I wasn’t a big animal person to start with. I used to say, “When all the people are taken care of, then we can take care of the animals.” But I became obsessed with Lolita. I learned that there are many different groups working to get her released, though I can’t vouch for the viability of some of these activist plans to bring a captured animal back to the ocean. And at some point, I decided I was going to go down to Miami and see her.
It was a terrible experience. Everyone is cheering; the music is so loud. And you know that this amazing creature, as vital as she is, has been hollowed out by suffering; years ago, her partner died by slamming his head against the wall of the tank. The whole thing was so upsetting—one of those moments when you’re crying, when you’re angry, when you almost don’t even know what you’re feeling. The next day, I stood with the protesters in the parking lot, trying to turn cars away from the aquarium. It was a very diverse group, ranging from housewives who just think it’s wrong to hard-core animal activists, and we cheered first in English and then in Spanish. At first, I was a little embarrassed. But I was reeling emotionally from the experience of seeing Lolita, and it helped to have a place to put some of that energy.
I think I became so fixated on those whales because I couldn’t find a human role model to help make sense of what was happening to my body. “Storylessness,” the feminist author Katha Pollitt once wrote, “has been women’s big problem”—and that was my problem, too. I lacked a specific sort of menopausal spirit guide. And so I latched onto killer whales instead.
Ultimately my interest led me to the Salish Sea, to an orca matriarch named J2, who was part of the Southern Resident J, L, and K pods of wild whales studied for menopause—the same pod Lolita was taken from. It was a real voyage to go and see them. I had to take a plane across the country, to a van four hours up the coast, to a two-hour ferry ride to the island, and then get in a sea kayak and paddle 10 miles out. But I ultimately got to see J2, [also known as] Granny, and be just a few feet from her. I got to look right into her eyes. And the thing is, it was not a moment of holy union. You don’t want to make the Born Free mistake—I love the animal; the animal loves me. The main feeling I got from the expression in her eyes was, What the fuck are you doing?
It was a look of contempt. But I valued that contempt so much. Because I lacked human stories, I just felt I had to grasp onto that animal story—even if I knew that identification would always be one-sided, could never be complete. I just wanted to get a feel for what it felt like to be a middle-aged animal. It’s not completely triumphant; they have their own struggles. But we have one thing that they lack, which is all the patriarchal bullshit. Killer whales live in a matriarchy, and no one’s lumping onto them these terrible ideas of what it means to be an aging woman.