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Small protest at Kennywood seeks release of whale in Miami

Michael DiVittorio
| Monday, May 11, 2015, 4:41 a.m.
Kennywood Park is marking its 120th anniversary year in 2018.
Trib Total Media
Kennywood Park is marking its 120th anniversary year in 2018.
Several people protested outside Kennywood Park in West Mifflin Saturday.
The protest was directed toward the park's parent company, Palace Entertainment, and for the release of Lolita the orca from its Miami Seaquarium in Florida.
Michael DiVittorio | Trib Total Media
Several people protested outside Kennywood Park in West Mifflin Saturday. The protest was directed toward the park's parent company, Palace Entertainment, and for the release of Lolita the orca from its Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Kennywood's second day of operation this season had a different sort of distraction for police and patrons from the one that ended the park's opening day early.

A small protest outside Kennywood on Saturday urged the park's parent company, Palace Entertainment, to release Lolita the orca from Palace's Miami Seaquarium.

A week earlier, a large scuffle among teenagers caused Kennywood to close about an hour early.

Palace Entertainment owns several other theme parks and water parks. “Shut Down The Palace” protests were planned in West Mifflin and Lancaster as well as in California, Florida, New York, Georgia and Connecticut.

Six people protested outside Kennywood near the intersection of Hoffman Boulevard and Route 837.

Protesters held signs saying “Don't Buy A Ticket! Free Lolita!” and “Palace Entertainment Sponsors Suffering.”

Lolita was captured in 1970 in Puget Sound near Seattle and sold to Miami Seaquarium.

Protest organizers say Lolita lived with an orca named Hugo until his death in 1980.

“She was stolen from her family in the Pacific Northwest,” lead West Mifflin protester Judy Hickey of Baldwin said. “She's kept in an illegally small tank. There's no shade for her. Her tank is only 20 feet deep. She can't dive to escape the sun. She's held alone, which is also illegal.”

Palace Entertainment said the company follows federal and industry guidelines.

Animal rights groups want Lolita moved to a protected cove sea pen, where she can be transitioned to the ocean.

“Lolita is essentially an endangered whale,” Hickey said. “Lolita suffers. They still use her for shows. They ride on her and make her perform two shows a day. It's cruel and abusive.”

Burgettstown residents Madison Banaszak and Sam Roner, both 15, were the youngest protesters in West Mifflin.

“Orca whales are very emotional and maternal,” Sam said. “When they're stripped away from their families, they have no sense of communication with the other whales. Living in captivity is lonely and they do not have enough space to function like they normally would in the wild. We need to educate more people on the harms of (confining) whales because most people don't know.”

“I'm really into animal rights,” Madison said. “If you put yourself in their place, you wouldn't want to be kept in captivity and stolen away from your mother.”

Kennywood spokesman Nick Paradise deferred questions about the protest to corporate officials.

In a Friday statement, Palace Entertainment CEO Fernando Eiroa stressed the Newport Beach, Calif.-based company's commitment “to providing wholesome family entertainment that is safe, a great value and exceeds guest expectations” in 22 locations.

“Our animal parks follow the strict guidelines of the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums,” Eiroa said. “(This) event by anti-aquarium and anti-marine park activists, which has nothing to do with Kennywood, is designed to call into question the dedication, care and value institutions like ours provide.”

The protest provided little disturbance to Kennywood. Many passing motorists honked and waved, and some received literature from the protesters.

On May 2, West Mifflin police and other officers were called to the park around 8:45 p.m. for reports of a disturbance in which large crowds of teens were pushing one another.

Four teenage girls suffered scrapes, bruises and other minor injuries. The incident is still under investigation. No arrests have been made.

Kennywood and West Mifflin officials met May 4 to discuss security measures.

“We said that we would be ramping up security presence in the park, and that's exactly what you're seeing here today,” Paradise said Saturday. “There's a larger amount of Kennywood public safety, which is comprised of off-duty police officers, some retired police officers and Kennywood security guards. There's also a larger presence from West Mifflin police both out in the parking lot and occasionally in the park and at the gate. They've assured us that's going to be the case going forward, and for us that's going to be the case going forward.

This isn't a one-day thing at all. I think for the most part folks recognize this was a very unusual incident that happened last week and far from the norm here at Kennywood.”

Yeshar Hadi, a junior at Carnegie Mellon University, said he was with students visiting Kennywood for the first time Saturday and had not heard about the protest or the fight.

“We had no idea,” Hadi said. “This is planned totally independently from whatever's going on with the park. That might have prevented me from coming had I known or known more details. Our organization comes here every semester and I've never gone. I figured I should go eventually.”

Sharon Tessanne of Butler was at Kennywood with her daughter and granddaughter Saturday.

Tessanne said nothing would stop their family fun.

“The fights are everywhere,” Tessanne said. “You could go to the grocery store and fights are there. The fun with the family (brings us to Kennywood).”

Paradise said it is too early in the season to gauge park attendance.

He said company policy prevents figures from being released, but park population usually increases when there is good weather and children are out of school.

“Everything seems to be going really well,” Paradise said.

The season pass processing line was backed up to the entrance gate Saturday afternoon.

Paradise asked people to contact the park or local law enforcement if they hear of possible altercations or see posts on social media about incidents planned at Kennywood.

Park officials can be reached at 412-461-8127. West Mifflin police are at 412-461-0600.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or mdivittorio@tribweb.com.

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