Questions about endangered orca’s health could renew fight to return her to Puget Sound

It’s been decades since Tokitae was taken from Puget Sound. The endangered orca, the sole survivor of the 1970 captures in Penn Cove, currently lives at the Miami Seaquarium. For the past several decades Lummi Nation, scientists and animal activists have tried to bring her home.

This week the Miami Seaquarium told the Miami Herald that she was recovering from an unspecified illness, the response came after a PETA report that the 56-year-old orca is "deathly ill." 

This weekend protests grew outside of the business. 

Holly – an organizer who hosts weekly protests – told FOX 13 news that there is a renewed interest in protecting the orca. 

She’s been protesting the treatment of Lolita since 2011, but noted the latest news has reinvigorated protestors, while attendance continues to drop.

 "It’s absolutely heartbreaking," said Holly. "It’s devastating. They just keep milking her for all she’s worth – with every heartbeat she can make money, and now she’s too sick to perform." 

For the past several months Tokitae has not performed. Activists point to a recent USDA report that showed the orca was being fed "poor quality fish" that smell badly. 

This week Miami Seaquarium posted a Facebook video, an employee began the video by saying, "We’ve been hearing you’ve had some questions about our beautiful killer whale, Toki…" The video didn’t say anything about the orcas recent illness, but instead note that renovations were underway.

Back on Whidbey Island Orca Network’s Howard Garrett is holding onto hope that Tokitae is okay, he said recent drone video gave him hope – on top of her historical toughness. Tokitae has spent more than 50 years of her life in a small enclosure, yet hasn’t succumbed to many of the issues dozens of other captive whales have over the years. It’s Garrett’s hope that the recent attention could be a benefit. 

"It’s a shakeup," said Garrett. "I have a feeling that the economy, and the change of heart of a lot of people could bring her home – it’s not out of the question."

Bringing Tokitae home has been the stated goal for many activists for a long-time. Garrett said that a new owner will soon come onboard at the Miami Seaquarium – it’s one of the other reasons he has hope. If that owner were to agree to move Tokitae, he believes it would spur action from scientists to fundraisers to achieve their ultimate goal: transfer Tokitae to a sea pen sanctuary where she’d have more space, and a potential to rejoin her pod. 

"She’s a miracle," he said. "I mean, she is beyond all expectations, beyond all statistics a survivor. I don’t know how she can hold on in that tiny cramped space all alone."

Federal court won't reopen case of captive orca Tokitae/Lolita

Activist groups have lost the latest battle in a decadeslong fight to free an orca named Lolita from the Miami Seaquarium.

A petition has been circulating online to release Tokitae; it's garnered more than 20,000 signatures. 

A GoFundMe campaign from nonprofit Sacred Lands Conservancy – which is run by Lummi Nation tribal members -- has already raised $27,000 to go towards construction of a sanctuary for Tokitae.

Garrett admits, even if the new owner were to "free" Tokitae there would be arguments over the safety of whether Tokitae is fit to return home. If she did come home it’d involve trainers, scientists, planning and a fully-built sea pen for her to re-acquaint herself with her native waters. 

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Some activists – including Holly – aren’t certain that Tokitae would ever be healthy enough to fully take care of herself. At a minimum, she wants the orca to live out her years in a sea pen that allows her additional space. 

"She’s suffering," said Holly, comparing Tokitae’s current aquarium to a human living their life in a bathtub. "Nothing has changed. No matter what we do, no matter how much awareness we place on the subject. No matter how many whistleblowers, no matter how many court cases – nothing seems to change."

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