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Why We Fight for Nonhuman Rights: Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s Story Part 3

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.

In Part 1 of our story, we learned about the events that led to a little orca’s capture and transfer to the Miami Seaquarium. In Part 2, we learned about life for her family in the wild in contrast to her own life in captivity. Thank you for taking the time to read her story.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has lived at the Miami Seaquarium, in the smallest and oldest orca tank in North America, since she was taken from her family in the Salish Sea over half a century ago. More than four decades have passed since she has seen another orca.

While Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut shares almost no lived experience with her family, who live in a tight-knit community and swim vast distances, she does still have much in common with them. Her brain, like theirs, is 2.2 to 2.3 times bigger than expected for an animal of her size. A human brain is seven times the expected sizethis number is called the encephalization quotient (EQ). Great apes and elephants have an EQ similar to orcas, though other members of the dolphin family have EQs as high as 5. Lori Marino, an internationally renowned neuroscientist specializing in the evolution of brains and intelligence in dolphins and whales, explains that an oversized brain is a good indicator of cognitive capacity and behavioral complexity. The vast energy requirements of brains would preclude them from evolving to be larger than necessarywhich is to say, in order to justify the energy needed, brains that are larger than expected relative to body size must be serving some function beyond basic survival and intelligence.

But EQ is not the only indicator of intelligence, especially since it is nonlinear and tends to underestimate the cognitive abilities in particularly large animals such as orcasbecause their body size is so large already, to have a brain many times the expected size for their body mass would be physically impossible. And so, we can look to some of the individual parts of the brain for additional clues. For example, the complexity and depth of the folds of the neocortex, which give brains their wrinkled appearance, allow a brain to have a far greater surface area than would otherwise fit inside a skull. This complexity is an indicator of high level and abstract thinking, and the folds in the cerebral cortex of orcas are deeper and more elaborate than those found in humans, comprising a greater percentage of their brains than ours. 

Unlike human brains, the brains of orcas include a paralimbic lobe, which is uniquely well-developed in cetaceans, and connects the limbic systemthe emotional and memory-forming part of the brainto the neocortex. What does this connection mean? It means we don’t need to be surprised orcas spend their lives together, cry when separated, keep injured podmates afloat, stay close to stranded family members even when they risk stranding themselves, and grieve the loss of one another. It means we don’t need to be surprised that when the mother orca, Tahlequah, carries her dead baby for seventeen days over a thousand miles, her eight-year-old son and other members of J pod help keep her baby’s body afloat, even feeding Tahlequah during her mourning. Given orcas’ lifelong bonds, displays of grief and helping behaviors, and the highly developed paralimbic lobe, maybe the question we need to ask is not whether orcas are capable of human depths of emotion and social connection, but whether we are capable of understanding the depths of theirs. 

Of course Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is bored and lonely in a tank with an intelligent brain like hers, wired for social connection. Of course she is bored in a tiny, featureless tank where the only enrichment provided to her is a wetsuit to play with, a dribble from a hose, and interactions with her trainers. Deprived of currents and variation, she floats listlessly at the inflow valve of her tiny tank. Even her shows fail to break the monotony of her daya series of memorized actions she performs by rote, often not needing to wait for her trainers’ signals to know what comes next. 

Every day is the same. She is bored. She is lonely. We know these things because we know evolution does not reverse itself in a single individual, even over half a century of deprivation. We know she is bored because orcas evolved to travel vast distances, to echolocate and capture their food, to dive deep, to solve problems and challenges, to have variety in their lives, to have choice. And we know she is lonely because orcas evolved to be social beings, with the language and the brain indicative of deep connections to others of their species. In the life that should have been hers, she has close, lifelong relationships with her mother, her pod. She has children who swim by her side for the rest of her life, grandchildren she helps to mother for decades past her own reproductive years. They are strongerthe children and grandchildren she could have hadtheir survival more likely because she is in their lives. We know Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was meant to spend her life with her family, never alone instead of always alone. 

