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Before she died, Lolita’s former vets and trainers raised issues about her Seaquarium care

By Linda Robertson, Miami Herald
Published: August 27, 2023, 6:00am

MIAMI — Lolita’s former veterinarians and trainers say inadequate care and feeding of the 57-year-old orca may have contributed to her death at the Miami Seaquarium, although Seaquarium officials say she had been receiving top care until the end.

Lolita, known by her Native American name of Tokitae and nickname of Toki, died Friday from kidney failure. The 7,000-pound killer whale had been Seaquarium’s main attraction for more than half a century, performing jumps and tricks and splashing Whale Bowl spectators. Toki stopped doing shows in late 2021 when she became severely ill with pneumonia.

She was retired in 2022 but remained in her 20-foot deep tank with her dolphin companion Li’i while the Whale Bowl was declared unsafe and closed to the public.

“We’ve been saying for a long time they’re going to kill her at Seaquarium,” said Dr. Jenna Wallace, a former Seaquarium vet. “We’ve been fighting so hard to get her the best treatment and get her out of there, but nobody listened. It shouldn’t have ended like this. She deserved better.”

The veterinarian who had been most recently caring for her, Dr. Tom Reidarson, said Toki had been receiving excellent care at the Seaquarium, her home for 53 years:

“I think it’s best to see what the evidence from the necropsy tells us,” he said. “I believe in the truth, not unfair accusations. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Toki. I knew her well and we gave her the highest standard of care. Now is not the time to throw stones.”

Seaquarium’s owners defended Toki’s care and feeding in a statement to the Herald Thursday evening: “Toki’s diet had been rich in nutrients and appropriate for her appetite and the amount of exercise she was engaged in since she retired from daily educational programs. This is reported by independent health and welfare assessments prepared by the world’s foremost experts in marine mammal care; highly esteemed veterinarians respected throughout the global animal welfare community.”

Seaquarium had been planning to move her

Toki died just as an elaborate plan to move her was taking shape and attracting donors. The Dolphin Company, Seaquarium’s owner, and the Friends of Toki, a non-profit group founded by Keys real estate developer Pritam Singh, hoped to transport Toki to a sea pen in her native ocean waters, where she was captured from Puget Sound’s L pod in 1970 when she was about 4 years old.

The proposed move was controversial. A group led by former trainers called Truth4Toki warned that a stressful move to an unfamiliar place after 53 years of dependency on humans was too dangerous for the whale, given her advanced age and health problems. They advocated for Toki to be relocated to SeaWorld in Orlando, where she could spend her last years in a much larger facility.

Two federal inspection reports critical of animal treatment at Seaquarium have been issued since 2021. Both cited poor nutrition, and the 2022 report said nine dolphins were underfed as a form of punishment. Seaquarium, which opened in 1955 and is located off the Rickenbacker Causeway on Virginia Key, has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal agency regulates animal attractions and enforces the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.

“I loved that place but it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Marni Wood, who worked at Seaquarium for 15 years and was manager of animal training for 10 years. She left in 2018 for another job in animal management.

“What breaks my heart is that Toki died surrounded by strangers,” she added. “They were the ones making all the decisions for this cockamamie plan to move her to Washington, which in reality was just a publicity stunt to raise money.”

When announcing the move in March to return Toki to the Puget Sound off the Washington coast, Seaquarium officials said they wanted to “return beloved ocra Lolita to her home waters.”

Fish intake was cut back

A cut in Toki’s daily diet starting two years ago was likely a factor in her death from renal failure, said Wood, Wallace and Toki’s former vet of 23 years, Dr. Magdalena Rodriguez. Toki’s food intake was reduced from 160-165 pounds of fish per day to 120 pounds because Seaquarium’s new curator at the time decided Toki was too fat.

“Her food is where she gets her water and she wasn’t getting enough water,” Wallace said. “She had pre-existing renal disease, and she had elevated kidney enzymes in 2021, exacerbated by a decrease in her diet. When cetaceans become dehydrated, they can also become prone to illnesses such as pneumonia. I suspect she was chronically underfed and dehydrated over the last two years and never fully recovered and had the appetite she had previously.”

After her food intake was reduced, the orca began acting aggressively, and she accidentally killed Catalina, the Pacific white-sided dolphin that was her companion, by ramming her.

“Our new curator and head trainer said Toki looked like a stuffed pig,” said Wallace, who has been a key whistle-blower witness for the USDA. “Here’s a killer whale in a bathtub. She’s hungry and thirsty and confused. Something will go wrong.”

Seaquarium: Lolita was ‘eating well’

The Seaquarium’s owners said the animals were overweight and they made multiple improvements to the marine park, which hosted the TV show “Flipper” in the 1960s.

