Lolita (otherwise known as Tokitae), an orca held in captivity for the last 52 years, has died. Those working at the Miami Seaquarium announced her cause of death as kidney failure following two days of evident distress. Her untimely passing has come as a major blow to conservation groups, who were on the verge of having her released back into the wild.
After five decades of performing tricks for ignorant visitors, pacing a tank with no companion, and being confined to a pool just six metres deep, Lolita’s life was plagued with misery and pity. But with an outpouring of grief and anger from around the U.S. and beyond, why was she forced to live like this for over 50 years?
Orcas are social animals and roam in groups called pods. Extremely intelligent, they have strong family ties and are very protective of their young. Studies into their brains have highlighted their ability to feel emotions the same as humans, from sadness and fear to happiness, as well as possessing high levels of self-awareness and strong memory skills.
Taken in 1970 off the coast of Washington State in the U.S. in one of the most notorious whale captures ever recorded, Lolita was torn from her family at just four years old. The abductors stalked the family of orcas, separating mothers from their babies using explosives and sticks before forcing them into nets. Lolita was sold to the Miami Seaquarium for just $6000, she was the only survivor of the monstrous ordeal to live longer than one year.
Until 1980, Lolita had a partner in her tank, a male orca named Hugo. Despite the pair sharing a close bond, Hugo did not function well in captivity and was seen on numerous occasions repeatedly hitting his head against the walls of the pool. After 12 years in captivity, Hugo eventually died of a brain aneurysm, leaving Lolita isolated for the rest of her life.
The pool Lolita aimlessly floated around in was aptly called a prison by its critics. It was a tank that was illegal under the federal Animal Welfare Act, yet it was never made bigger. It measured 24 by 11 metres and 6 metres deep, with Lolita herself measuring 6 metres long. The figures are grim compared with wild orcas, who swim roughly 40 miles per day and dive to depths between 30 and 150 meters to avoid getting sunburnt.
Despite her tragic years in captivity, Lolita’s life was almost about to change. With activists determined to secure her release and the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Irsay, confirming that he would assist by funding her relocation, a plan was drawn up.
She was to be transported via plane to a sanctuary in the waters off the coast of Washington state, placed under 24/7 care by veterinarians until she got accustomed to her surroundings and learned how to hunt before finally being released in the Salish Sea.
State regulators still needed to authorise her relocation, a process that could have taken years. Unfortunately, help came far too late for Lolita.
A heartbreaking loss
Conservationists and animal welfare ambassadors have all expressed sadness at Lolita’s sudden passing. Ingrid Newkirk, PETA President, said: ‘PETA urges families to honour her memory by never visiting marine parks… May all wild animals be free!’ The organisation held a vigil outside the Seaquarium on the evening of her death.
The 13-year campaign Save Lolita wrote on its website: ‘We must remember that Lolita’s story is one of resilience and the enduring power of the human spirit to fight for justice.’
Lummi Nation Chairman Tony Hillaire said: ‘The Lummi Nation is saddened by the news that our beloved orca relative has passed away… Our hearts are with her family.’ Members of the tribe have spent several years trying to get Lolita back into the wild; they will now collect her ashes and take her back home to where she belongs.
Is this the end of captivity?
Captivity is not a modern concept. Confining animals for the entertainment of humans dates back centuries; however, the rise of social media has enlightened us about the plight of wildlife and substantially increased our awareness of animal welfare.
Those who speak more favourably of captivity often suggest animals are safer there, and while there are threats of poaching and extinction in the wild, this argument becomes problematic with regard to Lolita, as her mother, aged in her 90s, continues to live freely off the coast of Canada with other members of her family.
The Miami Seaquarium began losing revenue in 2017, with annual ticket sales barely reaching 500,000 as the public developed an awareness of the cruelty going on away from the public's gaze. There were reports of poor water quality and trainers drastically cutting the animals’ daily food allowance. When a company can no longer provide humane care for its wildlife, perhaps it is time to shut its doors.
In February of this year, an opinion poll in the U.K. revealed that more than 75% of the British public no longer wish to see large animals in captivity, and they hope the next government will take this issue more seriously. It feels like the tide is slowly beginning to change, and it is with hope that Lolita is the catalyst for this change. Where there is education, there is action.
Across the world, there are still 51 orcas spending their days trapped in tanks, 22 taken from their homes, and 29 born in marine parks. While help for Lolita came too late, it is important not to let her die in vain. She is a reminder that orcas do not belong in captivity and that it is time to empty the tanks.
Photo credit: Nuri Vallbona/Miami Herald, via Associated Press
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