It’s not surprising then that captive orcaseven those in larger tanks and with orca companionsexhibit a wide range of unnatural and repetitive behaviors, and that these stereotypies result in serious consequences to their mental and physical health. The most visible evidence is in their teeth.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut does not use her teeth to grab her food, which is thrown into the back of her throat. And yet, unlike the conical teeth of her family in the Salish Sea, which rarely break or even show wear, her teeth are damaged, like the teeth of all twenty-nine captive orcas examined in a 2017 study. Their teeth are fractured, missing, worn. We know this not because marine parks share information about the teeth of orcas in their carethey don’tbut because we have opportunistic photographs of their teeth taken as they beg for dead fish. Forty-five percent of the orcas in the study showed moderate coronal wear, while almost a quarter exhibited major to extreme wear. Over twenty percent of all the teeth examined were worn down to or below the gum line. 

When the teeth are worn down so far that the pulp is exposed, it creates a risk of infection that can become systemic and fatal. In the last six years SeaWorld has moved away from the modified pulpotomy procedure they and other marine parks have employed when the pulp is exposed, but in the 2017 study, 61.1% of the second and third teeth in the orcas’ lower jaws showed evidence of bore holes. One orca less than three years old had bore holes in 25% of her mandibular teeth, and a six-year-old orca had bore holes in 42% of his. According to The Orca Project, a former SeaWorld trainer describes a pulpotomy as follows:The whales are conditioned to ‘accept’ the noise, heat, vibration and obvious pain associated with drilling vertically through the tooth column and into the fleshy pulp below. Success is measured by blood spilling out of the hole, in which case it’s apparent the bore is complete.” Since you cannot fill cavities in aquatic animals, the holes remain open and have to be flushed up to three times a day in an attempt to dislodge food and bacteria and prevent infection.

What is happening to captive orcas’ teeth if their food isn’t the cause of wear and fracture? They are chewing on metal gates, sometimes jaw popping against them as a show of aggression towards an orca on the other side. They are chewing on concrete out of boredom and frustration, and maybe also in an attempt to ease the pain in their ever more damaged teeth. 

Thanks to a court case over Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s captivity, her advocates receive Miami Seaquarium’s animal behavior records for her from 2001-2015, except for year 2005 and year 2007 and year 2008, and a week in June 2015 and all of December 2015, which are missing. What we do know from the records made available is that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is subjected to tooth drilling more than sixteen times in 2011, while still forced to perform each day. 

What other evidence do we have of captive orcas’ boredom and frustration and loneliness, besides the complexity of their brains and their social lives in the wild and the grinding of their teeth? What does their behavior show us?

They float listlessly on the surface of the watera behavior known as loggingduring which they suffer sunburn and are covered in mosquito bites that have led to the death of two captive orcas from West Nile and St. Louis encephalitis viruses. If they are not logging, they lie on the bottom of their tanks. They spend much of their day still, when in the wild, orcas are constantly in motion. Even when they sleep, wild orcas are still moving together, though more slowly, their breathing often synchronized. Only half of their brain is asleep at a time since cetaceans are conscious breathers. They have to choose when to take a breath to prevent drowning, so they can never fully sleep. Sk’alCh’elh-tenaut never fully sleeps. She is always aware of the walls of her tank, the absence of companions. And the only significant choice she can make in her life is to continue to breathe.

What else do captive orcas do that wild ones don’t? Some ram their heads, like Hugo. Some regurgitate their food. Some slide out of their pools onto the concrete, as they are taught to do in shows, only they do so repeatedly. An orca weighs between 3,000 and 12,000 pounds, and the weight of gravity soon begins to crush their inner organs, prompting their bodies to release myoglobin, which damages their kidneys. They swim in circleswhat else can they do​​often surfacing at the exact same spot in a monotonous, repetitive motion. They head bob and tongue play. 

Orcas in captivity exhibit aggression towards each other that is not seen to the same degree and frequency in the wild; they are part of artificial pods, confined in small spaces with others who do not speak their language, with nowhere for subordinate orcas to escape dominant individuals. And sometimes, after years of frustration and suffering, orcas kill or injure their trainersthe very people marine parks claim are the orcas’ families. There have been no documented cases of an orca ever killing a human in the wild.

These abnormal behaviors indicate that, just as in other animals, including mammalian species ranging from mice to humans, impoverished environments such as the ones orcas endure in captivity likely damage the delicate balance among the structures of their brain. The same sort of harm that leads to stereotypic behavior, depression, anxiety, and poor health in other animals, including humans, can be inferred as an explanation for the physical and mental conditions of captive cetaceans.

