Laurie Rudock lays flowers at a makeshift memorial after the recent death of a captive orca, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023, outside the Miami Seaquarium in Key Biscayne, Fla. . (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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Former trainers of Lolita – the orca  who entertained millions at Miami Seaquarium – say they are suspicious of the stated cause of  death from sudden renal failure.

But the mammal scientist who headed up the effort to transport the 57-year-old whale to a sea pen in Puget Sound, insists all precautions were taken to ensure the whale’s health and that her death Friday from renal failure was unexpected. 

Confirmation of the 7,000-pound animal’s cause of death – also know as Tokitae –will come out once a necropsy report is released. The examination was performed at the University of Georgia where Lolita’s body was shipped.

The non-profit Friends of Toki – backed by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and real estate developer Pritam Singh – wanted to return her home to a sea pen in Puget Sound.

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Truth 4 Toki – mostly former trainers of Toki – lobbied to move her to a more accommodating tank at another facility, saying she would certainly die if flown to the Washington coast. Animal activists for decades have said Lolita’s 80-by-35-foot tank was too small.

Shanna Simpson was Lolita’s trainer from 2003 to 2009 and an organizer of Truth 4 Toki.

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“I’ve worked with animals for 21 years now and if you were doing regular blood check-ups on your animals, you know where their kidneys stand,” Simpson said.

Killer whale Lolita
Lolita, the killer whale, is shown in an undated photo in her pool at Miami Seaquarium. A group of former trainers, veterinarians, and caretakers have formed a group to try to stop the effort to transport the 57-year-old orca back to Washington State waters where she was captured in the early 1970s. (KBI via Truth 4 Toki)

Three days before she died, Miami Seaquarium released a statement saying Lolita was “very stable and as good as she can be at 50 years of age.” 

Marni Wood worked at the Miami Seaquarium for 15 years – 10 as a whale trainer. “So the renal failure is very suspicious to me, I cannot imagine how they would know that without doing a necropsy,” she said.

Tricia Nicewicz, trained the white-sided dolphins in Lolita’s tank from 2003 to 2005, had similar concerns about the stated cause of death. She said the planned move was little more than  “a publicity stunt,” because necessary state and federal permits had not been issued nor had land been purchased for the sea pen.

Charles Vinick, co-founder of Friends of Toki, defended the relocation plan, saying talks were ongoing with the state of Washington and the National Marine Fisheries Service. He also defended the staff taking care of Lolita, saying the suspected renal failure was unrelated to the treatment for gastroenteritis earlier last week.

Blood samples taken early last week gave no indication of the pending organ failure, he said. 

“(Our team) did an exceptional job to give her a high quality of life, perhaps one of the best years of her life based on her activity level for energy, her engagement with the training staff, all of the behavioral things you look for,” he said.

The whale habitat was enhanced with new chillers and filters through Friends of Toki, he said.

The Miami Seaquarium closed Saturday in the aftermath of Lolita’s death. When asked to respond to critics on Monday, the park responded with the statement announcing her death. “It is a very difficult time for those who knew Lolita,” said Danay Voiles, General Manager at Miami Seaquarium.

On social media, Eduardo Albor – CEO of The Dolphin Company that owns Seaquarium, said, “Not a single effort we made to give Lolita an opportunity was a waste of time and money.”

Mark Simmons trained killer whales at SeaWorld, and publically split with Vinick on the rehoming of orcas. 

“One of the things about killer whales is that they are absolute masters of disguise,” he said. “They mask illness like the best of them.”

Lolita was constantly fighting off illness in recent years, nearly dying from pneumonia in 2022, and remained on antibiotics, Vinick said. The trainers said long-term use of antibiotics can lead to organ failure, as well.

“I mean, she’s been on so much medication. Her liver had to be shot,” Simmons said.

Nicewicz said it is important to remember Lolita as the rock star that she was, an utterly beloved Miami icon.

“While it is sad that she remained in the same pool for that many years, her opportunity to spread awareness as an ambassador for other orcas is unmatched by any other in captivity,” she said.

JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.