SeaWorld Orlando has officially announced the death of their most famous, though some would say infamous, orca whale, Tilikum. According to reports, Tilikum passed away after a long-fought battle with a lung infection, “surrounded by trainers, care staff, and veterinarians.” He was 36-years-old, about half the age expectancy of wild orcas. SeaWorld is quick to explain in their press release that the suspected bacteria, which caused Tilikum’s illness, is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings. Just so that we all know, that the cause of Tilikum’s death is something that he totally could have contracted in the wild … too.  But what SeaWorld fails to mention is all of the things that poor Tilly could have experienced in the wild that he was callously deprived of through his 25-year-long stint captivity at SeaWorld. 

Tilikum is one of the first orca whales to be captured from the wild for the sake of entertainment. At the age of two, he was ripped away from his pod, off the coast of Iceland and then confined for a year at Hafnarfjörður Marine Zoo, near Reykjavík. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to Sealand of the Pacific outside of Victoria, British Columbia. Here is where Tilikum would experience the horrors of life in a 100-by-50-foot tank, bullied constantly by his fellow tank-mates, Pacific Northwestern females Haida and Nootka.  Ultimately, the toll of captivity on these highly intelligent animals led to the death of the 20-year-old trainer, Keltie Byrne. It’s believed she was tossed between the three whales and then drowned. It’s also important to note that Byrne’s death is the first ever recorded instance of a killer whale attack – this has never before been reported in the wild.

Despite this history of violence, Tilikum was sent to SeaWorld Orlando – after all, he is a fine breeding male and had the potential to create a whole brood of captive offspring for the marine park. However, Tilikum’s aggressive streak was hardly over. In 1999, the body of Daniel Dukes, a man who managed to surpass security and break into SeaWorld in the middle of the night, was found splayed over Tilikum’s back. This horrific event would only foreshadow the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Brancheau’s death spawned the creation of the film “Blackfish,” which made us all come face to face with the question of whether it was people who made this giant whale into a cold-blooded killer by forcing him into life in a fishbowl. Resoundingly, the opinion of animal behavior experts has been “yes.”  But rather than learn from this, or the three deaths caused by this agitated animal, SeaWorld opted to instead prescribe Tilikum psychoactive drugs and confine him to isolation in a small tank – this is what his life looked like in recent years, days filled with mindless, listless bobbing.

Thanks to the prevalence of the truth conveyed in “Blackfish,” SeaWorld has faced an enormous amount of backlash from fans – it’s attendance continues to drop, and SeaWorld San Diego was recently pressured to end their captive orca shows and breeding program.

Rather than existing as a dominant bull whale in the wild where he would spend his days swimming over 100 miles a day, hunting for food, and interacting with his family, Tilikum was condemned to a mind-numbing and frustrating existence in captivity. Orca expert Ken Balcomb once described Tilikum as “basically psychotic,” explaining that the whale has been, “maintained in a situation where I think he is psychologically unrecoverable in terms of being a wild whale.”

Any normal, healthy, or happy life in the wild was stolen from Tilikum at the age of two, and in return he was condemned to a life of suffering – all for the sake of our entertainment (and SeaWorld’s profits). SeaWorld stated, “While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family, it’s important to remember that Tilikum lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld and inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species.”

It is true that Tilikum inspired us all in his life, but it is not to the ends that SeaWorld surely hopes for. His life and story inspired millions to say no to marine captivity and demand the freedom of all marine mammals forced to exist in these jail cells. Unfortunately, death is the only escape from a wholly unnatural life for Tilly, but there is hope for all who follow him. We can all honor Tilikum’s legacy by boycotting SeaWorld and any other facility that holds animals captive for the sake of profit or entertainment.

More than ever, the time to #EmptyTheTanks is now. Share this graphic and spread the word! 


Image source: Milan Boers/Flickr