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Remembering Tilikum

| David Kirby
Topics: Captivity Industry, Dolphin and Whale Trade, Orcas, SeaWorld

David Kirby is a New York City-based author and journalist who covers science, health, wildlife and the environment.  He is the author of the seminal book on SeaWorld and their care of orcas, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.  David provided IMMP with his thoughts on the recent death of Tilikum.


I will never forget the afternoon that Tilikum, the great and fearsome orca who died on January 6, killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando. Little did I know that it would mark the beginning of the end of killer whale captivity in this country.

I was working at home that day, Feb. 24, 2010, with CNN flickering in the background. I was stunned when I lifted my head. For the rest of the day, video footage occupied a corner of the screen, showing the massive killer whale floating listlessly next to the covered body of his trainer.

I felt terrible for Dawn, her family and coworkers. But I didn’t feel sorry for Tilikum. That would soon change. The harrowing incident inspired me to write Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.

What I discovered was staggering.

Killer whales are exceedingly intelligent and social animals that swim up to 100 miles a day in the ocean. But at places like SeaWorld, I learned from scientists, the stress of life confined to a tank leads to aggression, immune suppression and deadly infections. Whales shatter their teeth on metal gates and have the pulp removed with a power drill, the dorsal fins of all adult male orcas collapse into grotesque disfigurement, and captive whales often die while still quite young.

Tilikum quickly became a central figure in my narrative. I dedicated a chapter to his capture in Iceland, when he was wrenched from his mother’s side at the tender age of two. I wrote about his transfer to Sealand of the Pacific, in Victoria, British Columbia, where he was stuck in a small pool with two dominant females who attacked him relentlessly, and was sequestered in a constricting metal box at night. One day in 1991, perhaps out of frustration, or sheer boredom, he grabbed the foot of Sealand trainer Keltie Byrne and pulled her into the water, where he and the other whales prevented her from escaping until she drowned.

Sealand decided it no longer wanted to be in the captive-orca business. But who would buy such a dangerous animal? SeaWorld quickly made an offer and flew Tilikum to Orlando, where he was often kept isolated. SeaWorld banned its trainers from getting in the water with him, but didn’t specify why.

Eight years later, a young homeless man, Daniel Dukes, snuck into Tilikum’s pool after the park had closed. He was found dead the next morning, draped over the orca’s back. SeaWorld said he died of hyperthermia, but this was never mentioned in the autopsy, and Mr. Dukes was found with pre- and post-mortem scrapes and bruises.

But it was the brutal death of his third victim, Dawn Brancheau, that made international headlines.

Things would never be the same for SeaWorld and its shiny, family-friendly reputation.

Since that awful day, SeaWorld has suffered a cascade of blows from which the entertainment giant may never recover, beginning with the publication of my book in 2012 and the release of the powerful, game-changing documentary, Blackfish.

Park attendance plummeted and so did SeaWorld’s stock. A string of high-profile entertainers cancelled concerts in Orlando, corporate partners cut ties with the company and SeaWorld’s chief executive was sacked.

SeaWorld finally got the message: Killer whales should not be used for human entertainment, period. Last March, the company announced it would end captive orca breeding, meaning this will be the last generation of captive killer whales in the United States.

SeaWorld also vowed to phase out its iconic “Shamu” shows in favor of more natural and educational displays. Quite fittingly, the last killer whale performance at SeaWorld San Diego was held on Sunday, January 8th.  However, the theatrical shows with orcas continue at SeaWorld’s other parks in San Antonio and Orlando, supposedly to be phased out in 2018.

We will never know why Tilikum snapped, dragging a well-loved trainer into his pool. But if anything positive could come from that horrific event, it is the growing opposition to marine-mammal captivity around the world.

Tilikum is gone, but his legacy endures. I still feel compassion for the people he killed, but I also feel sorry for this majestic, sentient creature. He deserved better than the life he was given. I am thankful he will suffer no more.

Photo by Pelan M. Ebenhack, AP