Tilikum ‘Increasingly Lethargic’: What Will His Death Mean For Orcas?

Tilikum, the notorious killer whale and star of the documentary film Blackfish, is having some bad days.

Tilikum’s health has been deteriorating due to an incurable bacterial infection in his lungs. The orca’s illness was announced by SeaWorld in early March.

On Tuesday, SeaWorld published an update saying that over the past week, Tilikum has become “increasingly lethargic.”

Tilikum is 22 feet long, weighs around 12,000 pounds, and is estimated to be about 35 years old, which, SeaWorld claims, “is near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales.”

However, according to the Center For Whale Research, the lifespan of a killer whale depends upon its lifestyle.

“Male orcas in the wild live 29 years on average, with a maximum of 50–60 years.

“A captive orca’s lifespan is typically much shorter, often by 25 years or more.”

According to a Monday update by SeaWorld’s Director of Animal Training Kelly Flaherty-Clark, Tilikum is being kept in the medical pool where he can be monitored.

“As we’ve noted from the onset, Tilikum has some good days and some not so good days. He recently had a few of the not so good days in succession. Over the weekend and today his appetite improved a good deal, and we are encouraged by his increased engagement with trainers.”

SeaWorld maintains that “Like many older animals facing significant health issues, his condition may continue to fluctuate.”

Trainer John Hargrove, who worked with orcas at SeaWorld for 12 years, told National Geographic that the announcement likely means Tilikum’s days are nearing an end.

“Historically, we never put out that kind of stuff unless we were pretty sure they are going to die.”

SeaWorld acknowledged that the updates were due to numerous inquiries from the public about Tilikum’s welfare.

Despite the fact that the orca violently killed his trainer and two other people, the general public seems to feel an almost unanimous combination of sympathy and affection for him. As Tim Zimmerman, producer for the movie Blackfish, explained, “Tilikum so touched our empathy that few in the public, and few on the staff at SeaWorld, could direct anger and blame at him for the death of Brancheau, a gloriously charismatic and well-liked trainer.

“It was as if everyone understood deep down that it was Tilikum’s circumstances, not Tilikum himself, that killed Brancheau.

“John Hargrove, who was a senior trainer at SeaWorld Texas when Brancheau died, says that most trainers, including some of Brancheau’s closest friends, did everything they could to care for Tilikum after the incident: ‘We did feel sorry for Tilikum, because we knew his life would be drastically changed forever. That he would become more isolated, with less contact and connection. We wanted him to be treated with dignity and respect on a daily basis, and not as a monster.'”

Indeed, the director of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, said that she began the project with a deep-seated fear of the whale.

“Tilikum’s life was the subject of Blackfish, but when I began the film, I was terrified of him. I had nightmares about him. It was only when I learned about his capture, his life in captivity, that I began to understand the depth of this tragedy on so many levels.”

Tilikum swam with a pod of deeply interconnected family members in Iceland, hunting herring until he was netted at two years old, still a very dependent juvenile at that age.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins, said that wild orca capture efforts shifted to Iceland and the North Atlantic after they were outlawed in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s.

“(Tilikum) is among sad company in those captures, which included Keiko, who was returned to his home waters after years of effort – the first captive orca to be rehabilitated and released.”

@SeaWorld Tilikum is in the pool at the bottom left (The smaller white cover) and you call that world class care? pic.twitter.com/qhhJiWX7c2
— Save The Orcas (@Save_the_Orcas1) April 19, 2016

Since Tilikum’s capture, he has lived a life of bullying by other whales, adopting neurotic habits like chewing on the metal bars of his cement pool and floating passively in the tank for long periods.

In March, the Inquisitr covered an exclusive story about Munchkin, Inc., offering to front the expense of a sea pen for Tilikum and other whales. But due to various reasons including a considerable amount of what some say is bureaucratic red tape, the endeavor never took place.

As Zimmerman wrote,

“Instead of the iconic, happy killer whale celebrated by SeaWorld and its fans for five decades, Tilikum demanded the world confront his reality, Shamu’s reality, which involved separation from family, confinement, boredom, chronic disease, aggression among marine park killer whales, and aggression against trainers.”

Tilikum, whose name is Chinook for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people,” has sparked an awakening among the public, a sudden universal understanding of what we have done.

It is too late for Tilikum to have any fate other than his tank. But there are still around 56 known orcas in captivity, including 10 still living of Tilikum’s 21 offspring. What will happen to them?

[Image via Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock]