Editor’s Notes: This post was originally published on March 14, 2016. Tilikum passed away on January 6, 2017.
For 30 years, Tilikum has been committed to an asylum of despair and deprivation.
For years we have clung to a hope that once again he might feel the embrace of the living sea. We maintained hope that a shred of decency would arise within the cold corporate heart of SeaWorld and that they would grant Tilikum, the one gift he most desired and deserved. Freedom! That hope is now all but gone. Tilikum is dying.
The recent announcement by SeaWorld that Tilikum is nearing the end of his tragic life was spun with a major lie.
“Despite the best care available, like all aging animals, he battles chronic health issues that are taking a greater toll as he ages,” SeaWorld said on its website.
Tilikum is 35 years old who should be in the prime of his life. Orca males live an average of 70 years in the wild and females can surpass a century. SeaWorld wants us all to believe that Tilikum is dying a natural death from old age.
This statement is a deliberate lie crafted by the public relations team at SeaWorld. Tilikum’s life has been one of tragic abuse ever since he was torn from his family pod in 1981 at the age of two. As they hauled him from the water and brought him onboard, his pod were visibly disturbed. His mother followed in the wake of the fleeing boat and she continued to follow helplessly as her baby cried piteously until she could hear nothing more. The capture boat sped away leaving Tilikum’s family pod and mother behind. He would never see them again.
Tilikum’s Early Life
The baby orca was confined for a year at Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo, near Reykjavík, Iceland along with two other baby Orcas, Nandu and Samoa before being transferred to Sealand of the Pacific outside of Victoria, British Columbia.
First forcibly separated from his mother followed by a forceful separation a year later from his two young companions who were later sold off to the Aquarama facility in Sao Paulo Brazil where Nandu died in 1988 at eight years of age. Samoa was resold to SeaWorld in Ohio and then shipped to SeaWorld San Antonio for breeding. She became the first Orca to die (March 14, 1992) at SeaWorld from birth complications caused by a fungal infection. She was 12 years old.
A young Orca in the sea is taken care of by its mother and the pod extremely well. Constant attention and parental instructions, surrounded by a love we can only imagine but a love that is real nonetheless. To be snatched from that security and a small tank must have been excruciatingly traumatic. This was followed by being taken completely out of the water, placed in a shipping container and flown halfway around the planet, far, far, away from the place nature had intended for him.
In Victoria, Tilikum was placed in a 100-by-50-foot pool only 35-feet deep, trained with food deprivation techniques and bullied by two older female Orcas, Haida and Nootka.
One of the reasons for the bullying, aside from the crowded conditions was that food was deprived from all three Orcas when Tilikum did not perform to the satisfaction of the trainers. Sealand also did not take into consideration that Tilikum was an Icelandic whale and unable to communicate with the two Pacific Northwest Orcas.
The Effect of Captivity on Tilikum
Forced to do eight shows a day, seven days a week, Tilikum developed stomach ulcers at a very young age.
Tilikum, along with Haida and Nootka marked a historical first with the killing of 20 years old Keltie Byrne on February 21, 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific. She was tossed between the three orcas until she drowned, the first human being ever documented to have been killed by Orcas.
I had visited the whales a few years earlier at Sealand of the Pacific and observed at the time that all three whales were severely stressed. Crowded, overworked, food deprived and physically abused. I remember remarking to Sealand Executive Director Angus Matthews that the whales could be potentially dangerous in such conditions. He replied that despite their names, an orca would never harm a human being intentionally. It had never happened he said and therefore they were confident that it would not happen. But nearly a decade of involuntary confinement after being traumatically removed from the security of his mother and pod, shipped to a foreign location with two dominant females that he could not communicate with, and subject to abuse by both Orcas and humans certainly present a psychological profile conducive to anger, frustration and violent behavior.
If this was a human being torn from the arms of its mother at an early age, placed in confinement as a baby, sent to a foreign land and forced to do routine labor while being bullied by fellow captives and deprived of food we would not be surprised if such a person displayed serious anti-social tendencies including psychopathic behavior.
