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Lolita the Orca Dies in Captivity Awaiting Release

Five months ago, in April, we wrote an article about Lolita the orca, or Tokitae, and how preparations were being set in place for her release in the Northwestern U.S. She had been in captivity in the Miami Seaquarium for over 52 out of the 56 years of her life when she died of renal failure on August 18, 2023. She was the second-oldest orca in captivity in the world.

Historically, orcas in captivity have been plagued by illnesses that occur when such a large animal is kept in such a small tank. Not only does this cause them extreme stress, but it also creates a cesspool of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Lolita was no stranger to this, as she had actually contracted several diseases in the tank herself. According to lead veterinarian Tom Reidarson, Lolita had a “nearly fatal bout with pneumonia last fall [2022].”

Some investments were made by The Dolphin Company, the owners of the Seaquarium, and Jim Irsay, the president of the Indianapolis Colts, to improve her health and prepare her for her eventual release: $500,000 on improved water filters and an improved diet similar to the one she would follow in her native waters in the Salish Sea. Overall, Lolita’s monthly vet bill cost over $200,000, all bankrolled by Irsay, who was also covering the massive $15–20 million process of transporting and releasing the orca.

Despite all the money thrown at trying to help Lolita, it wasn’t enough to cover the 50 years of purgatory she had been subjected to. For 50 years, Lolita’s native range of 40 miles per day had been reduced to 0.015 miles. For 50 years, her entire life was spent being a slave for the entertainment of humans, doing the same tricks over and over again twice a day.

Lolita had a male partner, Hugo the orca, for 10 years in the 70s and 80s. Before the two were united, Hugo was stored in the same tank that is used to display manatees today. Esteemed dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, refused to train him and left in disgust when he saw the size of the tank.

“When I fed Hugo, his tail would be lying on the bottom and his head would be completely out of the water. It was pathetic.” O’Barry shared.

After two years of being in the tiny manatee tank, the two were moved to a shared tank at the Seaquarium, where the couple conceived an unknown number of calves. None survived childbirth. It was known to Seaquarium employees that Hugo would often bang his head into the walls of the tank, hurting himself in the process. On March 4th, 1980, Hugo killed himself after suffering a brain aneurysm caused by his repeated head-bashing. According to the Miami Herald, his body was lifted by a crane, cut open for a necropsy, and dumped into the South Dade Landfill.

Ever since then, Lolita has had a few dolphin partners, but she was never given a chance to grieve the death of her mate. In the 40+ years after that, she was in limbo like Dante in his divine comedy, but with no Virgil to guide her out of her tragedy, as it was humanity’s desire to be entertained by her in that 80 by 35 ft. large ring of hell.

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