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Tokitae (Toki for short) was an Orca whale held in captivity in the Miami Seaquarium for over 50 years. Toki died earlier this month, presumably just days or weeks away from the freedom she should have enjoyed her whole life. We want you all to imagine a world where animals are never abused for mere entertainment.
Dr. Suzanne McAllister, co-founder of The PAUW Project, has been working for Toki's release for a decade. Here's what she shared in a recent interview.
Toki was an example of tolerance and resilience. Against all odds, she survived 53 years in hideous conditions. Yet, she remained gentle and loving towards her caregivers. She could have become aggressive and hostile, but she didn't. She demonstrated grace in unimaginable circumstances. These were some of the characteristics that captured the hearts of people worldwide. When they learned of her story they were educated and decided never to frequent marine parks again.
She left us before she could taste freedom again, before she could feel cool currents, rocky shores, waves, live fish, tides. Before she could dive and leap on her own accord. Before she might hear natural sounds–perhaps those of her pod and mother, Ocean Sun. My heart, and the hearts of so many others, are broken for her. Yet, someone said - 'a broken heart is an open heart'.
Dr. Suzanne McAllister
In the early days after Toki’s sudden death, a wise person offered a perspective I hadn’t considered in all the years I’d been advocating for her. She suggested that Toki lived in the moment. That she was more than a victim. That she did more than endure. I knew she had her ups and downs, that she had people she liked and trusted, that maybe she enjoyed some of the interactions and activities in the tank over the 53+ years she lived there, but I had never thought of it that way before.
I believed her entire life there was torture - the way it might be for me if I had been taken from everything that was familiar, natural and meaningful to me. I put myself in her place - which is what empathy requires. My empathy was easy with her. Once I heard the basics of her story - capture @ age 4 from Penn Cove after explosives were used to separate the babies from their mothers - removal from the sea - purchase by the Miami Seaquarium - death @ the Seaquarium 53 years and 10 days from the date of her capture.
I imagined each and every moment was unbearable. I couldn’t fathom how she existed. What quirk of nature allowed her to persist when all the others who were captured that day died immediately, soon after, or eventually - but none lasted like she did. I had heard from the trainers and caregivers who worked with her that she was special. She was smart, cooperative, gentle, and fun. She was never aggressive. She let her likes and dislikes known, so it wasn’t as if she was completely passive.
There are videos of her from the 50 + years she was used to entertain audiences and earn money for the Seaquarium. The shows were inane. I attended one in 2012 because I wanted to get close to her and make eye contact, which I did. I prayed towards her. I promised her I would work on her behalf until we got her out of the tank. I told her she was beloved by many.
I was depressed on her behalf. I couldn’t imagine the boredom of living in an environment devoid of stimulation except for the few times a day when she was putting on a show.
Her life changed in 2021/22 when the Seaquarium was purchased by The Dolphin Company, and a non-profit, Friends of Toki (FOT) took responsibility for her care. She had been gravely ill. The water in her tank was chlorinated, warm, and dirty. She was being fed substandard fish. FOT made improvements to the water quality, her diet, and her meds. She was attended to 24 hours a day. The trainers and caregivers attempted to create enrichment activities to relieve her tedium. During the last 6 months of her life she was getting care and stimulation that was perhaps better than she’d ever gotten since she was captured all those years before. As recently as the weekend before she died she was being trained to swim into the sling that would finally carry her home. Bring her home alive to a sea pen where she would have a life somewhat normal and natural.
When this person suggested that Toki lived in the moment and might have experienced pleasure I was thunderstruck. There is no way for me to know if she is right, but evidence of her long life and pleasant demeanor suggests Toki might have experienced pleasure. I can’t ask Toki and Toki wouldn’t be able to explain even if she was still alive. But, this helps me to understand how she lived all those years under what seemed like unbearable circumstances. I needed to step outside of my species perspective and admit I don’t know what it was like for her. I feel certain had she been given the choice, she would have preferred to live with her pod in the cool ocean, catching fish, playing with her pod mates, mating, having babies, breaching, diving, doing all the things that orcas in the wild do.
Instead, she adapted. What that was like for her I don’t know. Did she make a mental calculation? Did she find a way to entertain herself? Did she enjoy her interactions with her new human pod? (I think those who knew her and worked with her would say yes.)
Is it possible she did more than endure? Is it possible she did more than survive? is it possible she found a way to thrive? Did she live in the moment? is that how orcas live?
I’m sure they plan to some extent. It’s been shown that they share prey. That takes some planning; some idea of who might need the food; some capacity for assessment. She took what she could from challenging situations and created a life. Not a life she would have chosen had she been given a choice. She brought joy to many people and maybe knew that. If so, I can honor her by practicing living in the moment and making the best of whatever circumstance I find myself in.
As another wise person likes to say - ‘she’s a warrior, she’s an angel’. She was more than a victim.
Thank you Toki for your example. I will carry your spirit with me as a way to honor you and, in some way, pay retribution for what was done to you. Suzanne McAllister, PhD
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