The 'Tragic' Life of Kiska, the Loneliest Captive Orca

A captive killer whale that was dubbed "the world's loneliest orca" has died at her home in Marineland, Canada.

Kiska, who was around 47 years old, died on March 9, the Niagara Falls-based theme park told the Ministry of the Solicitor General in Ontario. Local media reported that she died from a bacterial infection.

In a statement given to local media, Marineland said: "Marineland's marine mammal care team and experts did everything possible to support Kiska's comfort and will mourn her loss."

As with many captive orca living around the world, animal rights activists campaigned for her release for years.

Orca in a pool showing teeth
A stock photo shows an orca in a pool. Kiska was the last captive orca in Canada. friedgreenbeans/Getty

Newsweek has contacted Marineland for a comment.

Danny Groves, head of communications at the wildlife charity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, told Newsweek: "What makes Kiska's life so tragic is that, like many other captive orcas, people who flocked to see the shows she performed in were largely unaware that she was cruelly snatched from her family in the wild when she was just three years old.

"That will have impacted on her but also on those she was taken from. It is also a tragedy that she then spent the next four decades condemned to a life in a barren, concrete tank when she could have been roaming free in the waters around Iceland, traveling large distances in wild waters each and every day."

So how exactly did Kiska become the loneliest captive orca in the world?

Kiska was rounded up for captivity when she was three years old in 1979, alongside another famous orca named Keiko—who was used in the 1993 film Free Willy.

She was moved around to several aquariums following her capture before eventually settling at Marineland, where she would stay.

She went on to have five calves at the park, before breeding in captivity became illegal in Canada. They all died before the age of 7, and one died after only two months, the People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA) reported in a press release.

A spokesperson for PETA told Newsweek: "Kiska was abducted from her ocean home more than four decades ago, all five of her babies born at Marineland died young."

Although it is not clear exactly how the calves died, the average life expectancy for orca in the wild is upwards of 60 years.

In a 2015 statement after Ontario made it illegal to buy, sell or breed orcas, Marineland said Kiska was, at the time, healthy and well cared for. "Kiska's health is monitored daily by experienced staff and professionals. She receives excellent medical care from highly qualified and experienced veterinarians, including expert medical consultants. Kiska receives a healthy diet of high quality fish and her appetite is healthy, as is her weight...," it said.

Kiska did not have any family near her, but she did have a tankmate called Ikaika, who arrived at the park from SeaWorld San Diego.

But eventually Ikaika was shipped back to SeaWorld in 2011, leaving Kiska alone in her tank.

"Four decades in confinement had a huge impact on her," Groves said. "Orcas, and indeed all whales and dolphins, are extremely poor candidates for life in captivity as no tank environment can ever provide the conditions that these free-ranging, powerful, highly intelligent and socially complex creatures need to thrive. Like humans, the trauma of incarceration manifests itself in many ways: self-harm, psychosis, depression and aggression. It affects a whale or dolphin's personality and their behavior towards other individuals, including their offspring and often the humans training them."

Orca are extremely social creatures. They have one of the largest and most complex brains in the animal kingdom—they often display new behaviors in the wild that continue to baffle scientists. In the wild, they often stay in their family pods for life.

"It is also tragic that Kiska had been without an orca companion since 2011 and was deprived of every aspect of the social culture she would have experienced in the wild. It was therefore not surprising to see the disturbing images that recently circulated on social media showing her violently thrashing her head against the side of her tank," Groves said. "It is these things that we urge people to think hard about before they go to see shows that involve captive whales or dolphins. It is these things that we are also calling on tour operators to think hard about when they sell tickets to these shows to tourists."

Kiska's situation had been a controversial issue for years before her death. In 2021, concern increased when footage appeared to show her thrashing around in her tank.

The footage shared to social media by Animal Justice, a Canadian non-profit organization that campaigns for stronger animal protection laws, appears to show the orca slamming her head against the side of the tank.

Experts have previously put this type of behavior down to mental distress.

Lori Marino, founder of the Whale Sanctuary Project, told Newsweek in October 2022 that Kiska must have been experiencing a situation "tantamount to torture" in her tank, and that she often displayed repetitive behavior, known as stereotypies.

"She has been doing this for years," Marino said. "Stereotypies are always stress-related. They are found in humans and other animals who are emotionally disturbed and are indicative of neural harm to specific parts of the brain."

When Kiska died, animal rights activists expressed sadness at her situation.

Philip Demers, who was a former marine mammal trainer at Marineland, reshared the last video taken of Kiska before she died. He said with her death, "her suffering is now over."

Kiska's death marks the end of captive orcas in Canada, as she was the last remaining one. Canada passed the Bill S-203 in 2019, which bans keeping, breeding and trading in cetaceans for entertainment purposes, meaning there will be no more kept in marine parks in the country.

But it is a different story for other countries. There are still captive orca living throughout the U.S. Marine theme park SeaWorld holds 18 orcas in its three parks across the U.S. according to data from the Whale Sanctuary Project.

"PETA is calling on every marine prison [...] still imprisoning these complex, sensitive beings to right this moral wrong by acting now to move them to naturalistic seaside sanctuaries, before one more suffers and dies as Kiska did," the PETA spokesperson told Newsweek.

Many of those still alive today were initially rounded up for the purpose of performing in theatrical shows, but these were largely stopped as controversy increased.

"There is no future for captivity and, as well as calling on travel operators to stop selling show tickets, we are also pushing for the captivity industry to commit to our ethical phase-out model. No performances, no breeding, no wild captures, no trade between facilities, enhanced welfare conditions and support for wild sea sanctuaries," Groves said. "We need [to] make sure that this generation of captive whales and dolphins is the last, create sanctuaries where those currently held can be retired and, in some cases, rehabilitated for a return to the wild."

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Update 03/16/23 3.52 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include quotes from PETA.