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Tokitae, the oldest orca in captivity, has path to freedom after 50 years | US news | The Guardian

More than five decades after being captured in the waters off the Pacific north-west, Tokitae the orca has a plan to return home, delivering a victory to animal rights advocates and Indigenous leaders who have long fought for her release.

On Thursday, the owners of the Miami Seaquarium where Tokitae lives announced a “formal and binding agreement” with a group called the Friends of Lolita to begin the process of returning Tokitae to Puget Sound. A news release indicates that the joint effort is “working toward and hope the relocation will be possible in the next 18 to 24 months”.

Tokitae is the oldest killer whale in captivity. Now in retirement, she spent decades performing at the Miami Seaquarium, where she went by the name Lolita. She lived in the smallest orca enclosure in North America, in a pool of water that made her skin infected and was fed fish that was occasionally rotten and led to intestinal issues.

Over the years multiple groups, including members of the Lummi nation and animal rights organizations, have called for the whale’s release from the Seaquarium, with some staging protests outside the facility.

The audience at the Miami Seaquarium watching Lolita at its 40th anniversary performance.

A “generous contribution” from Jim Irsay, owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, helped alleviate the financial questions around Toki’s future. “I know she wants to get to free waters,” Irsay said at a news conference Thursday in Miami. “I don’t care what anyone says. She’s lived this long to have this opportunity.”

Tokitae’s ordeal began in the calm waters of Penn Cove, Whidbey Island – a quiet island off the coast of Washington State – five decades ago. Men with long sticks and guns corralled a group of resident killer whales, separating mothers from their calves. At least a dozen of those whales died during the capture, and more than 50 were kept for captive display.

One of those calves was four-year old Tokitae. Back home, the native Lummi people call her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut – meaning that she is a member of Sk’aliCh’elh, the resident family of orcas who call the Salish Sea home. The tribe, who views killer whales as part of their extended family, have never stopped fighting for her release.

There are still questions about Toki’s health and her ability to travel across the country to a sea pen. The pen would be constructed with the help of the non-profit Whale Sanctuary Project, which is also creating the world’s first whale sanctuary off the coast of Nova Scotia, following the model of areas to house big cats, great apes or elephants after they’ve been in captivity.

Activists from PETA and Animal Hero Kids protest to demand freedom for Lolita.

Toki’s relatives – members of the resident L-pod in the Salish Sea – are still alive, including the 90-year old whale believed to be her mother. Experts worry that if she were to encounter her kin, even through a sea pen, the infections Toki picked up in captivity could be spread to other southern resident killer whales, an already-endangered group that numbers only 74 individuals.

Federal agencies will have to sign off on any plans to transport the whale. And of course, the stress of travel and a new, wild environment might be dangerous for an elderly whale.

Even so, Thursday’s move is a momentous one. Howard Garrett, founder of the non-profit Orca Network who has been advocating for Toki’s release for decades, says the news was lacking in specifics, but it set the tone for unified intention and action. “That’s what will make it happen. That will greatly influence the agencies and skeptics and naysayers,” he says. “This was a momentous historical event.”

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