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Why We Fight for Nonhuman Rights: Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s Story Part 1

By Emily Gambone

UPDATE (8/18/23): Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, also known as Lolita, has died in captivity in the Miami Seaquarium. In March of 2023, after activists spent years fighting for her freedom, the Miami Seaquarium announced it would work with Friends of Lolita to release Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest. We lament that she passed away still a prisoner, never again knowing the open ocean or the joys of being with her pod, and we hope the story of her life will help bring an end to the terrible injustice that is orca captivity.

Sometime between 1964 and 1967, as the US enters the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement slowly, haltingly bends the moral arc of the universe towards justice, a baby orca slips from her mother’s body into the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington State. She is a strong swimmer already, staying at her mother’s side, nursing and touching and communicating as she is welcomed into her mother’s family. 

As the days and years pass, she continues to swim with her mother, expanding her repertoire of her pod’s unique dialect, which she’s been hearing since she was in utero. She learns to hunt and eat the Chinook salmon comprising the majority of her diet. She spyhops, frolics, and plays with other young orcas in her pod. Like all orcas born into the three pods of the Southern Resident orcas, she will stay with her mother for lifeor she would have, had she been born just over a decade later.

It will be two decades before people start to track the declining population of Chinook salmon her family eats, three decades before the salmon will be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which, at the time of our little orca’s birth, is still six to nine years away from being passed by Congress. In the 1960s, the PCBs and other environmental contaminants that will amplify up the food chain are reaching their peak, concentrating in the blubber of the orcas and in the fatty milk the young orca drinks from her mother. These contaminants will threaten the health of her family for decades to come.

But more significantly in the life of our little orca, she has been born into a time of changing public sentiment about members of her species. Since Pliny the Elder described orcas in the first century AD as “an enormous mass of flesh armed with teeth,” most humans, except for some populations of indigenous people, have feared orcas as predatory monsters. Even their latin name, Orcinus Orca, means a barrel-shaped cask of the realms of the dead. Their common name, killer whales, likely came from a mistranslation of “whale killers,” since some populations of orcas, who are actually the largest species of dolphin, work together to hunt and kill whales. Even in the years surrounding our little orca’s birth, people aboard fishing boats often shoot orcas because they consider them competition for fish. And yet, it is not bullets that threaten our little orca, it is not fear and hatred of her species, but rather, fascination and curiosity and a different sort of desire to dominate.

In November of 1961, just a few years before the birth of our orca, an adult female orca was feeding alone in a harbor off the coast of California. According to Frank Brocato, head animal collector for Marineland of the Pacific, she was acting erratically, though officials from the Newport Harbor Department stated Wanda, as locals had named her, seemed friendly, and a reporter for the Orange County Register described her as “playing tag” with smaller boats. Marineland employees, including Frank Brocato, captured her during a long and harrowing day in which she repeatedly escaped from their nets and evaded them until she was exhausted. 

Her captors transported her to the aquarium, where she smashed her head into the side of the tank. Marineland’s General Manager, William Monahan, said that Wanda’s “mistake” of swimming into Newport Harbor was “one of the greatest things that could ever have happened to us.”

Wanda survived less than two days in captivity, refusing all food offered to her. In Brocato’s words, she “went crazy. She started swimming at high speed around the tank, striking her body repeatedly. Finally, she convulsed and died.” 

A necropsy revealed that Wanda was in poor health, with signs of heart disease, worn teeth, parasitic worms, and a previous jaw fracture. Although the pathologists reported her death to be due to pneumonia and gastroenteritis, they did conclude that “the great stress experienced by the animal during capture and confinement contributed to the pathological condition.” 

Brocato had been attempting to catch an orca since the 1950s, and his desire to succeed redoubled after thousands of people watched Wanda’s capture and came to see her during her short life in captivity. In September of 1962, he and his assistant came across a male and female orca in the waters off the coast of Washington. As the female orca pursued a porpoise who was taking refuge behind Brocato’s collection boat, they managed to lasso her. She dove in an attempt to escape the lasso and swam to the end of the tether, where she began to scream. The male, hearing her calls, swam to her, and together they began charging towards the 40-foot boat, hitting their flukes against it. Brocato reached for his rifle and shot. He hit the male once before the orca swam away, but the tethered female was unable to escape. It took ten shots to kill her. Brocato towed her back to shore where she was weighed and measured. The orcawho earlier that day had been swimming with her companion, hunting in the waters of the Salish Seawas dead, her body destined for a dog food rendering plant, but not before Brocato removed her teeth as souvenirs.

