Lolita, the last surviving southern resident orca who was cruelly taken from her ocean home in the Pacific Northwest at just 4 years old, has died after a miserable existence at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida, where she was forced to perform in front of loud crowds for profit for the last five decades.

Her death, believed to be from renal failure, has devastated animal advocates worldwide who have long campaigned for her release and were eagerly anticipating a promised return to her home waters.

Lolita, also known as Tokitae and Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, was 20 feet long, weighed over 8,000 pounds, and spent the last five decades of her life living in a concrete tank that was just 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep — reportedly the smallest orca tank in the world.

The intelligent orca, a captured member of the L pod, deserved a life in the ocean with her family. But instead, she spent the last 53 years performing demeaning “tricks” or floating listlessly in her barren tank. For much of Lolita’s life she lived in solitude, as her orca companion Hugo tragically died in 1980 after suffering a brain aneurysm from reportedly ramming his head into the side of the tank.

Then came news of welfare violations cited by federal inspectors, including that Lolita was fed meager rations and rotting fish and was forced to perform fast swims and high energy jumps despite a jaw injury and her advanced age.

Lolita’s heartbreaking story garnered the attention of people across the world, including animal advocates, scientists, and the Lummi tribe, who staged years-long protests to bring her back home to where her pod and Ocean Sun — believed to be Lolita’s mother — still live.

Following public outcry, the Miami Seaquarium in 2023 announced plans to transition Lolita to a coastal sanctuary where she’d have some semblance of a natural life.

But plans to transition the suffering orca did not come soon enough.

“Kind people begged the Miami Seaquarium to end Lolita’s hellish life in a concrete cell and release her to a seaside sanctuary, where she could dive deep, feel the ocean’s currents, and even be reunited with the orca believed to be her mother,” said PETA president Ingrid Newkirk in a statement. “But plans to move her to a seaside sanctuary came too late, and Lolita was denied even a minute of freedom from her grinding 53 years in captivity.”

Members of the J, K, and L pods were sighted gathering around the San Juan Islands the night before Lolita passed — giving some tribal members hope that her family was guiding her to the other side, despite the physical distance between them.

“Right now we are in a time of sadness but also this is a time of celebration of her life,” Lummi Nation Chair Tony Hillaire told The Seattle Times. “She gets to be with the ancestors now, so this is also a good day.”

Lolita’s tragic story serves as a reminder that no wild animal deserves to be held captive and exploited for “entertainment” or for any reason.

We can all honor Lolita and help animals in similar heartbreaking situations by never visiting marine parks that keep intelligent, complex animals in tiny tanks for profits.