cathi deserved the best, and my best in this is all that I could give her.

Her name was Cathi. That is what we humans and the trainers and staff of Miami Seaquarium called her and the name she learned to respond to. Far different from the name she was born with. That name was a series of clicks and whistles recognized by her pod until that tragic, fateful day. On November 2, 1971, Cathi was swimming freely in the ocean with her pod, chasing waves, hunting and eating fish, playing with pod mates; seemingly without a care in the world. She was young, vibrant, happy and alive.

Then suddenly, she was being chased by a boat and captured in a net and hauled into that boat. Her cries and frantic pleas for help to her pod mates went unanswered. Or, maybe they did try to answer and they were powerless to come to her rescue against one of the few predators of her species. On that horrible, fateful day she was plucked from her vast, blue home in the ocean, in the waters off Key Biscayne, Florida and sent to a new home. That new ‘home” was a small circular tank at a place called the Miami Seaquarium. It is hard to imagine the terror she must have felt inside when that net trapped her and suddenly limited her ability to move. She must have been very confused, scared and lonely. I was two months old when Cathi was captured.

From the early 1960’s, the Miami Seaquarium was in the habit of naming the dolphins it would use in its “Flipper” series either “Cathi” or “Samantha” (aka Sammy for short). Most of those dolphins were caught in the waters of Biscayne Bay on the coast of Southeastern Florida. The dolphins were sometimes injured during the capture process and they were immediately placed in a medical tank until their survival from the experience was ensured. Once the Seaquarium staff was sure the dolphin would survive, they were moved to another tank where they began their training. Some of the dolphins would die within hours, some within a few days and some would go on to perform for years.

The list from the Marine Mammal Inventory Report is a sad and sorry sight. “Florida Snowball” was captured on October 22nd, 1965 and died on October 25th, 1965. The dolphin named “Pancho” was caught on January 1, 1970 and survived in captivity for 12 years, 17 days¹. “Pancho” was famous for his flips in his tank at the east end zone of the Orange Bowl stadium when the Miami Dolphins would score a touchdown or field goal. Pancho was eventually retired from that post and returned to the Miami Seaquarium. Pancho’s death was attributed to “intestinal failure”. He died on January 17, 1982 and his stomach contents included 2 deflated footballs, 31 coins, 21 stones, 1 trainers whistle, 10 penny nail, 2 screws, 1 metal tag, 1 piece of wire, 1 metal staple and several unidentifiable objects². Such is the life of a dolphin in captivity. Captive dolphins live a life of endless boredom; swimming in circles and performing the same routine twice daily every single day. Imagine a life of the same routine day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year, never able to leave that small place of confinement.

Dolphins are highly inquisitive and intelligent by their very nature. Any items thrown into their tank becomes a new toy or object of amusement, even if only briefly. Frequently, objects are ingested and cause intestinal obstructions, infections and other problems. Cathi’s fate would not be a death from endless boredom and intestinal issues. She would not die from pneumonia or the various other infections she would have from time to time throughout her life. Cathi would have many babies as part of a breeding program, but few would go on to survive. Cathi was stubborn and strong spirited; she was a survivor and when she finally died, it would be from old age. In the industry of captive entertainment, amusement parks and breeding programs, Cathi could be used as an example of success; and yet she wasn’t. Her death was denied and kept a secret, her name quickly forgotten. There will be no commemorative plaques or dedications to her for her lifelong service to those that profited from her captivity. There will be no acknowledgement of her existence at all, other than her name appearing on the Marine Mammal Inventory Report. Was her loss even mourned or felt by the profiteers at Miami Seaquarium?

I first met Cathi on January 19, 2011. I’m sure I had encountered her previously as a small child in the visits I had to Miami Seaquarium, but it wasn’t until my eyes were opened as an adult that I decided I needed to go see for myself how pitiful the lives of captive dolphins were that I became familiar with Cathi. At the time that I met Cathi, she lived in the tank of dolphin lobby at Miami Seaquarium and performed in the top deck dolphin show twice a day. Her tank mates included her daughter, Samantha, a singular male named J.J., a spritely younger dolphin named “Disco Denise” and another dolphin’s name I cannot at this time recall. Cathi was the most easily recognizable of the five dolphins in the tank of dolphin lobby. She swam in circles with her right eye closed and had a scar from an old laceration just below her dorsal fin on her right side. Cathi also had what I would come to call “corrosion” on her rostrum, an area of tissue necrosis that was anything but attractive. The tip of her rostrum (nose) was discolored, appeared to have mold and also looked as though something had eaten away small chunks of it. Her daughter, Samantha has a similar disease process.