Is it any wonder that captive orcas often die young, despite extensive veterinary care? Some captive orcas die of trauma. Some of twisted intestines or gastric ulcers. Most captive orcas die of pneumonia or other bacterial and fungal infections. These are opportunistic infections that gain purchase in the bodies of stressed orcas who grind their teeth to the point of needing frequent antibiotics, which in turn breed antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that infiltrate their lungs and their blood. Their intestinal and lung microbiomes are altered through antibiotics and chemicals in the water and the medications used to treat the fungal overgrowths that follow. Their immune systems are suppressed by the chronic stress of their captive lives. The wonder is really that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has survived so long in the conditions under which she is forced to live. Clearly the Miami Seaquarium is not the reason for her longevity, with husbandry practices no better than those of SeaWorld, with a tank a fraction of the size of SeaWorld’s inadequate tanks. 

As reported in The Seattle Times, the Miami Seaquarium argues against the public release of expert reports on Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s behavioral records, stating that the records include “highly confidential and highly sensitive information” and that they have an interest in protecting Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s “specific medical and highly personal information.” The judge nevertheless orders the reports unsealed, and from marine mammal veterinarian Dr. Pierre Gallego’s report, we know the list of medications required to keep Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut alive in her tiny tank. We know over the years, besides the eye drops she receives to treat her chronic eye condition, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is given the the painkillers tramadol and orajel and a number of medications used to treat gastrointestinal ulcerssulfasalazine, ranitidine, carafate and rolaids. She also receives the hormones chorulon, megace and regumate, the antifungals fluconazole, voriconazole and terbinafine, and the antibiotics amoxicillin, baytril, metronidazole, cefpodoxime, tobramycin, neomycin, cephalexin, ciprofloxacin, clavamox, and amikacin.

Throughout her decades of captivity, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s suffering inspires many people to try to help her. Howard Garrett of the Orca Network campaigns for her, even moving to Miami for two years to work for her release. Politicians, including Washington Governor Mike Lowry and Secretary of State Ralph Munro, advocate for her return to the Salish Sea. Celebrities call for her freedom, finance campaigns to educate people about her plight, and even offer to buy her from the Miami Seaquarium. School children start a letter-writing campaign to free her, and frequent protests fill the streets around the Miami Seaquarium. 

The hashtag #FreeLolita fills social media, multiple filmmakers and news stories over the years document her suffering for us to see, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Garrett, and other advocates repeatedly sue the Miami Seaquarium and the USDA. The lawsuits allege that the USDA rubber-stamps the renewal of Miami Seaquarium’s license despite its failure to meet Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requirements (as we detail in Part 2), that the USDA licensed the Miami Seaquarium as an additional site under a new owner without the required full compliance inspection, and that the Miami Seaquarium violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA) through her living conditions.

Her advocates do find some successthey win their petition to have her included in the Endangered Species Act listing of her family, and their case against the USDA for licensing the Miami Seaquarium as an additional site under Palace Entertainment continues in court. But it is hard to make legal progress on behalf of someone considered something. As a 2004 case ruling states: “We are asked to decide whether the world’s cetaceans have standing to bring suit in their own name under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. We hold that cetaceans do not have standing under these statutes.” The court goes on to say that only a legal personwhich could mean a corporation, but not a cetaceanis granted standing to sue under the ESA. To try to address Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s suffering in court, the plaintiffs have to prove they have standing to sue on behalf of a legal thingthey have to prove they are harmed by her captivity, because she has no rights in a court of law, and legally speaking, the harm she herself has experienced doesn’t matter. 

Even when Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is no longer forced to perform with trainers riding on her body following an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citation, this is to protect the trainers, not her. And when a 2019 USDA audit finds that after years of rubber-stamped license renewals, the Whale Bowl may not, in fact, meet AWA guidelines as advocates have been saying for years, no action is takenthere is no change for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. There is no urgency to help a piece of propertya thingespecially not when doing so might be a financial hardship to her owners. Sometimes, advocates’ best hope has been in the code violations in her crumbling tank because a risk that also extends to humans matters more under the law. 