In a statement on Aug. 15, three days before Toki’s death, the Seaquarium noted Lolita was “eating well, up to 115 pounds of salmon, herring, capelin and squid each day.” The statement also said more than $500,000 had been invested in Lolita’s pool, including “new chillers, filter media, an ozone generator to replace chlorine and numerous regulators and pumps.”

And the statement noted how Lolita’s “interactive time with trainers includes swimming laps, toy play and … soliciting attention from her trainers as they watch, work and play with her on the trainer platform.”

Rodriguez recommended that Toki retire two years ago. She had injured her jaw on a jump. Her shows were too strenuous. She was getting old.

Prior to her death, Reidarson told the Herald “she’s actually really healthy right now.”

“All of her parameters are near normal,” Reidarson said on the website of Friends of Toki in July. “Her blood work continues to be stable and look nice. And she is in as good of a clinical condition as I’ve ever seen her.”

On Aug. 15, three days before her death, Eduardo Albor, CEO of The Dolphin Company, said the whale was “in the best health condition on record for years.”

Rodriguez, Toki’s former vet, disagreed with Reidarson’s assessment.

“She was not healthy,” Rodriguez said. “She was hungry.”

Wood said meticulous care of Toki was a source of pride for her trainers: “Toki had only one health scare in the entire time I worked there — a tooth infection, which we caught immediately and fixed with a root canal.”

USDA concerns about dolphin feeding

Wallace and Rodriguez criticized Reidarson for adhering too strictly to body blubber index tables.

“That was an excuse for cutting food,” Rodriguez said. “To start with, Toki was very large for a female.”

It’s not the first time the feeding regimen at Seaquarium has been questioned. A July 6, 2022, USDA inspection report stated that dolphins’ diets were cut by as much as 60 percent to induce them to perform better during interactive sessions at Dolphin Harbor, where a 30-minute “Dolphin Encounter” costs $159 for guests age 10 and over, including admission.

The food reductions were implemented in March 2022, when The Dolphin Company replaced Palace Entertainment as the Seaquarium owner and took over the county-owned property and lease.

“We acquired the property in March and our team determined we had nine overweight dolphins,” Seaquarium’s general manager at the time, Patrick Pearson, said when the USDA report was released. “We would never cut a diet to induce behavior.”

The USDA had only agreed to grant an operating license to The Dolphin Company if it closed the Whale Bowl, which meant Seaquarium’s star would no longer have an audience. The Dolphin Company announced in 2022 that it had retired Lolita.

The tank and bowl still haven’t been repaired. In April, Miami-Dade County’s Safe Structures Board gave Seaquarium a deadline extension to Aug. 17. Toki died Aug. 18.

Wood and Heather Keenan, a former Seaquarium head trainer who worked with Toki for 18 years, created Truth4Toki to push for her to be moved to Orlando’s SeaWorld, not a risky move to Puget Sound.

“We never felt she was a candidate for a long, radical move,” Wood said. “She was a geriatric female. She was immunocompromised by being on a variety of medications and supplements for years. She was on a heavy antibiotic for her lungs. She was not the healthy, spry killer whale that the Friends of Toki would have you believe.”

The ex-trainers and vets questioned the practicality of the plan, the motivation behind it and the track record of its proponents.

Singh and the Friends of Lolita were collaborating with Charles Vinick, executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, on the $15-20 million plan to move and sustain Toki in the Pacific Northwest sea pen. Billionaire Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay had contributed about $5 million to the effort.

Vinick had been raising money for years to move Kiska, Canada’s last captive orca, from Marineland near Niagara Falls to a 100-acre sea pen enclosed by nets in Nova Scotia. Reidarson was Kiska’s attending vet who was preparing her for the oft-delayed move. But Kiska, 47, died from a bacterial infection on March 9.

Vinick was director of the endeavor to free Keiko (of “Free Willy” fame) from a Mexican marine park to the orca’s native waters in Iceland. After four years in Iceland with his caregivers attending to him, Keiko followed a pod to Norway. But he never integrated with the pod and stayed reliant on his caregivers. He died a year later of pneumonia at age 14.

“There was never any intention to put Toki back in the ocean,” Wood said. “They knew the various permits would never be approved. Where was the actual site? How would they build it? How would she receive hands-on medical treatment? But they wanted to look like heroes so nobody looked bad when she died. Did all involved parties have Toki’s best interests at heart? Or did they just want to feel proud of themselves?

“There was no way it was going to end with Toki swimming off with her pod into the sunset.”

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About 60 orcas remain in captivity around the world. Lolita, or Toki, is no longer on that list. Wallace said Toki’s death will spur a closer look at other captive whales.

“Part of Toki’s legacy will be the downfall of the industry,” Wallace said. “Many questions must be answered. There must be a review of the necropsy results.

As for Toki’s death?

“I’m angry at the people who put their egos above the health of a gentle, highly intelligent animal,” Wallace said. “Hopefully, Toki is teaching us to learn from our mistakes.”