Sadness in response to the news of the death of Tokitae, also known as Lolita, the captive orca whale from the Pacific Northwest, has touched me deeply. Her story and death are in part personal because she was was captured off Whidbey Island, and thus the personal connection with Tokitae’s story especially provides me an opportunity to also connect my heart and soul with all the creatures of the planet.
A recap: Tokitae was brutally rounded up and captured, along with a number of others from her pod, in Penn Cove off our Whidbey Island in 1970 when she was thought to be around three years old. She was then sold to the Miami Seaquarium for $20,000 where she lived in captivity as a performer until her death on August 18 this year at 57 years old.
The orca whale is an icon of the Pacific Northwest and their presence especially invokes a deep personal association with wildness and the rhythm of migration and the oceans' “otherness,” the vastness and mystery of oceans that are largely unavailable to our sensory awareness. The Lummi native tribe express this intimacy with orcas as “our relatives under the water.” So deep was the reverence and honoring of Tokitae that a planned memorial service for her had to be postponed because of the uncontrollable grief they were feeling. But it was not just the tribes that reverenced Tokitae, friends here on Whidbey also held a special memorial service. Her body was cremated and has been returned to the Lummi people where her ashes will be scattered as she returns home to the Salish sea in a private ceremony.
I write of Tokitae mostly to provide me - and hopefully you - an opportunity to plum why her life and story has touched me and others so deeply. Obviously her story epitomizes the wanton cruelty to our wild creatures, not just the buffalo a hundred years ago, but the treatment of Tokitae and her family that occurred relatively recently. A combination of sadness and shame fill me. And then I also think of how our treatment of wild creatures continues in sport hunting and the extermination of wolves and others that are deemed to impose on human enterprise.
But the Tokitae story also embodies a powerful story of hope for me. Amidst the history of insensitivity and cruelty of animals, and the environment itself over the years, I do truly believe a more sensitive spiritual consciousness about the preciousness of life itself - a “reverence for life” as Albert Schweitzer called it - is in active formation. It is supported by an integral awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependency of life on our little blue nurturer of life called Earth.
This seed of compassion for life is currently too entangled in the conveniences of life for those of us who are able to enjoy them, but among us all a reverence for life must be encouraged to grow and deepen. The indigenous people have held this sacred trust, and we must follow. The response to Tokitae exemplifies that for the rest of us our capacity to recognize and respond to the holy in life simply needs to be called forth and made personal. (I often reflect that the threat of global warming has yet to become powerfully personal to cause us to sufficiently grieve and lament profoundly enough to change economic and behavioral patterns that threaten us. Recent hurricanes, heat emergencies, and fires, of course, are edging us toward that awareness.)
Unfortunately suffering is the surest way to reach each others’ hearts, souls, and eventually our minds. Perhaps Tokitae’s life brought delight to those who watched her perform, but undoubtedly she also suffered great loneliness as a captive swimming for years in her tank away from her pod and the freedom to rove the Salish Sea. May her suffering and now honored life and death continue to touch and inspire us for more compassion for all wild and domesticated creatures, the planet itself, and for each other. Blessed be Tokitae's life and memory!
I close this evening with a quote that I think is appropriate to the reflection on Tokitae.
"In a world older and more complete than ours, [the animals] move
finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we
have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.
They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other
Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time."