It’s possible our little orca has already been born when an artist, commissioned by the Vancouver Aquarium to kill an orca as a model for a life-sized sculpture, harpoons a male orca off the coast of British Columbia in 1964. The orca is young, only about five to seven years old. Members of his pod rush to his aid, lifting him above the surface to save him from drowning as he thrashes and screams. The sculptor races to his captive and begins to shoot him with a rifle, but when even this fails to kill the young orca, the aquarium director Murray Newman decides to tow him by his harpoon line sixteen hours through the sea to Vancouver. 

Believing the young male orca to be a female, the Vancouver Aquarium names him Moby Doll and sets him up in a sea pen in the flooded Burrard Drydocks before transferring him to the Jericho Army Base. He becomes an international sensation as people rush to see him, including scientists who start for the first time to listen to the calls of an orca. Years after his death, scientists will use recordings of this young orca calling out to his family to determine he was a member of J pod, one of the three pods that make up the Southern Resident orcas, which means he, too, would have stayed with his mother for life. They note he is docile and friendly. For fifty-five days, he refuses the various foods offered to him until he finally begins to eat dead fish, twenty-two days before he himself is dead.

After the young orca’s death decades before his natural lifespan, separated from his family, after weeks of starvation, and a skin disease brought on by low salinity waters, how does the Vancouver Aquarium justify his capture? According to Newman, “I love that whale. I think that capturing it was the best thing I ever did.”

Meanwhile, a man named Ted Griffin is failing in his attempts to catch an orca for display at his small Seattle aquarium. Then, in 1965, a large male orca from a pod of Northern Residents becomes entangled in fishing nets off the coast of Namu, British Columbia, reportedly after entering the nets to help an orca calf who is trapped in them. The calf escapes, but the male orca remains and changes the trajectory of Ted Griffin’s life, which is now on a direct collision course with that of our little orca. 

Griffin raises $8000 to buy the orca, whom he names Namu and tows for nineteen days in a sea pen back to Seattle. An adult female and younger orcas follow his sea pen for miles. As members of the Northern Resident orcas, she is likely his mother, the younger orcas his siblings, who, without Griffin, would have been Namu’s constant companions for life.

Griffin is obsessed with Namu, who mimics Griffin’s squeaks and, as a social being, seeks out his company. Back in Seattle, Griffin trains Namu, rides on his back, and yes, changes the way people view orcas. By 1966, orcas are no longer dangerous monsters to be shot; they are gentle and curious and form close bonds with those around them. All of this is clear by the time Namu dies less than a year into his captivity, and one more thing is clear by then, tooan aquarium with an orca on display can make a lot of money on ticket sales. 

Even before the death of Namu, Griffin’s capture team succeeds in harpooning an orca mother, chasing her and her calf for seventeen hours before netting them. After the mother dies the following day, Griffin takes her orphaned calfa female he initially places in Namu’s enclosure with him. When she becomes aggressive towards Namu and Griffin, he sells her to SeaWorld for about $70,000, where she becomes the first of many Shamus until her death six years later just a few months after she severely injures a trainer. 

Griffin has partnered with Don Goldsberry, and until 1972, when Griffin sells his part of the whale capture business to Goldsberry, the two men capture about thirty orcas in the Salish Sea and sell them to aquariums. Before the end of orca captures off the coast of Washington in 1976, over 50 orcas, mostly babies from the Southern Resident pods, are taken from their families and sold into captivity. Including, in 1968, an approximately three-year-old male who is bought and transferred to a small tank at the Miami Seaquarium, where his captors call him Hugo. Including, in 1970, our little orca, who will join him there.

On August 8, 1970, the three pods of the Southern Resident orcas have come together for a superpodusually a time of joyful reunion for the orcas. But on this day, the whale hunters are waiting for them. By this time, the Southern Resident orcas have been rounded up repeatedly and must know their babies will be taken, even if most of the orcas will be released. They know what humans don’t yet know, that these babies are meant to stay with their mothers for life. And so, they try to save their babies. They try to flee the boats and the spotter planes and the explosives being tossed into the sea around them, but in the end, an estimated eighty orcas, all three pods of the Southern Residents, are forced into Penn Cove, trapped there by nets. 

