Kiska: Alone Again
By Christina Colvin
Kiska lives alone.
No family members swim by her side. No friends invite her to play. At Marineland Canada, Kiska holds the cruel distinction of being the only captive orca held in social isolation from any other marine mammal.
Video footage and eyewitness accounts of Kiska depict her behavior as repetitive, unmotivated and lethargic. When not swimming in slow circles, she often floats in place, staring at the emptiness that is the inside of her tank.
Orcas are a highly social species. In their natural environment, they live deeply immersed in family groups, or pods. For her first two years, Kiska knew life as a wild orca, traveling her watery Icelandic home with her pod. And then, in 1978, whale hunters kidnapped her for use in the entertainment industry. She has been held at Marineland ever since.
During her 38 years of life at Marineland, Kiska has suffered the loss of every one of her five children. A growing number of studies suggest that orcas’ capacity to feel deep, complex emotions rivals or even exceeds the emotional capacity possessed by humans. The death of her children from 1992 to 2009 likely meant for Kiska the successive experience of profound despair. Her oldest calf, Hudson, survived for almost six years. Kiska’s last calf and only daughter, Athena, lived to be almost five.
As if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is now silent.
People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.
Nevertheless, people who know her say that Kiska still looks for companionship – companionship that Marineland cannot and will not provide her. A former maintenance technician befriended her after working around her facility and visiting her several times a day. Early in their relationship, Kiska followed him around her tank, keeping him in sight and appreciating the attention he provided in the form of rubs and a kind voice. He describes a game they used to play together:
“At one point I got the idea to sneak up without her seeing me or hearing me … I then tapped the wall and hid. Kiska would swim to where she heard the tap signal. I would sneak along the 3-foot high wall and stand up some distance away. Kiska would react quickly and churn up the water getting to me. This game developed into a visual game of hide and seek … She trusted me so much she would roll upside down and get belly rubs, and even allow me to pull her along the wall by her tail.”
The former employee also shares memories that are not so pleasant:
“A new trainer… was working with her, or should I say trying to make her perform what he wanted … She was upset and refused food reward and refused to come to him. I listened to his yells and whistle-blowing for a few minutes and entered the room to watch. Kiska would only come up for air and she would dive to the bottom of her pool and swim at the bottom. After watching this for a while I made the mistake of tapping the wall at the opposite end of the pool. As soon as I did Kiska swam directly to me as if she wanted protection.”
Although still on display, Kiska no longer performs for the public. According to Marineland officials, she “spends her golden years doing what she wants.” But it isn’t logical to think that Kiska “wants” to stare into the blank, lonely interior of her tank for the rest of her life.
Her worn, flattened teeth also challenge Marineland’s account that she simply does “what she wants.” Her years of boredom have led her to chew on concrete and other sections of her tank. And she spends most of her time circling the shallow section of a smaller tank even though she sometimes has access to a larger, deeper area.
What would freedom from Marineland mean for Kiska? What would it mean for her to see and interact with other whales again? To have a chance to make new friends, to hear another orca answer her when she calls? Or simply to feel the ocean again at a seaside sanctuary so that she could explore the kind of rich environment she once knew?
After all the years Kiska has spent in isolation, getting the answers to these questions will be challenging, but it would be worth the effort.