In the view of Orca expert Ken Balcomb, “Tilikum is basically psychotic. He has been maintained in a situation where I think he is psychologically unrecoverable in terms of being a wild whale.”
2015 Orca Research Trust
We will never know the circumstances that led to the death of the second human to be killed by Tilikum. Apparently 27-year old Daniel Dukes hid out in the park and voluntarily entered Tilikum’s pool during the night. He was found dead the next morning draped over the Orca’s back, dismembered and with his genitals ripped away.
With two human deaths, SeaWorld should have realized they were dealing with something highly unusual. There had never before been a case of an Orca killing a human being in captivity or in the wild. If ever there was a sign of severe mental and emotional disorders, Tilikum was a classic case.
In fact, the behavior of Tilikum was incredibly divergent from everything we had learned about Orcas in the wild.
During the summer of 1975, I jumped into the path of an oncoming pod of orcas near Bella Bella, British Columbia. I watched them rapidly approach. I watched as they dove and disappeared and I watched with a twinge of fear as the entire pod surfaced alongside me, so close that I grabbed the dorsal of one of the whales and suddenly found myself being pulled through the sea. I was riding a wild orca and it was awesome. A few minutes later the orca dove and I was left behind watching the pod move away from me. They could have easily killed me but did not do so. In the years since I have spent time with orcas in the wild in Washington and Alaska and in Antarctica. I have never known an orca to be aggressive towards a human. Why this is so remains a mystery but it is a well-observed, documented and indisputable fact.
The Mental and Dangerous Impact of Captivity
Tilikum is an anomaly and, unfortunately, a very dangerous anomaly and I can only attribute this to Tilikum being emotionally and mentally disturbed, in other words – insane.
Despite this, the SeaWorld show went on and although she could not have imagined it herself at the time, Dawn Brancheau was now on death row with Tilikum.
At 40, she was one of SeaWorld’s most experienced trainers when she was violently grabbed by the arm by Tilikum and pulled beneath the surface. Observations and testimony by numerous marine wildlife specialists back the theory that Tilikum was very much aware of what he was doing. The killing of Dawn Brancheau was a deliberate act of murder consistent with psychotic behavior. It must have been so surreal for the SeaWorld trainers in the days that followed to continue to feed and work with an animal that had just killed their colleague and friend.
Dawn’s death was the beginning of a full assault on SeaWorld. The dark underside of the industry was exposed and Pandora’s box was opened revealing the dangers, the abuse and the cruelty of the international dolphin trade. Trainers began to talk, and journalists and filmmakers were listening.
How Blackfish Changed Our Perception of Marine Captivity
The production and the release of the documentary film Blackfish finally revealed the dark secrets that SeaWorld’s well-financed public relations operations had so successfully kept from the public.
What has emerged is a portrait of an industry that captures and enslaves dolphins including orcas. Many animals have died during capture attempts and in the case of the smaller cetaceans, thousands have been deliberately slaughtered, like for example in the dolphin drives in Japan where entire pods of dolphins are driven into a bay, the prime specimens selected for dolphinarium display and the rejected members of the pod violently destroyed.
Dolphin slaughters in Japan fuel marine captivity.
The “lucky” ones that escape the knife are condemned to a shorter life of abuse, sensory deprivation, loneliness, insecurity, and alienation. During the 19th century asylums for the criminally insane and even the not so criminally insane were institutions that the general public knew little about. Behind guarded walls, humans were punished and deprived of food as a form of behavior modification. Electro-shock therapy and lobotomies were used with great frequency and the patients were primarily exploited like laboratory rats for the purpose of investigating, understanding and manipulation of human behavior. In some cases these institutions offered tours where for a price, members of the public could gawk at inmates restrained in strait jackets, chained to their beds or given electro shock therapy. Captives were sometimes marketed as entertainment like those poor individuals featured in freak shows.
The modern socially acceptable freak show is the aquatic asylum where for a price the public can gawk at one of the world’s most intelligent and strongest sentient beings and feel superior as the Orcas are forced to perform tricks for their amusement. It really is not much different than feeling superior while watching another human convulsing as electricity fries part of his brain. These monstrous institutions were gradually shut down but I remember participating in an anti-lobotomy demonstration on the Berkley campus in 1977, so it was not that long ago.
