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Tilikum is dead, but his story lives on

As I sit down to write this column, news is flooding in about the death of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s most notorious killer whale.

The cause of death is yet to be released. But it is known that Tilikum was being treated for a complicated bacterial lung infection. An announcement sent out by SeaWorld stated Tilikum died surrounded by trainers, care staff and veterinarians. His estimated age was 36 years old.

Social media has exploded with the news, and the overall mood over Tilikum’s death seems to be glum relief. As a whale who was separated from his family in 1983 and since been held in captivity at SeaWorld — it’s somewhat a comfort knowing he no longer swims in confinement and performs tricks for Florida tourists.

This is not the first time this orca has made headlines. Many still remember the tragic news in February 2010, when Tilikum killed his longtime trainer, Dawn Brancheau. It marked the third human death Tilikum was involved in since being held captive.

Brancheau had just finished with a Dine with Shamu routine at SeaWorld Orlando and was lying next to Tilikum on a slide-out in the pool with her face close to his before he pulled her into the water, and she drowned. There were about a dozen witnesses. Some claimed they had saw Tilikum pull Brancheau in by her arm, while others declared he had pulled her ponytail.

Following the catastrophic death, SeaWorld struggled to come up with an explanation behind Tilikum’s actions. It had to be a good one because Brancheau was their poster girl for SeaWorld — a trainer who had worked around orcas for 15 years.

Their initial explanation was that she slipped and fell into the pool. But when witnesses cried that wasn’t what they saw, SeaWorld came back with an alternative report that Tilikum had grabbed Brancheau’s ponytail and pulled her into the pool.

This theory didn’t settle well with some. Particularly documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who three years later released her controversial film, “Blackfish.” Her story centered around Tilikum, who was brought to SeaWorld and shaped into a performer for demanding audiences.

The film pushed the idea that Brancheau’s death came as a consequence of keeping orcas in captivity. It highlighted aggression shown by killer whales when they are kept in confinement or are in a state of stress from being separated from their families.

“Blackfish” was well received by the general public. It earned over $2 million at the box office and was nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award.

Of course, SeaWorld fired back at the film and argued points presented in its story. About a year after “Blackfish” was released, the family and foundation of Brancheau also came out and said they did not believe the documentary accurately reflected her experiences.

Despite this back lash, the film brought awareness to the treatment of orcas living in captivity and allowed us to question these ethics. Just months after the film was released, SeaWorld’s visiting numbers dipped. And it wasn’t too soon later their profits followed the same trend.

With this new reality in the laps of SeaWorld bigwigs, they made the ultimate decision last year to stop breeding orca whales in captivity.

With 23 orcas still in its U.S. parks, SeaWorld plans to renovate its pools to resemble more habitual settings for the whales. It will also do away with its circus-like shows and offer natural whale experiences for its audiences.

Though Tilikum lived his life, for the most part, in isolation, his story has allowed meaningful change for the future of not just whales, but all captive wild animals. Even in death he will serve as a reminder why undomesticated animals should be explored in their habitats, rather than confined spaces.

Shaw Media Staff Writer Goldie Rapp can be reached at grapp@bcrnews.com.

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