Miami Sequarium Lolita Cathi seaprison
Miami Seaquarium

After that visit, I contacted a friend of mine, a marine biology student and talked to her about the dolphins in the tank. She suggested I bring a mirror to help ease the boredom of the dolphins and provide them with amusement. It was a wonderful idea! My future visits, I brought my trusty mirror and got to know the dolphins in the tank of dolphin lobby and I suspect some of them began to recognize me. Most interested in the mirror was Samantha; she loved to look at herself and the mirror was like a magnet to her. Denise loved it too and sometimes Samantha and Denise would compete for who could squeeze in front of it more. At one point or another, all the dolphins would come and take a look at themselves, all but one. Cathi never came and looked in the mirror. Cathi was always oblivious to the crowds gathered at the windows. She swam in circles and paid no attention to the people or the crowds. Sometimes she swam quickly, as if to escape from the endless staring and tapping on the glass and sometimes she kept more to the center of the tank, swimming in her circles slowly, perhaps taking a break or resting. Cathi paid attention to the trainers and to the fish she was given during performances, other than that, it appeared that her life was a series of endless circles. She would interact with J.J. and Samantha the most and sometimes, she would rub herself on the ever dirty pipes at the bottom of the tank as some form of tactile stimulation. I have come to learn that dolphins in the wild require a lot of tactile stimulation and frequently rub against each other for social interaction and affection. It became horribly sad to me that Cathi turned to an inanimate object like dirty filtration pipes to satisfy her need for her tactile stimulation. What a far cry it must have been from those rubs of affection she would have frequently received from her pod mates in her former life in the wild. I often wonder if she ever yearned for the affection of her former life. Did she miss swimming free in the ocean, the world as her play place without borders, boundaries or limitations?

On that first visit to Miami Seaquarium, I obtained an annual pass. It was free as part of a promotion for Florida residents. I visited Miami Seaquarium frequently, as often as I could and I would take pictures and document what I thought might be health issues or perhaps violations of the Animal Welfare Act. I began writing to the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service about Lolita, her tank and what I perceived to be violations of the AWA regarding Lolita’s tank and stadium and I frequently wrote regarding Lolita’s welfare and the welfare of the other animals too.

My primary purpose was to try to help Lolita. I have since come to believe that the USDA/APHIS is useless as a government agency and even though they have been provided with ample proof of violations, they will never admit to it. USDA/APHIS is like the person that can never admit they are wrong and never offer an apology. Their interpretation of the law is the final and last word, even if the law quite clearly defines itself and they will write their nice little responses and remain polite and draw diagrams and quote statements and citations and furnish copies of inspection reports (even ones that disagree with what they tell you and support your argument!) and the list goes on and on and on, but they will never and I do mean NOT EVER admit that they are wrong or apologize. So along on my quest to help Lolita, I was able to get to know a few dolphins and while I am opposed to the captive entertainment industry, I will shamefully admit that there were times I looked forward to my time with the dolphins in dolphin lobby and playing with the mirrors and lights. Dare I say, I even enjoyed those moments with them, although I always left Miami Seaquarium feeling sad, frustrated and heavy hearted. Feeling the oppression of all of the magnificent creatures in their dilapidated and unnatural surroundings is incredibly emotionally draining and downright depressing. I could never work in a place like that.

It was from my visits to Miami Seaquarium and talking about it that I started to get to know people. Some of them were former employees of the Seaquarium itself and I started to learn a lot about what goes on behind the scenes in the world of marine park entertainment. I started asking questions about Cathi. I wanted to know why she wouldn’t open her right eye. Did she have an eye or did she lose it?? Why wouldn’t she take an interest in the mirror and why did she rub on those pipes for tactile stimulation when she shared her tank with four other dolphins? Unfortunately, most of those questions are questions that only Cathi would be able to answer.

Her medical records are unattainable as they are considered confidential because she was not by law an individual, but rather she was a piece of property, a number on an inventory report, a dollar sign for an amusement park, and as she aged and became infirm, she was no longer a dollar sign, but a liability. A couple of people that knew Miami Seaquarium, Cathi and/or the industry tried as best as they could to answer my questions. One answer I received was “she doesn’t want to look at anyone. She’s sick of it and prefers to ignore it and refuses to open her eye.” Having observed her many times and interacting with her tank mates, I could see the reasoning behind that conclusion. I never saw her swim in the other direction with her left eye looking out. She always swam so that we could only see her right side.

Another person told me that her eye was closed because of the chlorine in the tanks and that over time, she had probably had multiple eye infections and that the chlorine burns their eyes and irritates the eyes of captive mammals. Their tanks are salt water tanks, but chlorine must be added to keep bacteria, fungi and microbial growth to a minimum. Multiple infections over the course of her life in captivity made a lot of sense too. Whether it was one or the other or a combination of both, it was a unique part of Cathi and gave me greater understanding into Lolita too, as Lolita only rarely opens her eyes. What I would not give to have been able to look into Cathi’s eye(s) just once to acknowledge her; to let her know that I did care that she was taken from her life in the wild and that I wished her life would have been different.

