Tilikum, Killer Whale At The Center Of Controversial ‘Blackfish’ Documentary, Is Dying

Tilikum, the killer whale whose life in captivity has been the subject of a damning documentary, and who has been linked to at least three human deaths, is slowly dying, the Record is reporting.

In a video released by SeaWorld, staff at the Orlando theme park can be seen tearing up while discussing Tilikum’s life and impending death.

“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. If he would have shown up with this disease in the wild, there’s no doubt in my mind he’d have been gone a long time ago.”

Tilikum, who is estimated to be about 35-years-old, is young by killer whale standards. The marine mammals can live up to 50 or 60 years in the wild. However, in captivity, the average lifespan for a killer whale, or orca, is only about 12 years.

Tilikum killer whale

Almost since his story began, Tilikum — whose name means “Friend” in Chinook — has been the subject of intense controversy, as well as difficult questions about keeping wild animals in captivity for the amusement of humans.

Tilikum, along with two female orcas, was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. For upwards of a year, the killer whale was kept in a small concrete holding tank. Then, he was transferred to Sealand, a small marine park in Canada, where he was kept with two aggressive females (in the wild, female orcas are more aggressive than males).

At Sealand, the first of three human deaths linked to Tilikum occurred. Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old part-time trainer, slipped into the killer whale’s tank. As Keltie screamed for help, Tilikum and his two female companions batted the trainer around like a toy until she eventually drowned.

Over the next several years, Tilikum would be linked to two more human deaths. In 1999, a trespasser named David Dukes snuck into Tilikum’s habitat. Dukes was found dead the next morning. Then in 2010, a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the water by Tilikum, in front of at least a dozen park guests. Ms. Brancheau’s body was found to have several injuries — including her spinal cord severed and her scalp torn off.

So is Tilikum an aggressive wild animal doing what he does naturally (after all, he’s called a “killer” whale), or was he an over-stressed creature acting out due to frustration? Those questions, and more, were explored in the damning 2013 documentary Blackfish.

Tilikum Killer Whale
The 2013 Documentary Blackfish. [Image courtesy of Artist via Wikimedia Commons by Fair Use]

Blackfish painted a picture of SeaWorld from which the Orlando theme park, and its parent company, have yet to recover. Attendance is down not only in Orlando, but at SeaWorld parks throughout the country. According to an August, 2015, Time report, SeaWorld’s profits are down 84 percent. Meanwhile, the parks are offering deep discounts to bring visitors back, and the company is shaking up its executive team, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Whether or not SeaWorld will fully recover from the impact of Blackfish remains to be seen.

For Tilikum, the animal at the center of the controversy, his death likely won’t bring the controversy over keeping killer whales in captivity to an end. But for the veterinarians, trainers, and park visitors who have known and loved him for the past two decades, ethical questions about his treatment don’t matter. They’re just sad to see their “Friend” dying.

Do you believe it’s OK to keep killer whales like Tilikum in captivity? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images]