Remembering the life of Tokitae, AKA Lolita, the orca whale

By Kitty Block

By on August 21, 2023 with 18 Comments

On Friday afternoon, news broke that the 57-year-old solitary orca at Miami Seaquarium known as “Lolita” died suddenly of suspected renal failure. Even in a world in which innumerable animals—far too many to be counted—languish and die alone in confinement settings that are antithetical to their very nature, there was a particular pathos to her story, one that long haunted, and always will.

Given the name Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi Nation and known among animal advocates as Tokitae, the orca was famous for her extreme solitude and the tiny living space forced upon her. She was in the news in March, when years of advocacy for her freedom came to fruition: The aquarium announced that it would free her to a natural sea pen in the Pacific Northwest, where it is believed members of her family still live. Sadly, that day didn’t come fast enough to have any meaning for her, and she died having never seen her family or the ocean since her violent capture in 1970 when she was just a few years old.

Tokitae’s life is a heartrending story. Hers was just one of thousands of wild animals’ lives being squandered in tanks and cages just for human entertainment. And yet, it’s become clearer and clearer that keeping animals like Tokitae captive doesn’t just harm her—it harms us: Treating wild animals like photo props or sideshow attractions propagates the idea that the natural world is there just for our use and whimsy, and it teaches this to our children, generation after generation. Such a belief is antithetical to the humane world that so many of us are trying to create.

All weekend I’ve thought about “Lolita.” When I was young and I saw elephants perform at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, I knew almost immediately how awful it was for them, but when I saw “Lolita,” I was just awestruck. As I got older, the memory of seeing her performing haunted me. I was a teenager when I started to understand her plight, living all alone in a tank that was essentially the size of a bathtub relative to the enormous size of an orca, and my heart just broke for her.

Through the years Tokitae became the very embodiment of the wrongs done to her species and other sentient wild animals used in aquariums, circuses and other performing acts. In that sense, her life has had greater meaning. She helped shift the public’s moral perspective, bringing into fruition a new ideal in which wild animals are left undisturbed and protected in their natural habitats. But to say that it’s a shame that her life had to be sacrificed for us to learn such a lesson would be a gross understatement.

Even in my sadness in this moment, I do know this: We’ve made immense progress in raising awareness about the cruelty inherent in keeping wild animals captive for entertainment operations over the years since I joined the cause. And we can continue gaining ground in our campaigns to spare orcas and all the other wild animals still so callously captured or bred for performance, display or public contact. Whether it’s education and outreach, negotiated release of animals to sanctuary or pushing for the passage of regulations and legislation to prevent such wrongs, their fate depends on us.

I will never forget “Lolita,” and I will never forget the impulse that she has inspired in me and so many millions of people worldwide to keep working as hard as we can to end once and for all the cruel and inhumane practice of forcing wild animals into a life of captivity to perform for “entertainment.”

Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.

Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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  1. Nicole says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said. One slight correction though. Tokitae had a tank mate named Hugo for 10 years, I believe. He died of a brain aneurysm… Probably from ramming hours head into the tank. All the tragic ends for our “entertainment”

  2. David Bernazani says:

    The death of Lolita (Tokitae), the orca kept in “the world’s smallest orca pen”at the Miami Seaquarium for over 50 years, brings sorrow and shame, or should, anyway, to all humans. Whether we paid to see her perform silly, unnatural tricks, or simply read about her captivity over the years and did nothing, we all carry a little guilt, and rightly so.
    In this sad time, while this beloved yet long-exploited being is on our minds, it seems appropriate that we take a moment now and reassess the human penchant for collecting wild animals and keeping them captive for our amusement. And make no mistake, Lolita’s captivity had nothing to do with “education” or “conservation”— she was forced to perform even when injured or sick, just to sell tickets. She was kept simply for the amusement of tourists (read: to make money).
    As someone anonymously commented so well in the Seattle times online comment section, “Tokitae was meant to be a magnificent gift to her family, to live her life wild and free among their love and intelligent culture, an important integral part of a healthy ecosystem.”
    I could not word it better.
    Her kidnapping at a young age was a crime against Nature; on that we can all agree. But doesn’t that in turn mean that the taking of all wild animals captive for frivolous reasons are also crimes? Except for the rescuing of certain injured animals or those who would otherwise not survive in the wild, the answer would logically be yes. But 50 years ago, we were more ignorant of the fragility of Earth’s ecosystems, and hadn’t yet fully realized our duty to protect and preserve them.
    We now know better, or should. Let us take this opportunity to reflect on our collective shame and, instead of denying it, embrace it and channel it towards something good. And Lolita’s sad story should remain forever in our minds as a lesson of what not to do ever again, with any wild animal. Hopefully, from now on, we will stop taking from Nature, and instead give it the protection and support it so desperately needs.

