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All captured killer whales should be released

Robert’s column
Robert’s column

It’s heartening to see that Lolita the orca will soon be returning to Puget Sound and freedom after spending more than 50 years in captivity.

Lolita, a.k.a. Toki, who was a member of the L Pod of southern resident orcas that spend most of their time in the waters off Washington and British Columbia, was captured in 1970 when she was just about four-years-old at a time when it was acceptable to take these highly intelligent and sociable beings away from their families, stick them in small swimming pools and force them to perform demeaning tricks for people’s entertainment.

Fortunately, this practice has come under intense scrutiny and criticism in recent years as humans have slowly come to realize just how cruel it is to these most remarkable creatures, and the aquariums that host orcas around the world have come to their senses with many coming up with plans to have them released back into the wild.

Friends of Lolita, a not-for-profit organization, and the Miami Seaquarium where Lolita has lived since 1970 in an 80-by-35-foot concrete tank, have announced they plan to return Lolita to the area in Puget Sound where she was captured within the next 18 to 24 months.

But Lolita will face many challenges when she returns to her home.

It’s been more than 50 years since she last saw her pod and family, and she might not remember them (nor them her) if and when they meet each other again.

If that happens and she doesn’t reconnect with her family, her freedom may be short-lived as it’s possible she won’t remember the skills to hunt and survive in the open ocean and not survive long, despite the best efforts of the release team to teach her before letting her loose.

But, apparently, it’s believed that her mother is still alive (orcas can live up to 90 years in the wild) so I would find it hard to believe that such intelligent mammals would forget their own children, no matter how long they’ve been away.

As well, it’s encouraging that Lolita got pretty excited when sounds made by her pod communicating with each other that were recorded and played for her in her tank at Miami Seaquarium, so it appears she recognizes their voices after all this time.

Regardless, no matter how well she does in the wild when she’s finally released, I think it’s something that just has to be done.

Such animals should never live in captivity, and that was made very apparent with the story of Tilikum, the orca that killed three of his trainers over his lifetime.

He ended up killing three of them in separate incidents, including one in Victoria’s Sealand of the Pacific, before he tragically died of natural causes in 2017 in a Florida aquarium, miles from his home in the deep blue sea near Greenland where he was captured in 1983.

I’ve no doubt Tilikum remembered where he came from and built up a deep resentment for these two-legged beings that forced him to do stupid tricks and, in between these performances, kept him locked up in tiny pools where he could barely move around.

Tilikum lived a sad and cruel life and he apparently decided to return the favour to three of his handlers when the opportunities arose.

But, in my experience coming across orcas in the wild, they are intelligent, curious and perfectly in tune with their environment, and to have one such as Tilikum become a human killer was an aberration caused by man and captivity.

In fact, there is not one documented case of an orca living in the wild killing a person.

We live in a part of the world where we’re lucky to see these majestic animals in their natural environment right on our doorsteps.

Despite their intimidating name, I can say I’ve never felt frightened or intimated by them in any way when I used to kayak much more than I do these days, and they would sometimes get pretty close to my boat as they curiously checked me out before moving on.

Maybe, one day soon, I’ll be privileged enough to meet Lolita and her family face-to-face in the Salish Sea.

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Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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