2013 brings the release of the documentary Blackfish, which examines the captive life of the orca Tilikum and how the trauma of his experiences in captivity likely led to his killing of three people. The film’s popularity causes public opinion to once again shift in favor of orcaswhich it always does the more we learnand against their captivity in marine parks. The Blackfish effect, as it comes to be known, ultimately leads to SeaWorld ending their captive orca breeding program, moving away from orca performances, and being forced to pay tens of millions of dollars to their investors for downplaying the effect of the film on their revenue. 

The Blackfish effect impacts the legal world, too. California bans the breeding of orcas and theatrical shows featuring them, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), introduces the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act of 2017amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act to ban breeding of captive orcas as well as the capture, import or export of orcas for displayand in 2019, Canada bans cetacean captivity, except for those already held in marine parks. But the news is not good everywhere. As marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose tells National Geographic, “China hasn’t had their Blackfish moment.” Instead, the marine park industry is booming in China, more orcas are being taken from the wild, and a giant orca breeding facility opens in Zhukai, China in 2017. And of course, the proposed act banning orca captivity in the United States, as well as the successful ban on captive cetaceans in Canada, does not free the cetaceans already living in tanks.

The Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act may not seem to offer much recourse to captive orcas in the United States, but it does have an interesting exception to the ban on exports of orcasif the act passes, orcas may leave the country if they are being relocated to a marine mammal sanctuary. Remember Lori Marino, the neuroscientist studying cognition and intelligence in cetaceans? She understands the suffering of those living in tanks with such intelligent brains, meant to live in deeply connected social worlds. She is unwilling to accept that we will do what we can to prevent this fate for cetaceans in the future, but that it is too late for those already held in captivity. And so she, with the support of cetacean scientists, advocates, and others, founds The Whale Sanctuary Project. Their expansive and credentialed team envisions an alternative to tanks, a new life for those living in impoverished environments at marine parks. After years of examining the feasibility of seaside sanctuaries, they have chosen a location, in Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, and hope to welcome their first cetaceans at the end of 2022. And through their deep expertise and careful planning, they know their sanctuary will be a model for the other sanctuaries that will come, if only we demand them. 

In 2017, the Lummi People, who consider orcas their “relatives beneath the sea,” pass a motion to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to the Salish Sea, and in 2018 complete a cross-country totem pole journey from Washington to Florida asking for her freedom. That same summer, Tahlequah gives birth to her baby girl, swims and bonds with her for half an hour before the baby dies. It is this orca mother’s display of deep grief that inspires two members of Lummi Nation, Raynell Morris and Ellie Kinley, to voice their intent, in 2019, to sue the Miami Seaquarium and parent companies under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, arguing that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was taken from the Salish Sea without permission half a century ago. Lummi Nation’s legal efforts to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home are supported by the Earth Law Center

The Lummi have also enlisted the help of Whale Sanctuary Project members Katy and Jeff Foster, who are collaborating with a host of experts, including hydrologists and marine mammal pathologists, to finalize a plan to allow Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to return to the Salish Sea. Once granted access to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Miami Seaquarium, veterinarians and researchers would test her respiratory and gut microbiomes as well as assess her health in other ways to make sure she is not only healthy enough to be transported to the sea and resist any pathogens she might encounter in her return home, but also that she does not carry any pathogens that could put the Southern Resident orcas or other marine life at risk. 

The sea pen they have designed for her initial transition back into the Salish Sea is an hour-glass-shaped pen, 250 feet by 100 feet, with a depth of 30 feet and a med lift in the middle. This pen would be within a fifteen acre netted-off enclosure. Over time, as she adapts to her new environment and with trainingfor her benefit, not ticket salesshe would be released into the larger fifteen acres. While a reunion with her family would be a wonderful ultimate outcome, at this time the Lummi want to provide her with a greater quality of life within the Salish Sea without introducing into the struggling Southern Resident population an orca who may no longer be able to hunt efficiently. 

