Tokitae is One of Us– Bring Her Home

Free Lolita

In the past few days there’s been a lot of media coverage of the International Day of Protest for Lolita. This movement is picking up steam and attracting more attention than ever before—as it should.

Allow me to introduce you to Lolita:

-She is a native Northwesterner
-She’s about 40 years old
-She has blue eyes
-She has been performing for audiences longer than I’ve been alive
-She is the last surviving member of a group of 45 that was captured and sold into slavery
-She lives in what must seem like a jail cell compared to her native stomping grounds
-She enjoys family and friends but lives a largely isolated life
-She’s a survivor; only one of her kind has been in captivity longer
-She still retains parts of her native language
-Her mother is 82 years old and still waiting for her daughter to come home

Lolita’s real name is Tokitae, which means “shimmering water” in Chinook. She is an orca who was captured in 1970 near Whidbey Island, Washington. She has been entertaining crowds at the Miami Seaquarium ever since.

Orcas are social creatures who are strongly bonded to their family. Each pod of orcas has an identifiable, complex language and culture. They have the second largest brain in marine mammals, and research shows that they have amazing echolocation abilities.

When you’re kept in a tank at a public attraction, what use is there for echolocation, your native language, or any other natural ability? Tokitae and other marine mammals put to work as entertainers can’t be what God intended them to be or utilize the gifts they were given.

Some of the first killer whales that were captured and put on display ended up committing suicide. Here in the Northwest, many people are familiar with Namu, who had the misfortune of being sold to an entrepreneur after being caught in a fishing net.

Namu was frightened and “screamed” during his 450 mile trip from British Columbia to Seattle. At one point, over 30 orcas charged the floating pen he was being moved in, trying to help him. Several females, likely his mother and siblings, traveled with him for 150 miles.

After supposedly bonding with his trainer and wowing crowds for not quite a year, Namu became ill and died after smashing his head into the wall of his pen. His death was eerily similar to the violent way in which the first captive killer whale died in 1961. Tokitae’s tank mate of ten years, Hugo, also killed himself this way in 1980.

Despite Namu’s tragic end, it became fashionable to harvest live killer whales, particularly juveniles, from our area’s waters. This barbaric practice permanently altered the family structures and population size of the Northwest’s orcas. Babies were taken from their mothers as the mothers tried valiantly to defend them. Some orcas were killed during these Wild West-like roundup events.

Capturing wild animals for display and entertainment is just sick. Many of them become dependent on humans and can never be returned to the wild. Sometimes doing so is cruel, such as when thoughtless animal rights activists free mink from fur farms that will die cold, hungry deaths in the wild because they have no survival skills.

In Tokitae’s case, there is a chance that she can be returned to the wild successfully. We actually have a chance to bring one of our native Northwesteners back after 40 long, unnecessary years away from home.

Knowing that sometimes well-intentioned but misinformed people spearhead such animal advocacy campaigns, I asked Howard Garrett of the Orca Network to provide specifics as to how Tokitae’s rehabilitation could be accomplished.

From my email to Howard:

I support Lolita’s release from captivity but would like to know more about how realistic this is. Does she really have a chance of surviving in the wild, or has she become so dependent on people that she’d just die if released? Will she still know her native language? Has this been done before? Who would fund and operate her rehabilitation?

Howard posted his reply on the Orca Network’s website at I’ll include it at the bottom of this post.

The plan to bring Tokitae home includes supervision and the option for her to remain with humans if she doesn’t bond with a pod. This is going to require a lot of money and dedicated, educated effort, but it sounds like it could be done.

There are always risks—that she’ll be too friendly with people, that she’ll be rejected by peers, that she’s forgotten how to hunt—and those must be acknowledged. We shouldn’t be naïve about Tokitae’s survival chances. There are no guarantees of success, but I am intrigued by this plan.

I always say that animals aren’t people, but they feel pain and loneliness just as much as we do and understand it less. Imagine being a mammal who is almost as intelligent as a human that is jerked out of your home environment and sold into a restrictive, alien culture.

Now you’re nearing middle age and it has been proven that you retain some elements of your upbringing. Wouldn’t you want to go home? Hasn’t something within you longed to go home all along?

Forty years of flipping, splashing, and jumping on command is forty years too much no matter how well she’s been treated in captivity. She works to eat. It is time to engage the best experts in the field to ensure Tokitae’s well-being and bring our girl home. She’s one of us. She belongs here.

Some native tribes believe that orcas represent long life or romance. Some also believe that orcas are chiefs or relatives who have come back in orca form to talk to their people again.

Tokitae has a chance to talk to her “people” again. Let’s make this happen and start a trend that sees the rehabilitation and release of other captured wild animals like her. She wasn’t an injured or abandoned animal that had no chance except in captivity; she was free and healthy when caught.

Maybe Tokitae’s mother, who is the same age as my grandmother, has been hanging on for all these years because something inside of her instinctively knows her daughter is still alive. We don’t know, but at age 82, she is nearing the end of her life expectancy. Tokitae has already exceeded the normal life expectancy of captive orcas.

