On the 6th of January, the largest orca in captivity died. He was 35 years old, and his name was Tilikum. Animal-rights activists around the world knew of Tilikum, because he was no ordinary orca. His life brought to light the dark, cruel, dangerous underbelly of the SeaWorld Corporation, and the inhumane global practice of marine captivity.
His early life
At the age of two, Tilikum was captured in Icelandic waters. He was violently removed from his pod, literally from his mother’s side. (After he was taken, she reportedly swam for miles behind the boat that had captured him.)
He was then kept in a tiny pen with two other baby orcas for a year, before being sold to Sealand in Canada.
Here, he was kept in a tank with two dominant female Pacific Northwest orcas, with whom he couldn’t communicate, and who harmed him regularly.
Tilikum was forced to perform eight shows a day, seven days a week, and when he didn’t perform to his trainers’ satisfaction, food was withheld – from him, and from his fellow captives, which led to more bullying.
One day in 1991, Tilikum and the two female orcas tragically killed one of their trainers. It was the first time in history that a human had been killed by an orca. After Sealand closed its doors, Tilikum was quickly sold to SeaWorld, despite the fact that he exhibited signs of dangerous stress levels and severe mental and emotional problems – and had killed a person.
Tilikum, as the largest orca in captivity, was extremely valuable to the SeaWorld captive breeding programme, and 54% of their orcas now have his genes. He lived and performed at SeaWorld for 21 years – and killed two more trainers in that time.
The last trainer to be killed, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010, caused a media sensation both because she was one of SeaWorld’s most experienced, most cautious trainers, and because of the brutal way in which she was killed.
Following Dawn’s death, SeaWorld kept Tilikum in an isolation tank so small he could barely turn around in it. He stayed there for a year. And then returned to performing.
In a statement released last year, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum’s health was failing due to his “old age”. But in the wild, male orcas live at least to the age of 70, and Tilikum was only 35.
But his 33 years in inhumane conditions in captivity had taken their toll, and he finally passed away in early January.
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