The Miami Seaquarium claims this is just another form of captivity, and it’s true that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut would be fed and provided care. She would not be free as her family is free, but she would be free from forced performances. She would be free from the noises of jet engines overhead, the sounds of rock music blaring, and the vibrations of feet in the stands around her. She would be free from the harassment of her dolphin tankmates, free from the concrete walls that rub her body raw. And she would be free to explore a world that, while not the miles and miles of home range her family swims, would have variation, texture, live fish and crabs, waving seagrasses, changing currents and temperatures in an enclosure many, many times the size of her tiny tank.

The Miami Seaquarium has been promising a new tank for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut since 1978. Twenty-three years later, in 2001, they tell the Sun Sentinel of their plans to build Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut a tank five times the size of the Whale Bowl: “This project is very real. People have said that we would never spend this kind of money on this and Lolita would never get a new home.” Two decades later, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut still lives in the Whale Bowlthe only difference is that it has been renamed the Whale Stadiumand although it is currently closed for construction, it is not for her sake, but rather, as the Miami Seaquarium website states, “The Whale Stadium is currently closed for maintenance and enhancements in the seating and guest entry side of the facility.”

The Miami Seaquarium claims returning Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to a sea pen in the Salish Sea is too dangerous, but how safe is her continued life in captivity? What happens when in ever-intensifying hurricane seasons, a hurricane heads straight for the Miami Seaquarium, vulnerable on the tip of the Virginia Key island in the Biscayne Bay? She will be left there, just as she was during Hurricane Irma. There is no contingency plan to move her to safety. And of course, as we have learned, orcas can never really be safe in captivity, even without the threat of hurricanes. 

Just before publication of this piece, PETA releases a USDA routine inspection report for the Miami Seaquarium from June of 2021, finalized on September 22, 2021. Over the course of seventeen pages, the inspector describes a litany of violations threatening the health of marine mammals at the Miami Seaquarium. The violations specific to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut include many of the issues advocates have pointed out for decades. According to the inspectors, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has inadequate protection from the sun, her right eye is damaged, and she is forced to look into the sun while interacting with trainers. The water in which she swims is turbid and inspectors cannot see the bottom of the pool, and during the course of repair of a broken pump, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is described as agitated, with eyes showing signs of chlorine injury. The inspectors find the barrier around Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s tank inadequate after witnessing spectators dangling cell phones and even children over the metal bar and ledge around the Whale Bowl.

Over and over throughout the report, the inspectors detail how the recommendations of the attending veterinarian, who was fired in June, are ignored. The veterinarian opposes adding a mother dolphin and her three-year-old calf to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s tank because of the chasing and aggressive behavior between Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut and her current Pacific white-sided dolphin tank mates. The Miami Seaquarium has since postponed the move, but had planned to proceed with it over the veterinarian’s objections. Inspectors report that the Miami Seaquarium does not keep track of which dolphins are housed with each other. Housing incompatible conspecifics together–a violation of the AWA–has led to dolphin injuries and at least three deaths at the facility in the last several years. 

The Miami Seaquarium also ignores the attending veterinarian’s advice not to decrease Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s daily fish ration by thirty pounds, despite the veterinarian citing concerns for her health, including dehydration. When the attending veterinarian also tells the Miami Seaquarium it is not okay to feed rotten fish to their marine mammals, they seek out a “consulting” veterinarian who tells them it’s okay as long as they soak the fish in cold water first. Multiple animals stop eating, have abnormal fecal samples or show other signs of ill health, such as the inflammation found on Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s bloodwork following the consumption of the fish, which are fed over the course of eight days. 

And when the attending veterinarian recommends Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut not be forced to perform tricks such as head entry dives and fast swims because she has likely injured her jaw on her tank as reported in her medical records on five days from the end of February to the beginning of April, the training curator ignores that recommendation as well. 

The Miami Seaquarium continues to claim they act in the best interest of the animals held within their tanks–the same claim made by marine parks around the world. And yet, in the eight days following the August 10th publication of Part I of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s story, two-year-old Ula dies at Loro Parque Zoo in the Canary Islands, and six-year-old Amaya dies at SeaWorld San Diego. 

