A Tricky Situation: The Future for Tokitae

If the title of this blog confuses you, you probably A) don’t live in Florida and B) are not in the animal care field. Tokitae is the name of the orca living at Miami Seaquarium, whose “stage name” Lolita, has been entertaining visitors for over fifty years. Last week, the parent company of Miami Seaquarium announced they would be working to return Tokitae to her home waters, in a sea pen or possible release.

Tokitae was one of the many orcas captured in the 1960s from Washington waters, here where I currently call home in the Puget Sound. I knew “Lolita” long before I ever knew “Tokitae” because I lived in Florida for 10 years, and visited Miami Seaquarium a few times.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I learned about the orca captures and that there were still a couple of orcas still alive from those less than ideal times. To put a simple statement on a very complex and convoluted situation, I don’t condone the capture of orcas, especially the way humans captured them in the 1960s. However, having orcas in captivity has changed people’s lives and helped create future conservationists. I know this for a fact, because I was one of those children who became deeply inspired by watching the orcas, and vowed to become an animal caretaker. And the rest is history, for me. I do not believe I am the only person this experience happened to. The statistics are in my favor that seeing orcas in human care has inspired thousands, if not millions, to care for the ocean and all her inhabitants.

While I can say with certainty that my love for the ocean and my passion for conservation was sparked by seeing orcas at SeaWorld, I don’t know if bringing this species into human care was worth the cost. It’s highly possible another species could have moved me the way “Shamu” did, and I’d still have been set on my path. Or maybe I would have found my way by a completely different path. It’s hard to say. But seeing orcas changed my life, and for that alone, I am eternally grateful for the chance to see them in facilities close to me.

Moving to the Pacific Northwest did open my eyes to a lot of new ideas. For one, I had a very fantastical idea that the orcas in Puget Sound were happy, free, and doing remarkably well. That’s not honestly the case, although I truly wish it were. The local resident orcas of Washington and British Columbia are, well, they are some picky eaters. Only one fish will do it for them, the Chinook salmon, also called King salmon. And unfortunately, Chinook aren’t doing so well, even out here where sustainable fishing practices rule the seas.

There are a slew of other issues facing the resident orcas of Puget Sound. So many issues, in fact, that the area’s orcas were deemed threatened, even if the collective species of Orcinus orca is doing well. Pollution, habitat destruction (for marine species and salmon specifically), and disturbance from human activities (mainly boating) are all to blame for orca numbers being lower than ever before in history.

So, that leads us to this one special orca, named Tokitae but often referred to as Lolita. She was taken from Puget Sound in 1970 and has lived at Miami Seaquarium ever since. Her situation provides no absolute easy answers. Her living conditions are far from ideal. While Tokitae does have other animals living with her in the form of Pacific white-sided dolphins, she hasn’t had another orca for company since 1980. In 2017, a USDA audit found her habitat to be too small.

But, at 58 years old, what is honestly the best solution for this older whale?

We do have one other case study to use as a possible comparative for releasing Tokitae. In 1998, Keiko, the star of the movie Free Willy, was returned to his home waters in Iceland. Keiko had a lot of health problems before his rehabilitation in Oregon, but that’s about where the similarities end. Keiko was much younger upon his release, at only 23 years old when he was sent to Iceland. Not knowing who his original pod or family group was, Keiko’s caretakers tried multiple times to introduce him to orcas swimming by. Keiko lived in Iceland for 3-4 years, but still under human care and guidance, and then swam to Norway, where he lived just under a year out of the supervision of human caretakers. But he was never completely “free” of humans. Keiko sought after human companionship, following boats and entering harbors in Norway, where reports stated he allowed children to swim on his back, and begged for fishy handouts until he died in 2003 at the age of 27.

Here’s the thing: Animal rights groups who oppose orcas and other dolphins in captivity consider Keiko’s release a huge success. The zoological industry, particularly marine mammal experts in the field, call the experiment a huge failure.

So, who is right?

Well, this is where empathy is vitally important. Because, the answer depends on what you call “successful.” Animal rights and advocates for releasing Keiko claim that he swam completely free and on his own for nearly a year. Yes, he approached humans, but that was because he had been in captivity for so long, it wasn’t his fault. He still swam free. Therefore, the mission was successful. The goal was to swim and be free, and that’s what he did!

Animal care professionals looked at his success differently. They wanted him to find food on his own (which he did on a few occasions). They also wanted Keiko to integrate into a pod, which he did not. With their standards set, the industry concluded that the release was not successful.

I admit, I’m an industry professional, and I agree that while Keiko did go off and make his own decisions towards the end, his story was not an example of a successful rehabilitation and release.

But I now see how others view it as a success.

