Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Whale, Is Near Death

Tilikum, star of the movie “Blackfish,” and the whale who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, is in failing health.

Tilikum is suffering from a bacterial lung infection, according to SeaWorld’s blog.

The 34-year-old whale has been lethargic for the past several weeks. According to SeaWorld staff, his health is deteriorating. The Orlando Sentinel reports that the park’s veterinarian, Scott Gearhart, has expressed concern about the inevitable.

“I wish I could say I was tremendously optimistic about Tilikum and his future, but he has a disease which is chronic and progressive and at some point might cause his death.”

Tilikum has been involved in a total of three human deaths: Before Brancheau, there was the 1991 drowning of a Sealand trainer, Keltie Byrne, and the 1999 drowning of Daniel Dukes, a 27-year-old man who sneaked into SeaWorld Orlando’s whale enclosure after the park had closed. After Brancheau’s death, Tilikum became the subject of the 2013 documentary, Blackfish. The film, which highlighted the live capture of whales and the tragic monotony of their existence in captivity, eventually led to SeaWorld stock and attendance plummeting.

Tilikum was captured in Iceland in 1983 at age 2. He was later taken to Sealand in British Columbia, Canada. The film Blackfish outlines how 20-year-old student trainer Keltie Byrne fell into a pool with three orcas in February 1991. Tilikum pulled her to the bottom, where she drowned.

WFTV explains how Sealand closed its doors, and Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld after that.

Tilikum’s history was no secret, but the SeaWorld permit application assured the park that things would be different with some professional training.

“SeaWorld’s animals are all highly trained and are accustomed to interacting with trainers. Sealand’s animals are essentially untrained.”

Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld in 1991, just a few months after the death of the trainer.

SeaWorld pointed out that the whale’s transfer could not have taken place without the government’s approval.

“SeaWorld could not have imported Tilikum without the permission of either the U.S. or Canadian governments after their respective careful review of all the facts and the record.”

Trainer Dawn Brancheau died in 2009 after being pulled into the pool by Tilikum during an informal interactive show with a small audience. The film Blackfish outlines the incident along with other attacks by captive whales.

National Geographic described Blackfish as “an indictment of SeaWorld, its safety practices, its animal husbandry, its mendacity, and its whole reason for being.”

The film premiered over much controversy, since its opening was preceded from a “Dear Film Critic” letter of protest from SeaWorld. It called the documentary “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.”

More protests are listed in the Truth About Blackfish website. It accuses the film of spreading misinformation about Tilikum and the three victims. There is no proof that Tilikum was responsible for either of the first two deaths, it claims. It also states that Tilikum socializes daily with guests and other whales, and cooperates with trainers.

SeaWorld insists that from the time they acquired Tilikum, there has been a special protocol for trainers to follow when working with him, which included not entering the water with him.

Ken Brower, author of Freeing Keiko, the story of the Free Willy whale, examines the possibility of Tilikum being psychotic, deranged by captivity. But Brower said that there are no bad whales.

“They just come with all the instincts of predators.”

Apparently, a large portion of the public agrees. Tilikum even today has millions of well-wishers, all hoping the best for him. Or they hope at least, for a life in captivity that was rife with controversy, that he will have a peaceful ending.

[Image via underworld/Shutterstock]