What else happens in the short span of time in which Ula and Amaya die, as the USDA is finalizing their June inspection report? The Dolphin Company, a Mexican company that operates over thirty marine parks and bills itself as the “#1 Dolphin Family in the world,” announces it will buy the Miami Seaquarium and all the nonhuman animals contained within its tanks, expecting the deal to be final by the end of the year. The Dolphin Company has no plans to free Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, though maybe there is a glimmer of hope. As Business Wire reports, the “agreement is still subject to certain customary closing conditions related to licensing and lease assignment.” Could the court case involving licensing the Miami Seaquarium under a new owner make Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s captivity a liability in a business deal? The USDA has filed a motion to remand the case back to the USDA, agreeing to perform a full compliance inspection and reissue its decision about licensing the Miami Seaquarium under the AWA. Maybe there is the possibility of sanctuary for her after decades and decades of captivity, but what might her life have been, what might her advocates have been able to achieve in a world in which the law recognized her personhood and right to liberty? If her life did not depend on administrative procedures, but rather on the protection of her own fundamental interests? Would she have been able to return to her family? To birth babies into the sea where she herself was born, to swim with her mother again?

It is true that three thousand miles away her family is struggling in the Salish Sea–dams have blocked the spawning of the Chinook salmon they eat, pollution in the water affects their bodies, including their reproductive health, and boat traffic and navy sonar disrupts their echolocation. There is no doubt, we need to pour vast resources into undoing some of the damage we have perpetrated in order for this population of orcas to survive. The navy needs to stop sonar testing off the coast of Washington. We need to listen when we hear boats should stay back from a pod with a struggling member or a pregnant orca. We need to undam rivers and increase the population of Chinook salmon. We need to prevent further pollution from entering the Salish Sea and discover ways to remove contaminants already there. 

We need to do all of these things, and we need to not forget that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is an individual, a nonhuman person who matters. There is great expense in changing her future, in returning her to the Salish Sea. Even in the meticulous care and research that has gone into the plan to bring her home, there will be unknowns. What we do know is that she is suffering in captivity. There is no other way to describe the existence of captive cetaceans in barren concrete tanks. We need to look at her life and to understand, she deserves a chance at something better, not because she is an endangered species, but because she is a self-aware, social being who has suffered long enough as she waits for us to learn, waits for our opinions to shift, waits for us to understand what deprivation she endures every day.   

We have learned so much about orcas in the last half a century since Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was taken from the Salish Sea. We have learned that a Southern Resident mama whose baby swims by her side for thirty minutes experiences profound grief at her death. What about the grief of a mother, of her daughter Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, at their separation after years of swimming together? Is it possible, as some advocates suspect–but cannot confirm without a DNA sample from Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut that the Miami Seaquarium refuses to provide–that her mother is still alive—that she is Ocean Sun, an elderly matriarch of L pod thought to be ninety-three years old? What does it mean, if Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut remembers training cues she hasn’t seen in over eight years, what does it mean for what she remembers from her past–the years swimming with her mother, the days of being netted away from her, each trying to reach the other in panic, the terrifying lift into the air, being held in one tank, then taken to Miami, where she hears the calls of another Southern Resident in another tank for almost a year, swims with him for almost a decade before she witnesses his death, the removal of his body by crane, leaving her alone. What does she carry that we can only imagine, watching her float listlessly, seeing her as she begs for dead fish? 

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s spectators pay to see her perform, they arrive from their homes, their hotels, they buy tickets and snacks and stuffed animal orcas, they cheer and squeal as she swims around her tank, splashing them on command to earn her food. And then they leave. They go home. For over half a century, people have come to see her and then gone about their lives. Children from those early years are grown, have had children, and maybe even grandchildren of their own, as she might have had in another life. Their lives have taken so many different paths, there has been choice in their every day, while Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut has no choice. Day in and day out, she floats, she performs tricks for her food, she attempts to escape the harassment of her dolphin tank mates, she calls out to other orcas who cannot hear her, cannot answer. 

What if it is safer for her to stay? What if she doesn’t survive transport or dies in a sea pen in the Salish Sea? What if she lives? What if she feels the rush of kelp against her fins instead of concrete, what if she sees fish darting through the water, crabs skittering across the rocky sea floor beneath her? What if she still has all the human support she needs—she is fed, she receives medical care and training to expand her world—what if she calls out, as she does now, to her family? But what if, after years of silence, what if this time, they answer?

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is the only civil rights organization in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals. Our 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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