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Tilikum, Subject of Killer Whale Doc ‘Blackfish’, Dies in Captivity

Gerardo Mora, Getty Images
Gerardo Mora, Getty Images

In 2010, an orca named Tilikum made headlines when he killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando, Florida — Brancheau wasn’t the first person killed by the park’s troubled resident; then again, Tilikum wasn’t the first (or the last) captive orca to attack a human being. Three years later, he became newsworthy again as the subject of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s eye-opening documentary which used the story of Tilikum to shine a light on the horrors lurking within sea parks (spoiler: it’s the humans you need to worry about). Four years later, Tilikum is making headlines again, as the now-infamous orca has passed away at the estimated age of 36.

In an official statement released by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, it was revealed that Tilikum had suffered from a bacterial infection that may have led to his death. The official cause of death is unknown, but will likely be determined by a necropsy. “While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family,” the statement says, “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.”

36 may sound like an impressive lifespan, and it is for an orca in captivity. On average, a captive male orca lives to the age of 17, while captive females live to be about 29. By contrast, wild males live an average of 30 years and can reach the age of 50-60, while wild females live an average of 50 years and can live up to about 100 years (the oldest recorded female in the wild, Granny, lived to 105).

But Tilikum was a special case, exceeding the average captive lifespan despite a tumultuous and harrowing history. That history began in 1983, when he was captured in Iceland and shuttled off to the Sealand of the Pacific park in British Columbia where he was kept with two older, dominant female orcas. In 1991, the three whales attacked and killed a young marine biologist who slipped into the tank. In 1992, Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld in Orlando, where he became part of the company’s controversial breeding program, designed to perpetuate their famous orca shows, where trainers interact and perform tricks with the mammals in front of a paying audience.

In 1999, a man who stayed at SeaWorld past closing snuck into the orca tank after dark and was found dead the next morning. His official cause of death was drowning; his body was found draped over Tilikum’s back.

In 2010, Tilikum grabbed his 40-year-old trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and dragged her into the water, where she died as the result of drowning and blunt-force trauma.

Each of these instances are important to note in the scope of Tilikum’s life because they were all preventable. Orcas are incredibly intelligent mammals capable of complex emotional and psychological response, and should not be held in captivity or forced to perform. Tilikum’s life was tragic, but he signals the beginning of the end: Blackfish called attention to a horrible industry that has, in the U.S., begun to dwindle. In the years since the documentary was released, SeaWorld experienced a steep decline in attendance, trainers were legally forbidden to enter the water with orcas, and the company is in the process of phasing out its live shows entirely.

Unfortunately, the SeaWorld’s remaining orca population will likely live out the rest of their days in the parks, and will die in captivity like Tilikum. To date, over 60 orcas have died in captivity; none of them from natural causes.

The live shows will be phased out entirely by 2019, but the remaining orcas will stay in the parks, where SeaWorld plans on using them as part of an educational experience, per a USA Today report from last spring. Although it’s a small step in the right direction, there is another, better option: Retirement pens, which allow for captive orcas to be returned to the wild in a protected environment. Unfortunately, SeaWorld has no plans to transition their orca population out of the parks and back to the actual sea.

For further reading, check out David Kirby’s highly-detailed and compelling non-fiction book, Death at SeaWorld, which greatly expands on the information in Blackfish with an exploration of orca psychology and the history of captivity.

If you’re interested in making a donation or learning more about what you can do to help, visit OrcaConservancy.org.

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