Right now in the Pacific Northwest, the indigenous Lummi tribe is reminding us of our connection to nature, pushing us to question how we treat other species and demanding the release of a captive killer whale from Miami Seaquarium. Many indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years that the success and sustainability of society depend upon our relationship to the natural environment and have tried at great lengths to share this knowledge with us. And it’s about time that we listen.

As a conservation biologist, my job is to conduct research that helps protect Earth’s biodiversity. Reading in between the lines of my job description is the fundamental belief that species and ecosystems have value, that they’re worth protecting. The relationship between humans, other species, and ecosystems reflects how we value nature. 

The killer whale, named Lolita, is the last captive, wild-born killer whale in the US that was taken from the wild back in the 1970s. Lolita’s family (scientifically known as a pod) still exists in the waters of the Salish Sea. In fact, Lolita’s mother is still alive. Lolita herself still sings the songs of her pod. (Fun fact: killer whales have distinct dialects and songs associated with their specific pods.)

From my scientific perspective, I back the Lummi’s call to release Lolita back into her native waters. Unlike other captive killer whales that were born at amusement parks, Lolita was taken directly from her native environment, which luckily has remained. This means that the likelihood of a successful reintroduction is quite high.

Why? First, because Lolita already knows how to hunt from her juvenile years in the Salish Sea before she was taken. Proponents of keeping killer whales captive often say that the whales are not equipped with the skills to know how to hunt and survive in the wild. This is not the case for Lolita.

Second, the fact that Lolita’s pod still exists and that her mother is still alive means the chances of her being accepted back into the pod are quite high. In addition to their 80-year lifespans, killer whales have also been shown to long-term memories. That makes it very likely that Lolita’s family will remember her and welcome her back. The fact that Lolita’s mom is still alive is particularly exciting because killer whale pods are matriarchal, meaning that the female members of the pod largely shape the group’s social structure.

From my conservationist perspective, I also back the call to free Lolita. Her pod belongs to a group known as “southern resident killer whales,” an endangered species whose populations (especially recently) are not doing well. By bringing Lolita home to the Salish Sea, we are effectively adding one more reproductively mature female into the population. If Lolita reproduces, her offspring will help maintain the wild population of resident killer whales.

From an ethical perspective, I support the release of Lolita because it is the right thing to do. What does it mean for us as a society that we allow the captivity of intelligent marine mammals for our own amusement? We know that killer whales are intelligent; that’s why Seaquarium, SeaWorld and others have capitalized on the opportunity to teach them tricks, put on shows and rake in dollars. We also know that killer whales are highly social creatures, on par with primates—and yes, humans too. The morality of this is eloquently framed in a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.:

One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall then have discovered our souls and become worthier of sharing this planet with them.

The release of Lolita would be a victory for the Lummi, for science-based conservation and for repairing the relationships between humans and other species. If we cannot begin to value the diversity of life on this planet, how are we going to be able to value the diversity of life within the human race? This is an old battle, folks: the fight for self-sovereignty. We know the answer and the science has backed us on this one. Free Lolita and free ourselves.