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'We must save Kiska': Vaughan students want to free lone captive killer whale at Marineland

But there is not many options for the last surviving orca held in captivity
July 5, 2022

In support of a killer whale getting her freedom, some Vaughan students have left nothing in the tank.

Dubbed "the loneliest orca in captivity" --- in a December 2021 Toronto Star article --- Kiska the killer whale has been held captive for over 40 years in Marineland near Niagara Falls, ever since she was captured off the coast of Iceland when she was about three.

Animal Justice activists and researchers say the 45-year-old female orca has been held in isolation with health concerns in a concrete tank for the past 10 years.

She has been pregnant five times, but each time she lost her calf.

Because they care about Kiska's happiness, students at Forest Run Public School have written poetry, created arts and a website, reached out to media and officials, and ultimately circulated a petition with 700 signatures that was presented to Ottawa this June.

"She is all sad and lonely," students wrote in a letter. "We must save Kiska."

Kiska's predicament triggered a "Free Kiska" social justice project in Forest Run since a letter by principal Judith Goldberg was published in the newspaper in December 2021.

This spring, kindergarten and Grade 2/3 students created posters, murals and even an imaginary ocean sanctuary to express their yearning to save Kiska.

In April, Grade 6/7 students designed a website showcasing spoken word poetry to advocate for Kiska's freedom.

They then wrote letters to the premiers of Ontario and Nova Scotia, federal fisheries minister, and the prime minister.

When Marineland reopened in May for a new season, students staged a protest walk around the school, with their artwork held up high.

"We decided that if we could begin this social justice project on behalf of this entrapped whale, somehow this will translate into the goal of trying to instil empathy within the students for one another," kindergarten teacher Lilly Catrisiotis told the Vaughan Citizen.

Students' efforts to raise public awareness for Kiska didn't go unnoticed. Their petition to address the plight of Kiska caught the attention of Leah Taylor Roy when the Aurora---Oak Ridges---Richmond Hill MP paid a visit to the school in June.

"One young boy looked at me confused and he pleadingly asked: what if someone did that to us?" Roy told the House of Commons when presenting the petition June 22.

"These students, teachers and others in our province want to ensure that Kiska is moved to a more suitable and healthy location," she said, adding she believed the ideal location would be the Whale Sanctuary Project that is currently taking shape in Port Hilford, N.S.

The sanctuary is expected to receive its first permanent residents as early as 2023. Until it is ready to accept whales, the petition pleads for Kiska to have a better life where she can live in a facility that can rehabilitate her and ensure her interaction with other orcas and cetaceans.

"This House passed Bill S302 in 2019 to end the captivity of whales. But Kiska was not released. Her misery was grandfathered," Roy said, urging Parliament to remove the "grandfather clause" that allows Marineland to retain ownership of Kiska and possibly use her for entertainment purposes.

But there is not many options for Kiska, since it would be fatal for her if released into the wild, and at present no such sanctuary exists where she could be safely transported.

In 2021, Niagara Regional Police charged Marineland with using captive cetaceans like dolphins and whales for entertainment purposes without authorization. The park has denied the allegations. Marineland has made another appearance in court June 29 and the case is set to return to court in August.

Marineland has not responded to a request for comment, via online form and phone, regarding how often Kiska is asked to perform and what licences they hold, but its website says: "Our marine mammals are empowered to decide on their own whether they want to participate in each presentation."

"She could live somewhere, such as in whale sanctuary and have decades left, if we don't allow her to die first due to her confinement," Roy said. The lifespans of wild female orcas average 50 to 80 years.

"Judith (the principal) and her students know it is wrong for us to condone this in 2022. It's past time for us to do the right thing."