Tilikum, the orca whale made famous by the documentary film BlackFish, is dead. SeaWorld Orlando announced his death this morning. “While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” a statement read. “The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings.”
It was, like most announcements from SeaWorld, full of false sentiment, self-congratulation, and bullshit.
“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,” they wrote, despite the fact that they kept Tilikum penned up in an unnatural environment for most of his life, using him for profit under the guise of research. He lived to about half his natural age, and did not live an “enriching life.” He lived in a tiny tank and performed tricks for hordes of screaming people. He did, though, inspire millions to care about killer whales, but that’s because his living situation was so terrible.
Chances are pretty good you’ve heard of Tilikum. His story is pretty well known, but I’ll nutshell it for you here, just in case you’ve forgotten a few of the important milestones. It was back in the ’80s, when he was two, that Tilikum was taken from his family off the coast of Iceland and taken to Sealand, a park in Victoria, British Columbia, a beautiful little city I was lucky enough to have grown up in. It was there that he, along with two other captive orcas, killed a 20-year-old trainer named Keltie Byrne after she slipped into the pool. A year later, after Sealand shut its doors for good, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld and moved to Orlando. He stayed there for nearly a decade until a homeless man named Daniel Dukes decided he’d sneak past security to spend the night. On the morning of July 7th, he was found dead, his naked body draped over Tilikum’s back. According to reports, he decided to go skinny dipping in Tilikum’s sleep tank. Then, Tilikum “thrashed Dukes around in the tank and eventually killed him. The whale continued to play around with Dukes’ body until the following morning when Tilly was found parading Dukes’ lifeless body on his back. The whale had reportedly bitten off Dukes’ genitals, caused so many injuries that autopsy reporters were dumbfounded as to what the actual cause of death was.”
Then, in 2010, Tilikum killed another trainer. Her name was Dawn Brancheau, and he pulled her into his pool as she knelt at the edge of his pool. Autopsy reports revealed that “her spinal cord was severed and she had sustained fractures to her jawbone, ribs, and a cervical vertebra. Her scalp was completely torn off from her head and her left arm had been severed below the shoulder.”
Killer whales, despite their name, have never killed a human in the wild, and many experts attributed Tilikum’s abnormally aggressive behavior to his captivity. Tilikum is not the only whale in captivity to exhibit the same signs. “Tilikum is a very disturbed and dangerous animal,” said David Kirby, the author of a book called Death at SeaWorld. “But I know of at least 20 other captive animals showing similar behavior.”
Tilikum was somewhere around 36-years-old, an age that SeaWorld insists is “near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales according to an independent scientific review.” NOAA, though, begs to differ, putting that average around 60.
“Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired,” said Joel Manby, President and CEO of SeaWorld. “My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family.” And while it’s true that the trainers at SeaWorld must truly care for the animals they spend so much time with, the entire idea of SeaWorld is so full of bullshit it can’t be ignored. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day circus, complete with caged elephants and dancing bears. If nothing else, Tilikum’s miserable life should serve as a reminder to everyone that animals shouldn’t be treated as entertainment, no matter how much people will pay to see them.