Such institutions of horror, pain, and death are not abolished overnight. It takes time, patience, courage and commitment to tear down such walls. We have been fighting to empty the tanks in aquatic asylums like SeaWorld for decades and just like the movement to tear down the asylums for humans, we have been ignored for many years. But once that formidable door is forced open, enlightenment quickly illuminates the consciousness of society and progressive change begins to happen.
Our years of battering at the doors of such places as SeaWorld with demonstrations, articles, petitions, and lawsuits weakened the fortress doors enough that when Blackfish was shown to the public it was like a battering ram of enlightenment. When I look back over the years, I see that we have made steady progress in bringing the abuses of these asylums to the eyes of the public.
The first captive Orca named Moby Doll was actually deliberately shot when it was captured for the Vancouver Aquarium back in 1964. The Vancouver Aquarium purchased a second Orca in 1967 named Skana. I came to know Skana quite well primarily because my biology professor was the wife of the curator of the Vancouver Aquarium, Dr. Murray Newman. In the early days of marine aquariums, not much thought was given to conservation. I still remember the Aquarium selling sperm whale teeth for $5 each that came from the whaling operations on Vancouver Island. When I spoke out against whaling to staff at the Aquarium they looked at me like I was crazy. There was not a shred of empathy for the animals they were displaying for profit.
So when Dr. Paul Spong was hired by the Aquarium, he became the first scientist to understand that Orcas were unlike any other animal he had ever studied. Spong made the very unorthodox announcement that Orcas were highly intelligent and very emotional cetaceans. This discovery led to his being fired from the Aquarium. It’s simply difficult to keep a sentient, self-aware, highly intelligent being captive if you accept that they have thoughts and emotions just like humans. Skana died at the age of 17 in 1980, but what she did in her short life was to inspire a small group of us to rally to the cause of the cetaceans and in 1975 we set forth on the very first expedition to challenge the whalers when we confronted the whaling fleet of the Soviet Union in the Pacific.
The aquatic asylums that for decades have managed to hide the truth of their abuses are now doing everything they can, to do damage control, but it will not work. The battering will continue relentlessly now and with greatly increased support and strength.
What Can Be Done for Those After Tilikum?
We won’t be able to save Tilikum and many of the other abused inmates of the aquatic asylums but we do have an ever growing movement that will prevent new victims being snatched from their families and committed to the horrors that places like SeaWorld represent.
It’s been a long time since Skana was captured off British Columbia and Tilikum was torn from his mother’s side off Iceland. It’s much more difficult now to do live captures and even breeding operations have been discouraged like the recent decision of the California Coastal Commission to oppose the SeaWorld’s breeding program in San Diego. Most recently, SeaWorld announced the end of all captive breeding in their parks.
The movement to free captive Orcas and other dolphin species gets stronger every year. But there is still much to do before we can say we have delivered justice for Tilikum and the hundreds of Orcas that have been enslaved and killed simply to entertain humans for profit.
The tanks must be emptied and if possible the captives released, at least to large open sea pens where they will not be forced to perform for the amusement of human beings. SeaWorld is a façade, pretending to be educational, pretending to care for the intelligent sentient creatures their facilities holds captive. Humanity does not need SeaWorld or these other aquatic Asylums anymore. We have evolved as a society and we need to recognize that there is an alternative to SeaWorld and that alternative is the real sea world, the place where Orcas and dolphins are free to be what they are, free to roam the sea with their own kind, free to communicate without their voices rebounding from concrete walls, free to not be tormented and not sexually molested by being masturbated by humans to harvest their sperm, freed from the abusive slavery that we have subjected them to for so many decades.
Like the 19th century asylums for insane humans, these aquatic asylums need to be closed and their facilities abandoned so that only the haunting cries of Orcas will echo from tanks drained of water amidst the ruins of something that we are coming to realize has brought ignoble shame to our entire species.
Lead image source: Creative Commons