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Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, the last surviving captive Southern Resident orca, has a shot at returning home

“To my tribe, the Lhaq’ te’mish of the Salish Sea, they are people,” writes Rena Priest, a Lummi tribal member. “In our stories, they have societies and a culture similar to our own. They are the first harvesters of salmon, and, like Coast Salish tribes, they are matriarchal. Most remain by their mothers’ sides for their entire lives. The matriarchs are the keepers of the wisdom—the decision-makers, the leaders on whom the survival of their pods depend.”

There has been an active campaign to bring Sk’ali/Tokitae back home to the Pacific Northwest since the 1990s, but Miami Seaquarium’s owners have refused to even acknowledge it, let alone discuss the possibility. Now, however, its ownership is about to change into the hands of a company that does not deal in the care of killer whales, and its CEO has been talking congenially with the Lummi people about what to do with her.

The Dolphin Company—a firm based in Cancun, Mexico, that specializes in offering “swim with dolphins” experiences—announced this fall that it was preparing to purchase the lease for the Seaquarium, the home of the original “Flipper” with a large collection of bottlenose and other dolphins. When the activists who have been working to end Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s captivity contacted the company, they were pleasantly surprised to find officials were willing to talk. Lummi organizers told Daily Kos that there have been quiet discussions with company executives, which have been necessarily vague, but hopeful.

“We’ve thought the best, most effective way to bring her home is if Miami Seaquarium can say yes to working with us, rather than going through the protracted and expensive process of actually suing them,” said Julie Trimingham, secretary/treasurer of Sacred Sea, the Lummi-based nonprofit that is spearheading the campaign to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home. “We’re partnered with the Earth Law Center, who’s representing us.”

“It’s still an arrow in our quiver, but it’s not the most productive one. We always approach Miami Seaquarium, we always say with an open hand rather than a closed fist. So, an invitation to work together.”

What may impact the orca’s fate even more directly is a federal inspection of the Seaquarium facilities earlier this year that produced a devastating report from the Department of Agriculture showing that virtually none of the animals there were being properly cared for, and particularly not “Lolita.” Her caretakers were cutting down on her intake, and not only feeding her a species outside her ordinary diet of Pacific salmon, but also giving her rotten fish that caused her severe gastronomic distress—while also ordering her to perform tricks in her tank that were injuring her, despite a veterinarian’s warning that her advanced age made her no longer suited to perform them.

“There really isn’t anything worse for a USDA inspector to report than the fact that those in charge of a facility are disregarding their attending veterinarian,” noted whale scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute commented. “Sidelining the attending vet undermines the entire basis for protecting captive animal welfare in the United States.”

‘Lolita’ poses with her trainers at the end of each of her thrice-daily performances.

The June inspection by Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) officers was so bad that it has kicked off a full-fledged investigation of Miami Seaquarium, one that may take weeks to complete. Even after APHIS issued its report, three more animals—including one of the Pacific white-sided dolphins with whom Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut shared her concrete tank, possibly from injuries inflicted by the orca. (In the wild—notably, in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait, where both species coexist—such dolphins and orcas are not very compatible, and are known to harass each other.) A manatee that was being rehabilitated died of emaciation.

In the meantime, the Dolphin Company’s assumption of the lease on the facility (which is owned by Key Biscayne), approved by the county in October, will remain in limbo, since the deal can only be finalized after the Seaquarium addresses the critical violations that emerged from June inspection, as well as any enforcement actions that may emerge from the current investigation.

“The transaction can’t take place until all the USDA citations have been addressed. That’s a condition required by the Mayor and the Board for approval and execution of the lease transaction,” an official from Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department told the Miami Herald. “The Dolphin Company understands and concurs with this requirement, and accordingly won’t take over operations at the Seaquarium until the improvements are completed by the current operator.”

If the investigation’s findings are bad enough, among the actions APHIS could take is to completely yank Miami Seaquarium’s permit to hold the marine mammals in its care and confiscate them. Rose believes this is a realistic possibility.

“So what are the most practicable options?” she wondered aloud in an interview with Daily Kos. “What’s most likely to happen if, for example, let’s just say, APHIS pulled their license: ‘You can no longer display animals. You’ve had so many problems and this investigation has been outrageous, and you guys have been lying and falsifying records, lots and lots things—we’re pulling your license.’ They rarely do that, but they do do that. It’s not unheard of.

“So let’s say they pull their license. Well, then they have to send her to somewhere else. And my feeling is that it’s going to be SeaWorld. It’s a short trip up the road, it’s the least stressful for her. It’s the most obvious thing to do if she does have these pathogens.”

SeaWorld, which has facilities a few hours north in Orlando that would be capable of holding her and providing better care. If examinations of her health after the investigation show she could not survive a major cross-country move, that might turn out to be her best option.

Rose says her preference is to place Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut/Tokitae in a whale sanctuary, but worries whether that’s achievable in the short time window that may be available to keep her alive. “If that’s what they decided to do is get her out of that stupid little tank and send her to SeaWorld, I would bite my tongue. I would never say it was a good idea, but I would not object to it. At this point in her life, anything is better than where she is right now.

“I think she is likely to die very soon if APHIS doesn’t get their act together. So at this point, I think she does need to get out of there. They’re killing her.”

However, it’s also known in the industry that SeaWorld has no interest in “Lolita,” in part because she would not fit in well with the orcas they already have in their “collection,” who have their own cultural ecosystem and are known to be aggressive with orcas from outside it. Moreover, because of her age and her unique status as the last surviving captive SRKW—and the attending public-relations nightmare if anything bad should befall her—Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is widely considered a major liability.

Their best remaining option—one fraught with real obstacles, but also having the advantage of actually being The Right Thing To Do for an animal who has miraculously survived decades of captivity and has earned her retirement—lies with the Lummi people.

Next: The Sk’aliCh’ech-tenaut plan

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