  3. Kathryn Irby says:

    It is for such reasons as this case that I am 100% against imprisoning marine animals in any aquariums. Here on the MS Gulf Coast, the City built one a few years ago, which I have never gone to and will never go to, since those animals belong out in the Gulf, not in a prison!!!

  4. Randi Feilich says:

    Thank you for sharing Lolita’s story. What a shame that she never got the opportunity to be reunited with her family. RIP Lolita.

  5. Paul Zuckerman says:

    It is disgraceful that we violently take animals away from their natural habitat and others of their kind (family members often) to enslave them for profit and our entertainment. It sickens me that this beautiful soul never got to return to her family and the open spaces they roam. We must all pledge to resist buying tickets to any attraction that uses animals in this manner.

  6. Tom Simmons says:

    We live in a cruel world but there are thousands of people that really care for animals. This is very sad that this poor Orca lived for that many years in solitary confinement. I will never go to a show that has animals preforming for people. By watching this you are encouraging the owners to keep it up and keep “entertaining “ the crowds. Just like watching those poor bulls in Spain and Italy preforming for the crowds and then they are killed. Don’t support this cruelty by watching it. I too am sad for this poor Orca. She didn’t deserve this kind of life.

  7. Guillermo says:

    Thank you please let’s keep the pressure on until we close down places like the Miami Seaquarium or Sea World
    Let’s do it for Lolita


    Devastating news! Thousands of people BEGGED for her freedom NOW! Procrastination and arrogance denied her what was rightly hers! What an absolute tragedy that she never felt her home waters against her skin, nor heard the sound of her family and for WHAT for money! Herz family, owners of MSQ over the years, incompetent people who denied her freedom for their selfishness and lack of soul! YOU permitted her to live in this filthy tank, reduced diet, appalling food and the result may or may not be renal failure or another result on her necroscopy BUT YOU denied her what was rightfully her! Shame on you!

  9. Karin Erker says:

    Stop das ist Tierquälerei … sie gehören ins Meer und nicht zur Unterhaltung von Menschen … haben die kein Mitleid … stop

  10. Gail Mason says:


    Seaworld should be shut down and sued for their horiffic abuse to this beautiful

    Gail Mason

  11. Carmen Becktel says:

    The author of this post Kitty Block, as well as David Bernazani, I agree 100% with what you both wrote, and you stated it better than I could’ve. When I learned of Tokitae’s death this past Sunday while at work, I was so grief stricken I had to go home. I have known of her plight now for some years, and was one of many who wrote letters and signed petitions pleading for her release. I’m so very saddened that the plan to get her back into her home waters was far too late in coming. It is criminal what was done to her, and that applies to all animals taken from their natural habitat for the “entertainment” of humans. Rest in peace dear Tokitae, you are free now, and I will never forget you.

    • Rpm says:

      This hit me like a load of bricks breaking my heart. I fell in love with her and her story and she will forever be in my heart.

      RIP Lolita.
      God Bless

  12. Alice Hill Wells says:

    I have run out of hope for our friends who are captured and forced to live a life of horror. I have been sending petitions, signing letters, donating, and what we all have been doing for the beautiful creatures who were here long before we were. I don’t really see any change. If we improve one segment humans pop up with a new plan for the precious ones.

  13. Melissa Foglia says:

    Yes it maybe true that she had a tankmate, Hugo for 10 years. But he didn’t really have a good life track record either.
    Its really astounding to remember this capture occurred in 1970.
    So many years passed b/f. Any real attempt to
    Set Tokitae free. Why Should she have been on display making money for others , when she had these ancestors living within parts of the Pacific?
    You could say people are more aware than 50 years ago, but that is criminal, and Miami’s culture allowed it to continue. Someone should be prosicuted or held accountable???

  14. NORMA CAMPBELL says:


  15. Janice Carter says:

    Thank you so much for the remembrance of this precious animal!! I was watching for her release when I was shocked to read about her death!! They are supposed to perform something like an autopsy (although it’s called something else) on her body. Was this done? I have not seen anything about it. Please follow up on this and help it be released to media, so we know for sure what happened to Lolita. Thank you!!

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