The adults try to keep their babies close in the chaostwo of our little orca’s family members hold her between their bodies, but it is not enough. The hunters push them apart with sticks, string nets between them. The babies and families call to each other in panic as they are separated. Although many of the adults are set free, they do not leave their babies, not while they can still see them on the other side of the nets, not while they can still call to them, not for the ten days they are trapped in Penn Cove. The adults and calves spyhop, raising their bodies up out of the water to catch glimpses of each other. The sound of their cries carries through the air.

Lyla Snover and her children hear the cries. In the film Lolita, Slave to Entertainment, she will later recall: “What you really felt were the cries of… both the small ones and the adult ones… And I remember, one day, I stopped over there right close to them with my children that were very small at the time, and they kept saying: ‘Why are they crying? They’re crying.’ It just broke your heart… You just kept wanting them to let them go.”

Four babies become entangled and drown, possibly after residents of Whidbey Island can no longer stomach the orcas’ screams and cut one of the nets at night. Griffin and Goldsberry, wanting to avoid negative publicity, order the divers working on the capture team to slit open the babies’ bellies, fill them with rocks, attach anchors to their tails and sink them. In the days before they open the nets to release the rest of the orcas, a mother orca becomes entangled and drowns in what witnesses say is her frantic attempt to reach her baby.

As our little orca is lifted out of the waters, her family has come as close to the dock as they can, still calling to her as she calls to them. Eighteen-year-old diver John Crowe, tempted by the excitement of capturing orcas, had not realized he would have to slit open dead babies to fill them with rocks or work amidst the distressed calls of the family members he helps to separate. Years later, he will tell his story first in the documentary The Killer Whale People, and later in Blackfish.  “[I] lost it. I mean I just started crying. I didn’t stop working, but I—you know, I just couldn’t handle it. It’s like kidnapping a little kid away from her mother… It’s the worst thing I can think of… this is the worst thing that I’ve ever done, is hunt that whale.”

In the end, Griffin and Goldsberry take seven calves from their families in addition to a less than one-year-old calf found stranded on August 8th, likely as a result of the roundup. After transporting them to a nearby holding facility, they sell them to aquariums around the world. One goes to England, though he will return to the United States before his death in fifteen years. Two go to Japan and will both be dead in less than four years. One goes to France and will be dead in three and a half years. Two of the calves are only two years oldone will go to Australia, one to Texas. Neither will survive a year. The little stranded calf will go to Germany and she, too, will be dead in a year. And our little orca is sold for $20,000 to the Miami Seaquarium. 

Jesse White, the veterinarian who chooses her to be Hugo’s companion, names her Tokitaea Coast Salish greeting meaning “nice day, pretty colors.” It is a name researchers and advocates will continue to use for years, until decades from now Lummi Nation names her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut as they work to bring her home to the Salish Sea. She will be called neither at the Miami Seaquarium, where she is known as “Lolita,” a name that has come to mean “a young girl who is sexually attractive to older men” after the title character in Nabokov’s book about a pedophile. But the original meaning of Lolita stems from the diminutive of Lola, from the Spanish dolores, the plural of pain, ache, sorrow, grief, suffering, and the decades to come will be full of these.

In the smallest orca tank in North America, our little orca will grow and, against all odds, survive. The truth is, our little orca, who is no longer so little, is also not ours. She never has been. More and more people will recognize this truth as the years pass. She will have advocates who will protest her captivity, upend their lives to try to win her freedom, release films featuring her plight, file court case after court case on her behalf. Decades from now, at a gathering of cetacean advocates, researchers and scientists, the spark of an idea will lead to the founding of the Whale Sanctuary Project, shifting the paradigm of what is possible for the lives of cetaceans in captivity. Over half a century since she was torn from her family in Penn Cove, the question remains of who will prevail—those who believe she is property, a thing, a commodity, or those who believe she is someone with autonomy and self-awareness, and the right, just maybe, to slip once again into the waters of the Salish Sea?

Read Part 2 here.

Learn more here about the Lummi Nation’s efforts to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home.

Learn more here about the The Whale Sanctuary Project’s work to build a sanctuary where cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can live in an environment that maximizes well-being and autonomy and is as close as possible to their natural habitat.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is the only civil rights organization in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals. Our groundbreaking work challenges an archaic, unjust legal status quo that views and treats all nonhuman animals as “things” with no rights. As with human rights, nonhuman rights are based on fundamental values and principles of justice such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness. All of human history shows that the only way to truly protect human beings’ fundamental interests is to recognize their rights. It’s no different for nonhuman animals.

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