Orca in captivity.

Photo by Iewek Gnos on Unsplash

My heart aches: saying goodbye to Lolita

Lolita was four years old when she was stolen from her home in Puget Sound and transported thousands of miles to the Miami Seaquarium. Held captive for 53 years, she suffered severe neglect and abuse, while spending her days begging for bits of food by performing the unnatural acts required by her captors.

Several months ago, when Lolita was too infirm to perform, plans were announced to return her home by 2025. There she would be rehabilitated and possibly reunited with her mother and other members of her pod. Lolita died on August 19, 2023.

My heart aches for Lolita.

Lolita was part of the critically endangered Southern Resident Orcas (SRO), who live in the coastal ocean waters off Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. As of September 2022 there were only 73 SROs remaining (per Oceana). Lolita’s concrete, chlorinated tank trapped the 8000-pound cetacean in acoustic isolation. She was unable to swim freely, and the tank’s 20-foot depth (at the deepest point) made it impossible for the 22-foot whale to dive and escape the chronic sunburn that kept her vulnerable skin cracked and bleeding. As recently as 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted deficiencies in Lolita’s care, including dirty water, poor food, broken equipment, and actions contrary to veterinary instructions, such as forcing her to perform when injured.

Orcas are highly social. Lolita shared her tank with Hugo, who had been captured two years earlier, until he died from repeatedly ramming his head into the pool wall. Hugo’s death left Lolita the sole survivor of 45 SROs who were captured between 1965 and 1973. It also left her to live out the remaining 43 years of her life sentence in solitary confinement.

Held captive for 53 years, Lolita suffered severe neglect and abuse, while spending her days begging for bits of food by performing the unnatural acts required by her captors. Lolita died in captivity on August 19, 2023, before she could be returned to her native waters.

My heart aches for Hugo and the other 43 SROs.

My heart also aches when we profane God’s kingdom dream by our treatment of other-than-human creatures:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11:6-9)

My heart aches over the hierarchy of compassion in which concern for “the other” (other family, other race, other gender, other nationality, other species) ranks so far below—or is even extinguished by—concern for those who are like us. My heart aches for a species that believes so strongly in its exceptionalism that it accepts wanton desecration of our planet and unmitigated cruelty toward other creatures as a matter of course. My heart aches for a religious institution that holds to a loving God who created a cornucopia of magnificent species while functioning as though that Creator cares for only one of those species—its own.

Lolita is, of course, not this Orca’s name. We don’t know her name. Marine biologists believe that Orcas can identify members of their pod through signature calls. After capture, this Orca was first called Tokitae and then nicknamed the more audience-friendly “Lolita” once she arrived at the Miami Seaquarium. She was also given the name  Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi tribe of Puget Sound who consider her and all SROs to be relatives and members of their tribe. Their effort to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home included invoking the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) with intent to sue if the Miami Seaquarium would not agree to collaboratively work out a plan to safely bring her back home. In 2023, the Dolphin Company, the Seaquarium’s owners, agreed to cooperate in implementing the Lummi Nation’s “operational plan” for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s rehabilitation and rematriation to the Salish Coast.

My heart aches for a people whose spiritual connection to creation has been ignored, denied, denigrated, and even outlawed by the United States. My heart aches that in the mainstream news stories about the planned release of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, I saw no mention of the Lummi and their work on her behalf.

My heart aches for those who, conflating Western culture and Christianity, arrived in this land in conquest mode blind to an opportunity to learn from Native peoples and reclaim a faith that honors the sacredness of all of creation.

The Orca Network ended their announcement of Lolita’s death with this:

“One thing that brings us comfort is knowing that yesterday, as Toki began struggling and was on her journey home to the next world, her entire family was off the west side of San Juan Island in what these days is a rare gathering, with all three pods swimming up and down the island, socializing in a Superpod; and the L12s are still there today. This is often a cultural/social ritual to mark a significant event in their community, and we believe they were welcoming her home.”

How high the cost of anthropocentrism. To us. And to all living things.

Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, ThM. Ed.D. is an appointed fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She retired from ABHMS in 2021 after serving as national director of Discipleship Ministries and continues in a life committed to the way of Jesus and dreams of a world consumed by compassion. She is the author of Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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