Locked down for life

Jennifer O’Connor
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (TNS)
Keiko kicks the water with his tail as trainers help free the killer whale from a sling used to lift him from a transport container into his new sea pen off the coast of Iceland. The Hollywood whale, the star of the movie "Free Willy," was returned to his native Icelandic waters at the end of a four-year, $12.5 million campaign to release the five-ton celebrity back into the open sea. (Barry Wong/Seattle Times/TNS)

One positive thing has come out of the pandemic: A growing number of people have come to understand that life in lockdown is no life at all and have joined the chorus against keeping animals in captivity for our entertainment. A recently released video showing Kiska, the lone orca at an Ontario theme park, repeatedly slamming her head and body against the side of her awful tank illustrates what is at stake. Her obvious despair and desperation are gut-wrenching.

In 1979, Kiska was swimming in the wide-open ocean off Iceland with her mother and siblings, playing, feeding and exploring. One can only imagine her terror and confusion when she was torn away from her home and family and put into a minuscule tank. She could not have known then that she would be in this “bathtub” for decades. Kiska would never see her family again. And she was only 3 years old.

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Tragically, Kiska’s tankmate, Nootka, another wild-caught orca, were each other’s only source of comfort and companionship. Even though orcas are devoted mothers whose offspring typically stay with them all their lives, all five of Kiska’s babies died. The oldest one only lived to age 6. Nootka also died. Today, Kiska exists in solitary confinement.

The unmitigated frustration and hopelessness that Kiska endures day after day, year after year, decade after decade, is unimaginable.

The only acceptable future for Kiska and other orcas now held in tanks is to be placed in coastal sanctuaries. These are large, protected areas where the animals can be rehabilitated. Wild-caught orcas could potentially be prepared to be reunited with their long-lost families. But even those whose health or behavior has been too compromised by their confinement for them to be released could still experience a much more fulfilling daily existence. They would have room to swim in natural seawater, feel the tides and waves, and engage in the activities that they’ve long been denied.

Let’s remember Keiko. Keiko was another wild orca captured near Iceland in 1979 who was sold to a series of aquariums and forced to perform tricks for food. He became sick and listless. In 1993, after the movie "Free Willy" prompted the call for his retirement, Keiko was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he was rehabilitated and then moved to an ocean pen near Iceland. He adjusted quite well, regaining his health, strength and stamina. He interacted with wild orca pods and explored the open ocean. He learned to hunt and catch food on his own and was given the freedom to come and go as he pleased with continued support from the team monitoring him. Keiko had five more healthy years, navigated over 1,000 miles of open ocean and was living free when he died.

Kiska does not deserve to die in a cramped tank, banging her head against the wall in a futile attempt at relief. Until marine parks do the right thing and retire the orcas they hold captive, people who care about animals should turn their backs on these tourist traps.