'World's loneliest orca' dies after 12 years alone in tank: 'We failed her'

Kiska's confinement had been described as the "height of cruelty" by an activist.

Kiska, dubbed “the world’s loneliest orca” has died after 12 years of isolation in a barren tank at a Canadian amusement park.

The "height of cruelty" is how the 47-year-old mammal’s conditions were described by campaigners who had tried to get her moved to an ocean sanctuary. Video from the facility showed her continually swimming in a “very distinct, repetitive pattern” around the tank.

Reports indicate Kiska died on Thursday (local time) at Marineland in Ontario, which still houses a number of marine mammals including dolphins and beluga whales. The park has been contacted for comment.

The silhouettes of two people watching Kiska swimming in her tank.
Kiska lived alone in a tank at Marineland for 12 years. Source: Ingrid N. Visser/Orca Research Trust

Having campaigned to have Kiska removed from Marineland for a decade, Diane Fraleigh from Ontario Captive Animal Watch said her sudden death has left her deflated and angry. “It just breaks my heart,” she told Yahoo News Australia. “I feel like we failed her.”

Ms Fraleigh was part of a successful campaign that saw landmark legislation passed in 2019 that prevents captive cetaceans being imported into Canada.

Sad details of Kiska's lonely life

Kiska was taken from the Icelandic waters in 1979, alongside Keiko, who featured in the 1993 film Free Willy. After they were separated, the film led to exposure of Keiko’s plight and he was released.

In captivity, Kiska gave birth to five calves, all of whom died before age seven. Her last tank mate Ikaika was transferred to SeaWorld in 2011 after concerns were raised about his welfare.

Following Kiska's death, Ontario Captive Animal Watch had been spearheading a grassroots campaign to give her a "dignified burial" after a necropsy is performed to determine her cause of death. However, local activist Phil Demers released drone footage on Sunday showing excavators working in the snow, which he said indicated Kiska had been buried at the park.

Kiska’s death renews criticism of orca theme parks

Cetacean expert Dr Ingrid Visser has visited nearly all of the world’s captive orca and is a vocal critic of their captivity. Speaking to Yahoo on Saturday evening, she described Kiska’s tank as being “like a concrete coffin”.

Dr Visser argues all captive orca are suffering and confinement has ill effects on their health. “It's not a matter of if they'll die, it's when they'll die,” she said.

“Kiska was a dreadful example of the captivity industry,” she said. “There's no way to describe her life other than that, it was tragic. She had been deprived of everything that was important. Her suffering has come to an end but there are still many others in captivity.”

There have been renewed calls to end orca captivity after Kiska's death. Source: Getty (File)
There have been renewed calls to end orca captivity after Kiska's death. Source: Getty (File)

There have been ongoing calls to release orca from captivity since the 2013 documentary Blackfish made allegations about orca welfare at SeaWorld. Since the film was released Dr Visser says little has changed for the world’s captive orca.

Ocras are believed to remain in captivity at Mundo Marino (Argentina), Marineland Antibes (France), Port of Nagoya (Japan), Moskvarium (Russia), Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park (China), Loro Parque (Spain), Miami Sequarium (USA), SeaWorld San Diego (USA), SeaWorld San Antonio (USA), SeaWorld Orlando (USA), as well as three Chinese breeding facilities where the animals are not on public display.

SeaWorld was contacted for comment.

World respond's to Kiska's death

There has been an outpouring of grief and anger across the world from activists working to improve the welfare of captive orca. “It is bad to have someone live alone, but it is just straight out disrespectful and empty-hearted to let someone die alone too,” Heiko Grimm in Germany told Yahoo.

Mr Grimm is a board member of the Free Morgan Foundation, a non-profit, advocating for the welfare of Morgan the orca at Loro Parque. While pointing out that unlike Kiska, Morgan is not in a solitary cage, he still believes her confinement is a welfare concern.

Responding to renewed calls for the world’s orca to be removed from captivity that followed Kiska’s death, Loro Parque’s director Javier Almunia told Yahoo he believes there is a lack of scientific evidence to demonstrate the impact sanctuaries have on cetacean welfare.

“Loro Parque only makes decisions based in sound science, (especially) those affecting animal welfare. Currently, there are no sanctuaries for Orcinus orca,” he said.

Mr Almunia said there are currently no veterinary concerns about orca living at its park, and that its animals live a more enriched life than Kiska did. “Simply because the orcas in Loro Parque live in a social group, and in a modern complex facility with a comprehensive environmental enrichment program,” he said.

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