Let’s make the reunion of these two Northwest icons a reality while there’s still time. I am confident that Tokitae’s homecoming can be funded entirely by the private sector as awareness grows. If Tokitae can be successfully rehabilitated, who knows how many more of our orcas will come home.


For more information, please visit these sites:

Reply from Howard Garrett:

These are very good questions. They are the responsible questions that have to be asked to make sure this is a safe and feasible proposal that so many are speaking up for now.

Our proposal is not just to release her. The idea is to return her to a protected cove, and Kanaka Bay, the preferred site on the west side of San Juan Island, which was used as a bay pen for two transient orcas in 1976, and take very good care of her for as long as needed.

A care station would be prepared, complete with a fish freezer and prep room. Professional marine mammal care staff would be hired to be there 24/7, and vets would do exams and be on call. She would be examined in Miami prior to departure to make sure she has no contagious pathogens, as Keiko was thoroughly examined before his departure for Iceland.

I would insist that at least one of her current caretakers accompany her on the trip and stay with her for weeks or months afterward, just to ease the transition.

The timing of what follows would depend on her responses and behavior, and any interactions she may have with her family. Probably, after a few weeks of exploring her surroundings and some exercises led by her caretakers, she would be led out of the cove by a boat to explore further and build up swimming strength and stamina. A signal would call her back to the boat if there seemed to be any problem, such as approaching other boats. She would probably retrain herself to catch live fish.

She still uses some of the calls she learned before her capture, so she at least still knows the rudiments of her native language, enough to be recognized and vice versa. Assuming there is interaction with her family she would probably regain her use of calls over time.

To answer the question of whether she has become too dependent on humans it’s important to look into the natural history of orcas that has been learned over the past 35 years. Orcas, unlike any other mammal known except humans and perhaps some other cetaceans, live in tradition-bound cultures, according to rules that determine behavior more than instinct or habituation. In each orca culture discovered worldwide the diets, mating practices, association patterns and pretty much all activities are preordained by the prevailing cultures that each individual was born in. There is no dispersal from or recruitment into any orca culture, leading each one to become genetically distinct. There is currently a call by researchers to split the species Orcinus orca into several full species, according to the genetic differences which stem from their culture-bound behavior.

This means that each individual is fully aware of which culture they belong to, and that their sense of self, their identities, are shaped by their cultures. Keeping all this in mind it is reasonable to assume that even after 40 years Lolita still knows who she really is, a member of L pod, knowledge formed in her early years before capture. I have a hunch that her survival through four decades of captivity, three decades of that in solitary confinement, has been her knowledge of who she really is. Her return then, would be like coming home in a sense we might understand emotionally.

The closest parallel to retiring Lolita was the attempt to release Keiko. Keiko dispelled the fears that he would not survive immersion in his native habitat. Quite the contrary he thrived from the first minute. He explored his surroundings immediately and soon gained in strength and dive times and paid less attention to his human caretakers, who were generally slow to recognize his abilities and independence. Unfortunately his family was never located prior to his release near Iceland, and he never found them on his own. He died after travelling on his own across the North Atlantic to Norway, where, after over a year in a remote cove, he died.

Who would fund the operation? It’s always been a chicken and egg proposition. As long as the Seaquarium remains in a bunker mentality and refuses to consider current scientific knowledge or the concerns of many, many people, or the welfare of Lolita, and flatly refuses to publicly consider, or even discuss, her retirement, it’s very hard to raise funds to retire her. But as soon as there is some kind of MOU and serious talks get underway, I’m quite sure there will be little problem raising the money to pay expenses. Considering that it is important to have a long range plan with contingencies in case Lolita chooses to return to human care for years, somewhere between 1 and 2 million would be needed altogether. We have a more detailed budget in our proposal at

I’d be happy to elaborate or show you more background on any part of this. I appreciate anyone who wants to see the evidence and the facts. It’s looking to me like we’ve reached a quantum leap in public understanding of some of these novel understandings and contentious issues with the result that a lot of people now get it and see what needs to be done. I’ve never seen this broad show of support from such a wide range of people. It’s a bit exhilarating.

Thanks for asking and please let me know if you’d like any clarification.


Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives. -Albert Schweitzer


©2010 H. Hiatt/ All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/

One thought on “Tokitae is One of Us– Bring Her Home

  1. I wish to affirm that Howard is correct about funding for a release should not be a concern for her.
    I also know for a fact that our own First Nations Native American community gave a proposal to Arthur Hertz to provide for her for the rest of her days at their expense. This offer has been put out on the table, and it should not be a factor or concern.
    This plan would put her in an area that she would be free from boats and in a HIGHLY secured area (Native American territiory) where her pod passes 11 months out of the year, rather than only 5-6 months of the year. It is another viable option. This plan was approved by Paul Spong of Orca Lab.
    Nevertheless, whatever plan is voted on to use to bring her home. the point is. Tokitae will be better off in her home, native waters in a large sea pen, rather than where she is, and there is the expertise available to make her optimal outcome a reality, should she choose to go free as Keiko did.


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