Not only was Cathi a part of the entertainment industry, she was also part of Miami Seaquarium’s animal husbandry program. Cathi was a breeding machine. She performed day in and day out, whether she was sick or not and whether she was pregnant or not for nearly forty years. Cathi was a mother and a grandmother. In honor of Cathi and her life, I will list her calves with dates of birth and death (if applicable) from what I have been able to find from ceta-base.com:

name: Jessica (F)
born: 29-September-1976
died: 23-October-1976
Flippy (sire)

name: Ivan (M)
born: 27-August-1983
died: 31-July-1989
Papi (sire)

name: Samantha (F)
born: 06-November-1986
died: –
Papi (sire)

name: Tori (F)
born: 19-July-1990
died: 01-October-2000
Papi (sire)

name: Unnamed 1992
born: 06-August-1992
died: 16-September-1992
Unknown (sire)

name: Ripley (M)
born: 13-October-1993
died: –
J.J. (sire)

name: Orion (M)
born: 28-September-1999
died: 31-October-2002
J.J. (sire)

name: Abaco (M)
born: 02-May-2001
died: –
J.J. (sire)

If Cathi had been a human being and had her story been written, the world would lament that such an act of atrocity akin to slavery could occur in this day and age and we would have admired her strength and courage and ability to survive and endure in even the bleakest of circumstances. Surely it must have been bleak to be taken from the freedom of the vast open world of the ocean and placed in a tiny tank the human equivalent of a bathtub; forced to perform tricks in order to eat; forced to live a life of confinement and servitude. Surely it must have been bleak to have babies and have those babies die prematurely or have them forced into the same life of pleasing noisy crowds with circus tricks to be fed a few dead fish. Surely it must have been misery to watch your daughters have babies and watch those babies die or be taken for entertainment. Cathi was mother to eight calves, three of which are still alive. Samantha has had four calves, two are still alive; Aries and Zo. Tori, deceased had a female calf named Denise, who was previously Cathi’s tank mate and at the time this was written, Denise still lives in dolphin lobby at Miami Seaquarium. What a tragic legacy Cathi left behind.

In late August of 2011, I visited Miami Seaquarium and noticed there were only three dolphins in the tank in dolphin lobby; Cathi and J.J. were missing from the tank. Dolphins are moved around from one exhibit to another frequently, so I did not find this as a cause to be alarmed. I took the month of September off and returned again in October of 2011. Again, I noticed that Cathi was missing and this time I chose in inquire as to her whereabouts. After the top deck dolphin show, I approached one of the trainers and asked what happened to Cathi and J.J. I was told J.J. was moved to the Flipper exhibit and Cathi was moved to Dolphin Harbor. I marched straight over to the Flipper exhibit and confirmed that J.J. was indeed one of the dolphins performing in that show. Dolphin Harbor is a little more difficult to confirm as it is where Miami Seaquarium has the swim with dolphins program and unless you have a ticket, you are not allowed in that area. I was disappointed that I had no way of knowing other than to wait. One year prior, a dolphin by the name of Hollywood lived in the dolphin lobby tank and when she passed away, anyone that asked about her was told she was “relocated to Dolphin Harbor.” It was two months before anyone was able to confirm that Hollywood died.

Depending on what source you choose to believe, wild dolphins have an average lifespan of about 25 to 40 years, with the females living longer than males. Animal welfare advocates that are opposed to marine parks often cite premature death from diseases and depression as reason that marine parks should not exist for entertainment purposes. Given that Cathi was probably a few years old at the time she was captured in 1971 and she had been in captivity for almost 40 years, one would think that perhaps her life should be remembered; that Miami Seaquarium should honor her and celebrate her life and mourn her passing for all that she gave to them after everything that was taken from her. Would it have been so horrible for the trainer to acknowledge her passing by telling me she was an old gal and passed away? I will come to think of the words “dolphin harbor” as a profane euphemism for “dead and forgotten.”

Cathi died on August 21, 2011. It was the day before my 40th birthday and three short months before the 40th anniversary of her capture. For Cathi, I would say and do what Miami Seaquarium would never do for you, yet should have done: I will never forget and I will seek to honor your memory. Thank you for your years of service, even though it was forced upon you. Thank you for your calves and the legacy you leave behind. The world will never know how many children’s lives you enriched during your years of performing and captivity. For Cathi, I will send this far and wide and maybe, just maybe it will be published in some little piece of paper somewhere and if not, then at least I will have tried my hardest. It is sad, shameful and disgraceful that Miami Seaquarium could not do this for you at the time of your death as you so rightfully deserved. For Cathi, I’m sorry it took me all this time to find out about you. I hope that where ever you are, you are at peace and you are now swimming once again with your pod in the wild, jumping on the waves, hunting fish, playing and rejoicing in the beauty of freedom and the vast open spaces of blue before you. Good bye Cathi, may you rest eternally at peace.

One last little note before I sign off on this “blog” or “essay” or whatever anyone wishes to call it. If anyone thinks this is too long, let me inform you that living in a tiny tank for 40 years, swimming in endless circles after having known the freedom of the open spaces of the ocean is also too long. Cathi deserved the best, and my best in this is all that I could give her.

References:

  1. http://databases.sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/ftlaudMarineMammals4/ftlaudMarineMammals_list.php
  2. http://www.miamiseaprison.com