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Tilikum’s Death Reminder of Problems Keeping Orcas in Captivity

Tilikum, the orca who died late last week, lived most of his life at SeaWorld. (Christian Benseler)
Tilikum, the orca who died late last week, lived most of his life at SeaWorld. (Christian Benseler)
January 9, 2017

SAN DIEGO -- Animal welfare advocates are calling for full public access to the official cause-of-death report in the passing of one of SeaWorld's oldest and most infamous orca whales, Tilikum, who died on Friday.

Over the years, Tilikum was linked to the deaths of two trainers and one trespasser, and his life in captivity was the subject of the controversial 2013 documentary, "Blackfish". SeaWorld said he had been ailing, but Dr. Naomi Rose, an orca biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said Tilikum's life in a tank was doomed long ago.

"Tilikum has been dying, if you will, for quite some time - years really, when you look at it that way,” Rose said. "He's definitely broken some records in terms of longevity in captivity. And so, in one sense, it should have been totally expected, but still was a shock."

A statement from SeaWorld said, "Tilikum passed away ... surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians that provided him around-the-clock, world-class care.”

But Rose said no amount of care could make up for the animal being kept in a facility only a fraction of his natural habitat. Orcas in the wild often live to age 70; Tilikum, who lived longer than many in captivity, was only around 36.

Rose said orcas and certain other large, wide-ranging carnivores - such as polar bears and big cats - are ill-suited to captivity. She said the natural pattern for ocas is to travel over thousands of miles.

"SeaWorld's whole complex is less than .0001 of a percent the size of the natural home range,” she said. “And when you put them in that kind of space, it's harmful to them. It's harmful to them physically, and it's harmful to them psychologically."

Rose said that one of Tilikum's lasting legacies is that trainers no longer do "water work,” that is, they don’t get into the water with the orcas. But she said she would like to see a paradigm shift away from treating these complex and majestic creatures like circus acts.

"Public display of these animals, keeping them in captivity, is part of the problem, not the solution, when it comes to their conservation,” Rose said.

SeaWorld said Tilikum was being treated for a bacterial lung infection, but an official cause of death is pending.

A full statement from the Animal Welfare Institute on Tilikum's death is available here.

Logan Pollard, Public News Service - CA