Blackfish's Orca Tilikum Has Died

Update (6/1/2017): Tilikum, the orca at the centre of the eye-opening 2013 documentary Blackfish has died “surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians” SeaWorld said in a statement.

The killer whale, who was part of the SeaWorld marine park for 25 years, died early this morning, and the "SeaWorld family is deeply saddened" by the death.

While the cause of death is not yet known, SeaWorld says its "veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection."

 

“Tilikum’s veterinarians and caretakers delivered various treatment regimens over the course of this illness, which consisted of, among other things, combinations of anti-inflammatories, anti-bacterials, anti-nausea medications, hydration therapy and aerosolized antimicrobial therapy.”

 

The CEO and president of SeaWorld Joel Manby said:

 

“Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired."

 

He also said his “heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family."

The loss will be a sad one for many who watched the documentary and learned about the devastating effects of captivity on marine mammals.

Original article (9/3/2016): It's been three years since the documentary Blackfish was released, but the world has not forgotten about Tilikum, the killer orca responsible for three people's death, who is now on his deathbed.

The 34-year-old male orca has been in captivity at SeaWorld for the past 23 years. He was born in the wild and caught somewhere off the coast of Iceland in 1983, and it look like his miserable life is coming to a close. This week, SeaWorld released a statement on their SeaWorldCares website saying that their veterinary teams "are concerned that his health is beginning to deteriorate," due to chronic health issues.

Animal care teams and specialised veterinarians are treating Tilikum for a possible bacterial infection discovered in his lungs that has caused the orca's behaviour to destabilise and become lethargic over recent weeks.

On Tuesday, SeaWorld released a video of Tilikum and his trainers, as well as veterinarians discussing his declining respiratory condition and the antibiotics and antifungals they feed him daily in fish. 

"I wish I could say I was tremendously optimistic about Tilikum and his future," veterinarian Dr Scott Gearhart says in the video. "But, he has a disease which is chronic and progressive, and at some point might cause his death. We have not found a cure for this disease at this point." Whether or not he would have gotten this disease in the wild, however, is an entirely different matter.

Many have pointed out that this is the same cause of death of Unna, an orca also living in captivity at SeaWorld when she died in December 2015 after suffering "from a resistant strain of a fungus called Candida." Tilikum's death would mark a depressing streak for the embattled company, which saw three whales die in captivity in 2015 alone — all at SeaWorld San Antonio.

SeaWorld notes the male orca is on the high end of the life span spectrum for male whales, but as The Dodo suggests, the organisation has inaccurately reported life expectancy of whales held in captivity on its website before, citing a parallel study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says male orcas such as Tilikum typically live 30 to 50 years, and as much as 70 years in the wild. Orcas that have died at SeaWorld, however, have only lived 13 years on average, according to PETA’s website SeaWorldofHurt.

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk did not hold back on lambasting the company, warning that Tilikum's "blood will be on SeaWorld’s hands and on the walls of his miserable concrete prison tank.”

“The sickness at SeaWorld is with its management, which has deliberately caused Tilikum…to suffer immensely by confining him to a small concrete tank for decades, causing him to succumb to mental illness that has resulted in aggression and now to some incurable illness,” Newkirk said in a statement that called for SeaWorld to release orcas to marine sanctuaries that offer more room for them to swim.

Tilikum the killer

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau (Photo: AP)

The 2013 documentary sparked much debate over the company's mistreatment of its animals, as well as it being a dangerous workplace for its trainers - two of whom were killed by Tilikum.  

In 2010, he killed trainer Dawn Brancheau during a training session by grabbing her by the arm and drowning her. Previously, another one of Tilikum’s trainers was killed in a similar method at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, and in 1999, a man who snuck into SeaWorld after hours was found dead in Tilikum’s tank.

The deaths, as well as the many complications that arise when orcas are kept in captivity, are explored in Blackfish. The documentary in fact speculates that, as with most animals in captivity, the orca went psychotic after being held in captivity for so long - hence what caused Tilikum to become so aggressive.

After the documentary’s release, several entertainers pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks, Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year marketing partnership with the theme park company, and the park saw a significant drop in numbers, as well as a California ban on breeding any more killer whales . SeaWorld San Diego had to ultimately stop its Orca shows altogether.

The news about Tilikum's poor health, and imminent death, is simply the last in a series of truly disheartening events regarding sea theme parks, and the lives of the orcas kept captive in them.

However long he has left to live, we hope he spends his last days as content as possible.

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