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Death of SeaWorld’s Tilikum Casts Attention on Plight of Orcas in Captivity

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Death of SeaWorld's Tilikum Casts Attention on Plight of Orcas in Captivity
Tilikum as “Shamu” at SeaWorld Orlando back in May 2009.

When SeaWorld Orlando recently announced that Tilikum died this first week of January, animal advocates heaved a huge sigh of relief.

SeaWorld tweeted that it is “saddened to announce the passing of Tilikum, a beloved member of the SeaWorld family for 25 years.” Animal-loving individuals and organizations tweeted back that the whale was robbed of his freedom, setting off an online argument on how the animal could have lived a better life.

Tilikum is a killer whale that led a tragic life. He passed away due to a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The wide range of treatment using medicines and therapies administered since he became seriously ill several months ago was not enough to save him.

The ill-fated whale was the main subject of the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The film opened the eyes of the general public on the possible reasons why orcas in captivity, particularly Tilikum, exhibited aggressive behavior. The documentary incorporated testimonials by former trainers at SeaWorld, who criticized the park’s practices as harmful for orcas and dangerous for trainers.

Orcas in Captivity

The long-running argument is that animals held captive to perform in shows, such as Tilikum, ended up behaving aggressively because of the stress and trauma the animal they experience. Tilikum caused the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau whom he pulled into his pool. He had been also been involved in two previous deaths.

Holding an animal captive for profit purposes can be quite intrusive and distressing for both trainer and the animal. John Jett was among the  SeaWorld trainers who helped care for Tilikum since his arrival at SeaWorld in 1992.

He related how Tilikum was bullied by the female killer whales, and was subject to the needs of the marine park business. Jett left SeaWorld in 1995 and moved on to become a research professor at Stetson University. He considers Tilikum a tragic figure that endured terror, confusion and stress.

Cognizant of the public outcry over orcas in captivity, SeaWorld has joined an increasing number of industries that have dropped live animal tricks from its entertainment agenda. In the later part of 2015, SeaWorld disclosed plans to end killer-whale shows at its San Diego theme park, and by end of the first quarter of 2016, SeaWorld’s orca breeding program phase-out was announced.

Photo Source: Milan Boers/Flickr

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