After almost six decades of performing for audiences at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita — also known as Tokitae (which means “bright day, pretty colors” in American Indian Chinook language) — died in her underwater confinement.
LIVING IN CAPTIVITY
Many of us understand how it feels to be forced to live in a small area long-term: We have collectively experienced this during the year-long COVID-induced quarantine. It led many individuals to suffer from depression and restlessness.
I am sure you can imagine what it will do to a highly complex and intelligent animal whose home is literally the big wide ocean. Lolita, a 7,000-pound, 20-foot Orca, endured 57 years in an 80×35-foot aquarium — just four times her size. In their natural habitat, Whales travel 11,000 kilometers in a single day, which means that Lolita would need to go around her tank 600 times to cover the same distance as she would in the open ocean. Let that sink in.
Lolita’s tank mate for ten years, Hugo, became so depressed about his condition that he repeatedly rammed his head against the tank walls until he inflicted enough injury upon himself and died of brain aneurysm. This is not an isolated case; Orcas have been reported to beach themselves to escape or commit suicide, and some even drown their trainers as retribution for the torture and poor quality of life they were thrown into.
Sadly, we fail to discern that Orcas and humans belong to the same class in the animal kingdom. It seems like having fins instead of hands and flukes instead of legs makes us forget that they are Mammals like us.
Orcas go through a spectrum of emotions, positive and negative; they experience love, joy, anger, and grief as we do. Pulling them out of their ocean home for mere entertainment is the epitome of human privilege — the same privilege that can be used to do the right thing, such as for respecting animals and acknowledging that the capture of sea animals does more harm than good.
THE VERDICT IS IN
In a sweeping research done by Dr. Lori Marino and team in 2019 titled “The Harmful Effects of Captivity and Chronic Stress on the Well-being of Orcas (Orcinus orca)”, they said, “Orcas are large, deep-diving cetaceans who are known for their global distribution, wide-ranging behavior, intelligence, and social complexity. They possess one of the largest and most complex brains in the mammalian kingdom. However, they are the third most common species of cetaceans kept in aquariums and marine theme parks.
“Most spend many years, and sometimes decades, in captivity. At the time of writing, 60 individuals are held in concrete tanks globally.
“The scientific data on how both wild-caught and captive-born [O]rcas fare in captivity are increasingly robust in demonstrating that they cannot thrive under artificial circumstances in concrete tanks. In captivity, [O]rcas exhibit a wide range of abnormal behaviors and often die at an early age from infections and other health conditions that are uncommon in a wild setting.
“Though numerous papers and reports describe these adverse effects, they do not offer a clear and systematic explanation for why captive [O]rcas suffer chronic stress and how it affects their well-being. We describe likely mechanisms for the high levels of morbidity and mortality in captive [O]rcas, including the impact of chronic stress on physiology and illness.
“We conclude that [O]rcas are poor candidates for maintenance in captivity and suggest that a radical shift is required in their treatment, to meet their complex needs.”
Lolita has been dubbed the world’s loneliest orca. She is one of the survivors of “Namu, Inc.”, a capture operation that happened in the 1970s, of which 80 whales were captured.
Of those 80, only seven whales — including Lolita — survived and were sold to aquariums around the world.
A LITTLE TOO LATE
Even before the scientific research studies, animal advocates have always known how wrong and detrimental captivity is to animals. Many petitions have been made by concerned citizens to free Lolita in her underwater prison over the years. It was only in 2017 that it was decided that she will be returned to her natal waters in Puget Sound in Washington, USA.
Miami Seaquarium phased out Dolphin shows in 2016 and officially retired Lolita in 2022, according to an article by Kate Nicholson for Huffington Post titled “‘World’s Loneliest Orca’ Is About To Have The Best Story Arc Ever”. Lolita could no longer wait, the “best story arc” will remain unwritten.
An eye-opening documentary titled “Blackfish” gives viewers a peep into the life of sea animals in captivity, particularly of an Orca named Tilikum (1981-2017). The documentary motivated more people to speak up about animals in zoos and aquariums.
This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow Mammals.
SWIM FREE, LOLITA
It is heartbreaking to see another amazing creature lose their life because of us. It makes one wonder, what does it really take for us to listen and start caring about animals?
Lolita’s battle may have been lost, but the war for other animals in captivity rages on. As long as there are people who care for them, there is hope. Despite her tragic death, there is some comfort to be had: Lolita no longer here on Earth means she is swimming — safe and free — where Orcas go to live forever.