Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance journalist and animal advocate based in Winnipeg.
Ever since 1979, when she was captured at about the age of three off the coast of Iceland, Kiska the killer whale lived in captivity. During that time, she gave birth to five babies, all of whom died at a young age. And for the last 12 years of her life at Ontario’s Marineland amusement park, Kiska lived in solitary confinement, gaining the title of “loneliest orca in the world.” Footage emerged over the last few years showing her languishing alone in a small, barren pool, bashing her body against the side of the tank.
And in the end, Kiska died perhaps the loneliest death. The last remaining captive orca in Canada passed away on Mar. 9, according to a statement from the Ontario government. She was believed to be 43 years old.
In recent years, debates have grown louder over the ethics of holding animals in captivity for human entertainment. Today, Kiska’s death has solidified the importance of Canada’s ban on captive whales and dolphins, and it has renewed interest in pending legislation to protect other animals in captivity.
In 2019, Canada banned the keeping and breeding of whales, dolphins and porpoises in what came to be known as the “Free Willy” bill. However, the law only applies to future animals. Currently around 40 belugas and dolphins remain in captivity at Marineland, along with other animals including a number of penguins, bears, and bison. Smooshi the walrus, along with her calf, were recently sold by Marineland to SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi.
The problem is, there are few to no better places for animals already in captivity to go. Almost none could survive in the wild, and animal sanctuaries – such as the one in the ocean being developed off the coast of Nova Scotia – take an immense amount of time and money to be developed. Besides, sanctuaries are not a sustainable solution for continued animal captivity, either: “We hope that animal sanctuaries will eventually be phased out, too” as captivity falls further out of public favour, Camille Labchuk, executive director of the non-profit, Animal Justice, told me in an interview.
Indeed, confining animals in tanks or cages for our own entertainment has become unpopular. A 2020 Research Co. survey of Canadians found that 51 per cent do not support keeping animals in zoos.
“That’s why so many lawmakers are introducing and passing bans on keeping smart, sensitive animals like orcas in captivity,” Ms. Labchuk said.
Those proposed bans include Bill S-241, or the Jane Goodall Act, named after the English conservationist. The bill is currently before the Canadian Senate and focuses on enhancing legal protections for other animals currently in captivity while limiting which animals can be held in the future. First introduced in 2020 by then-senator Murray Sinclair, then reintroduced by Senator Marty Klyne in 2022, Bill S-241 would put in place new legal protections for captive big cats, bears, wolves, seals, sea lions, walruses, certain monkeys and certain reptiles.
Further, according to a press release from Mr. Klyne, “The bill would phase out elephant captivity nationally, similar to Canada’s 2019 whale and dolphin laws. Over 20 elephants live in captivity in Canada at four locations.” One of those is Lucy, a 47-year-old Asian elephant being held at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. Members of Lucy’s Edmonton Advocates Project, or LEAP, have been fighting for years to have her moved to a sanctuary to be with other elephants in a warmer climate.
Like Kiska, Lucy has lived alone for many years, and Animal Justice has called her the loneliest – and coldest – elephant in the world. For its part, the zoo maintains that Lucy prefers people to elephants, and that the risks of moving her outweigh the benefits, a finding supported by Jane Goodall herself.
While the Jane Goodall Act would not help Lucy, it would prevent future stories like hers, just as the Free Willy bill ensures no more orcas will suffer in Canada as Kiska did. But while the legislation is considered by most animal advocates as a step in the right direction, it also has limitations, and is in many ways a Band-Aid solution to a massive human-made problem.
Kiska’s life and death highlight all that is wrong with animal captivity. Like Lucy and many other captive animals in zoos and aquariums, she lived in a space a fraction of the size of her natural habitat, in exhibits built first and foremost for the paying spectator.
Ultimately, as New York Times bestselling author Patricia Engel wrote, “There is not an animal on this earth that if given the choice between freedom or captivity, would not choose to be free.”