So, let’s go back to Tokitae. She’s significantly older than Keiko was, and has spent a considerable longer time being cared for by humans. She hasn’t seen another orca for a longer time than Keiko was even alive. Her health isn’t great. In fact, she’s had a few health scares over the past few years that make her trainers very concerned about a potential transport across the entire country. I mean, you can’t just plop her into Biscayne Bay. Returning Tokitae home requires bringing her from Miami to Puget Sound, literally as far apart from the other as we can get.

However, I’m want to choose my words carefully, because if there’s anything I learned in my empathy research, it’s that the only thing absolutes do is absolutely create more divides. And right now, I think it’s important to keep Tokitae in mind and work across the aisle to ensure her health and well-being are being factored into the equation.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot from the animal care industry about this potential move. I’m hearing phrases like, “Tokitae will die if she is moved,” “this is a death sentence,” and “she won’t make the journey out.” I have to say, this isn’t helpful language.

In I Never Thought of It That Way, Mónica Guzmán warns us about using such absolutes: “One word of warning about statements of concern: Be careful when you talk about the future. It’s the most undeniably uncertain thing we can discuss, but it’s dang easy to talk about it with curiosity-crushing certainty. Tempted to say that something bad “will” happen? Try turning it into a statement of concern: ‘I’m worried that X will happen.’”

I truly appreciate the concerns of the trainers and caregivers. They have valid points that should be heavily weighed before draining the pool, snatching up the 7000-pound whale, and sending her all the way across the country. But we really don’t KNOW what will happen.

Keep in mind, too, that for more easily transported animals, their welfare is taken into account before shipping them to another facility. Even birds, before sent to another zoo, will receive a full physical check-up. If their health isn’t optimal, the shipment is delayed or sometimes cancelled. Tokitae is not in her prime anymore, she has some serious health concerns that in most normal circumstances with other animals, would delay her transport or altogether cancel it.

One thing bothers me, though, about what trainers say about moving Tokitae. Many state that Tokitae doesn’t deal well with stress and change. I totally get it. We want to make the animals’ lives as worry-free as possible, but one of the best things we as keepers can do for our animals is to prepare them for potential stressors. It’s what enrichment and really great training do for the mental health of the animals. If Tokitae freaks out by the trainers changing her music during the show (actual quote from an ex-trainer of Tokitae), that’s not an indication that she doesn’t handle change well. That’s on the trainers for not preparing her for normal everyday stressors.

I have worked with animals who are, by nature, more sensitive to stimuli than the top predator of the ocean– sea otters, meerkats, warty pigs, siamangs. If these animals’ keepers and I can help these animals build resilience and confidence so they can be transported, use enrichment, and experience large changes to their environment, then I find it difficult to believe we can’t do the same for a highly intelligent apex predator species with a whole team of trainers.

If Tokitae doesn’t deal well with change to the point her care team is concerned for her health and well-being by being moved, that speaks volumes to the training. Great training enhances welfare by empowering animals and creating resiliency, so when things don’t go as planned, the animals have trust and positive behaviors to fall back on.

Basically, whether the trainers feel this is the right decision or not, it is their prime responsibility to prepare Tokitae and help her gain the confidence to tackle this tremendous challenge that Miami Seaquarium’s owners are presenting.

Part of me does wish that releasing Tokitae would work. It would be nice to make reparations for a grievous wrong we committed so many years ago. But I really don’t think this is the right thing to do.

The process and set-up for bringing Tokitae back to the Puget Sound is estimated to cost $20 million dollars. It’s great that there are folks who just drop that kind of funding, but it infuriates me at the same time. The orcas in the Puget Sound are in trouble. To fix all the issues they are facing will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. These expensive solutions don’t just benefit one species, but many, including humans. Bringing back Chinook populations so not just orcas, but humans, sea lions, and other marine life can thrive? Reducing pollution? Hiring more researchers and officials to ensure laws and regulations are enacted and are effective? This all costs money.

I’d rather see $5-8 million go toward improving Tokitae’s life, either by sending her to SeaWorld or making improvements to her pool and bringing in a companion orca (ideally from SeaWorld). The rest of the money could go towards orca conservation projects here in Puget Sound in honor of Tokitae, with a promise to continue funding some of these projects for years to come. Because one thing I’m very concerned about is we raise this outrageous amount of money for one animal, and when she’s gone, the funding and the compassion for her wild counterparts will fade along with her.

This is a truly tricky situation. I wish Tokitae’s care givers the best. I wish those who fight for her the best. But most of all, I wish Tokitae the best. She deserves it. We owe it to her to make decisions based on HER, not our hopes for her.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts. I rambled on with my opinions and tried looking at this from all the angles, but I am still pretty biased, based on my background and connection to the field. So, remember to keep the comments civil, but I’d love to discuss this further with you.

And my parting question is this: how can you use empathy to see another point of view? And how can seeing another side of things help you win peace of mind?

One Response

  1. Well said. I too struggle with this decision to return her to the wild at her age and based on her history. I wish everyone involved could come together and discuss what is best for her, as an individual and not what their positions say. Very thoughtful writing on your part. Thank you.

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