Animal Rights, Endangered Species, Environmental Justice, Wildlife

The Loneliest Whale on Earth: Who Should Be Held Accountable?

Authored by: Zhe Zhu (She/her), Fordham ELR Staff Member 2021-22

Edited by: Michael Chambrelli, Fordham ELR Online Editor 2021-22

Orcas cannot thrive in captivity. A female orca named Kiska bashed her head against the glass aquarium she is trapped in. This video is not old footage. It was filmed on September 4th, 2021. Kiska was committing suicide on that day.

Who is Kiska, and how did she become the loneliest whale in the world? In November 1979, a whaling team captured Kiska, a three-year-old whale who once lived happily with her family in the Icelandic Ocean. She has been in captivity for 42 years ever since. In 2009, she witnessed the death of her fifth child at age four. In 2011, her last companion, Ike, returned to SeaWorld. She has lived alone ever since, which caused her to become unmotivated and lethargic. Her poor mental state was captured by Philip Demers, a former head trainer of Marineland’s stadium, as Kiska floated lifelessly at the surface of her concrete pool.

Kiska’s heartbreaking living conditions undoubtedly has us wonder: Are there not already laws that protect orcas’ welfare? Indeed, California passed the Orca Protection Act, which bans captivity and breeding of orcas and their use in entertainment in 2016. Canada also passed a national law banning whales, dolphins, and porpoises from being bred or held in captivity in 2019. For citizens world-wide who have read news about orcas, or watched the movie Blackfish, which highlights the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity, we are under the impression that the welfare of orcas is well taken care of, without having a deeper understanding what the protection acts do.

Given the laws designed to protect these creatures, why then is Kiska still trapped and making attempts on her life? Kiska and the other whales and dolphins held captive at Marineland were exempted from these laws due to the practical challenges of relocating them. The sad truth is, they cannot be released into the ocean because they do not have the skills needed to survive. Orcas in captivity also have collapsed dorsal fins due to the effects of spending a large  amount of time at the water’s surface in shallow pools.

Orcas are highly intelligent, social animals that are meant to live, migrate, and feed over great distances in the ocean. Orcas in captivity show stress-induced behaviors that often involve self-mutilation, typical of captive animals with little or no enrichment and live in too-small enclosures. As a result, in captivity orcas develop mental and physical ailments and typically die at a young age.

Animal Justice, a Canadian national animal law non-profit organization filed a legal complaint with provincial authorities, requesting an investigation into the conditions endured by Kiska. “Free Kiska” is still an ongoing movement. Sadly, what does freedom mean to Kiska? Where should she be “freed” to? To die as soon as she’s released back into the ocean where she originally belonged to because she no longer has the skill to survive in the environment where she once called home? This is a question that no one asks humans on behalf of Kiska.

How many more environmental harms must humans cause before they start treating the Earth with a real sense of respect and dignity? It is tough to say. When we mistreat the Earth, there is no one to hold humans accountable.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope for Kiska and other orcas like her. A Canadian group plans to launch the first seaside sanctuary in Port Hilford, Nov Scotia for whales and dolphins rescued from the aquarium industry. This sanctuary can provide whales and dolphins an environment that is as close as possible to their natural habitat. But let’s hope Kiska can live long enough to see the sanctuary.