The captivity of marine animals like orcas and dolphins has long been a controversial topic. It was once a commonly accepted practice for marine parks like SeaWorld to have orcas in captivity and even have them perform shows, but people have increasingly turned on this practice.
Over the years, several laws have been put in place to end capturing orcas and keeping them in captivity, but some still spent their lives living in tanks.
Sadly, one of the most famous of these orcas has died: Kiska, who was often called the “world’s loneliest orca.”
Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General in Ontario, confirmed that the orca had died last week, per AP. Kiska was believed to be 47 years old.
Kiska was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979, alongside another orca named Keiko. Both orcas ended up in Canada’s Marineland theme park in Niagara Falls.
The pair lived together until Keiko was sold to a Mexican amusement park, and he later ended up starring in the 1993 film Free Willy. He was, controversially, released back into the ocean in Norway in 2002 but died the following year.
Kiska, meanwhile, continued to live in Marineland for decades, performing shows for tourists. She led an often sad life that led animal rights groups to call her the “world’s loneliest orca.”
According to PETA, all five of Kiska’s calves died before the age of 7. In 2011, her tankmate Ikaika was transferred to SeaWorld San Diego. Orcas are highly intelligent and very social animals, but Kiska had to spend her last years alone as Marineland’s only remaining orca.
Canada banned the captivity and breeding of whales and dolphins in 2019, but due to a grandfather clause Kiska remained at the park. At the time of her death, she was Canada’s last remaining captive orca.
In a statement, Marineland defended their treatment of Kiska: “Marineland’s marine mammal care team and experts did everything possible to support Kiska’s comfort and will mourn her loss,” a spokesperson said per TMZ.
But for many animal lovers and activists, Kiska was a lasting symbol of the unhappiness that orcas faced in captivity. A video from 2021 shows the orca banging her head against the side of her tank, as if desperate to be free.
While it’s unlikely Kiska could’ve ethically been re-released into the wild, animal activists wished the orca could have been relocated to a whale sanctuary.
“It is heartbreaking to know that Kiska will never have the chance to be relocated to a whale sanctuary, and experience the freedom that she so deeply deserved,” Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, told CBC.
According to NPR, both PETA and the Whale Sanctuary Project reported Kiska’s cause of death as a bacterial infection, although that has not been confirmed. The Solicitor General said that a necropsy had been conducted.
According to AP, in 2021 the province found problems with Marineland’s water system and ordered repairs for their pools, including the one that housed Kiska. The park initially denied the findings but later dropped their appeal.
Christine Santos, who was Kiska’s trainer for 21 years until she was fired by Marineland in 2012, told AP that news of Kiska’s passing was bittersweet, acknowledging the loneliness she had lived through in recent years: “I’m just really relieved she’s not alone anymore.”
For animal activists in Canada, Kiska’s passing is also bittersweet: it means that there are finally no more orcas in captivity in Canada.
However, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, there are at least 54 orcas still held in captivity.
Rest in peace, Kiska — you’re free now 💔 Hope you are no longer alone.
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