Did Years of Captivity and Abuse Lead to SeaWorld Orca Tilikum’s Early Death?

Tilikum performing in Orlando. Note the collapsed dorsal fin. Less than 1% of wild orcas suffer from dorsal collapse

Tilikum, the feature Orca in the documentary Blackfish, died yesterday in captivity after suffering from a drug resistant bacterial lung infection for many months. SeaWorld said in a lengthy statement that Tilikum was suffering from serious health issues and they are very saddened by his passing. Tilikum only lived 2 years with his pod in the open ocean before his nearly 33 year long captivity. At an estimated 36 years old Tilikum died.

The documentary Blackfish. which argued that orca kept in captivity are more aggressive towards humans, sparked animal rights protest and eventually caused SeaWorld to phase out it orca breeding program. Unfortunately their decision does nothing for the captive marine animals which are still suffering daily. Orca caged in tiny pools eventually become deformed, acquire health issues and die around the middle of their life. Studies show that orca in the wild should live to be 80 or even 100 years with females living longer than males.

37 orca have died in captivity at SeaWorld and 1 has died at Loro Parque. Of the 30 live births to occur at SeaWorld, 10 of the orca have already died along with 10 of the mothers. With an average life span of 6.6 years once an orca is placed in captivity.

Tilikums beginning as a show orca were full of abuse, neglect and bullying from both trainers and other orca in captivity.  After attacking a trainer at SeaLand in Canada he was obtained by SeaWorld for $1,oo0,000. Although his standard of living increased when transferred to SeaWorld Orlando; he again was bullied by two of the other orca and placed into a solitary pen for his protection.

Throughout his time in captivity Tilimuk was responsible for the death three people, including the violent and public attack of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. After which he was segregated even more based on his reputation.


Photo by FPM editor Dylan Donnelly

At the end of his life Tilikum was a stud whale used primarily for his sperm, fathering over a dozen more orcas for SeaWorlds killer whale breeding program. With a total of 22 whales in captivity at SeaWorld, over half of them have Tilikums DNA. Will the next generation have the same reaction to captivity as their father so famously did or was Tilikum a victim of circumstance who was destined to open the eyes of a new generation to the injustices of captivity when applied to sentient beings regardless of their archetype?

Regardless of the future lets remember Tilikum not as a killer whale but as a captured orca deprived of his true nature yet destined to change to the popular opinion on animal captivity and inspire a more peaceful relationship between animal and man.

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