“To my tribe, the Lhaq’te’mish of the Salish Sea, they are people,” writes Rena Priest, a Lummi tribesman. “In our stories, they have societies and a culture similar to ours. They are the first salmon harvesters and, like the Coast Salish tribes, they are matriarchal. Most stay by their mother’s side for the rest of their lives. The matriarchs are the keepers of wisdom – the decision makers, the leaders upon whom the survival of their pods depends.”
Since the 1990s, there has been an active campaign to bring Sk’ali/Tokitae back home to the Pacific Northwest, but the owners of Miami Seaquarium have refused to even acknowledge this, let alone discuss the possibility. Now, however, the company is on the cusp of passing into the hands of a company not involved in caring for orcas, and the CEO has spoken sympathetically to the Lummi folks about what to do with her.
The Dolphin Company – a company 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, home of the original ” Flipper” with a large collection of bottlenose dolphins and other dolphins. When the activists working to end Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s imprisonment reached out to the company, they were pleasantly surprised to find that officials were willing to talk. Lummi organizers told Daily Kos that there have been quiet discussions with business leaders, which were necessarily vague, but hopeful.
“We 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 lengthy and expensive process of actually suing them,” says Julie Trimingham, secretary/treasurer of Sacred Sea, the Lummi-based non-profit organization spearheading the campaign to bring home Sk’aliCh’elh tenaut. “We are partnering with the Earth Law Center, which represents us.”
“It’s still an arrow in our quiver, but it’s not the most productive. We always approach Miami Seaquarium, we always say with an open hand rather than a closed fist. An invitation to work together.”
What could affect the orca’s fate even more directly is a federal inspection of the Seaquarium facilities earlier this year that turned up a devastating report from the Department of Agriculture showing that virtually none of the animals there were well cared for, especially not “Lolita.” Her keepers reduced her intake and not only gave her a species that was outside of her normal diet of Pacific salmon, but also fed her rotten fish that were causing her serious gastronomic problems — while also ordering her to use tricks in her aquarium. those injuries caused her, despite a vet’s warning that her advanced age made her no longer fit to perform them.
“There really is nothing worse for a USDA inspector to report than the fact that those in charge of a facility are ignoring their attending veterinarian,” noted whale scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute. “Putting the attending veterinarian aside undermines the entire foundation for protecting animal welfare in captivity in the United States.”
The June inspection by Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) officials was so bad that a full-scale investigation into Miami Seaquarium has begun, one that could take weeks. Even after APHIS released its report, there were still three 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 killer whale. (In the wild — particularly in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait, where both species co-exist — such dolphins and killer whales are not very compatible and have been known to harass each other.) A manatee that was rehabilitated died of emaciation.
In the meantime, the Dolphin Company’s acquisition of the lease for the facility (which is owned by Key Biscayne), approved by the county in October, will remain in limbo, as the deal cannot be finalized until after the Seaquarium identifies the critical violations. that come out of the June inspection, as well as any enforcement actions that may arise from the current investigation.
“The transaction cannot take place until all USDA citations have been dealt with. That’s a condition set by the mayor and the board of directors for approval and execution of the lease transaction,” a Miami-Dade Parks Recreation and Open Spaces Department official told the Miami Herald. “The Dolphin Company understands and agrees to this requirement, and therefore will not take over operations at the Seaquarium until the improvements are completed by the current operator.”
If the findings of the investigation are bad enough, one of the actions APHIS could take is to completely revoke the Miami Seaquarium’s license to keep and confiscate the marine mammals. Rose believes this is a realistic possibility.
“So what are the most practical options?” she wondered aloud in an interview with Daily Kos. “What’s the most likely to happen if, say, APHIS revokes their permit: ‘You can’t exhibit any more animals. You’ve had so many problems and this investigation was outrageous, and you lied and falsified data, a lot of things – we’re revoking your license.’ They rarely do, but they to do do that. It’s not unheard of.
“So let’s say they revoke their license. Then they have to send her somewhere else. And my feeling is it’s going to be SeaWorld. It’s a short drive down the road, it’s the least stressful for her. It’s the most obvious thing to do if she has these pathogens.”
SeaWorld, which has facilities a few hours north of Orlando that can hold her and provide better care. If a post-examination health check found that she wouldn’t survive a major move abroad, that might just turn out to be her best option.
Rose says she prefers placing Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut/Tokitae in a whale sanctuary, but is concerned about whether it’s feasible in the short time frame available to keep her alive. “If they decided to get her out of that stupid little tank and send her to SeaWorld, I’d bite my tongue. I would never say it was a good idea, but I wouldn’t mind. At this point in her life, everything is better than where she is now.
“I think she will die very soon if APHIS doesn’t get their act together. So at this point I think she needs to get out of there. They’re killing her.”
However, it is also well known in the industry that SeaWorld has no interest in “Lolita”, in part because it would not fit well with the orcas they already have in their “collection”, which have their own cultural ecosystem and are known to aggressive with orcas from outside. In addition, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, because of her age and her unique status as the last remaining inmate of SRKW – and the attendant public relations nightmare if something bad were to happen to her – is widely regarded as a great obligation.
Their best option – one that is full of real obstacles, but also has the advantage of being actually the right thing to do for an animal that has miraculously survived decades of captivity and earned her retirement – lies with the Lummi people.
Next: Sk’aliCh’ech-tenaut’s Plan