Where were the so-called “animal rights” crusaders, so abundant on Twitter and Facebook, when J-34 was suffering? Why is the death of a geriatric, professionally cared for animal a national ignition point, but the slow and steady destruction of a group of wild whales a special interest story?
- Erin McKinney
Earlier this month, the world's most famous (and infamous) orca passed away at SeaWorld San Diego. Tilikum had lived at the park for 33 of his 36 or so years, but was best known for his fatal attack on a trainer, which resulted in the controversial documentary (if you want to call it that) Blackfish and the eventually fading out of SeaWorld's orca program.
Photo Credit: National Geographic
Tilikum always posed something on a conundrum to me. I'm sure that his caretakers miss him terribly - he had, after all, been a fixture at the park for decades (longer than some of his trainers have been alive, I suspect) and was, by all accounts, an exceptionally intelligent and charismatic animal. Take the picture above, for example. I've seen it several times, and have always loved it. It's like the SeaWorld team is having a staff meeting, which they are holding at the edge of the tank so Tilikum can participate. He looks like he's listening in intently, waiting politely for a break in the conversation so that he can chime in and make a point.
On the other hand, there's the whole killing-his-trainer deal. Tilikum is not the first captive animal to take a human life and then spend several more years in the care of people. I just can't imagine what it would be like, though, if a big cat or bear that I worked with took the life of a coworker (especially a friend), and then I spent the next several years working alongside that same animal. I think I'd find it fairly haunting.
The reaction of Tilikum's death after long illness (he was a respectable age for an orca) has been predictable. Sorrow and condolences from some, snark and bitterness and accusations from others. I personally feel like the SeaWorld team has shown tremendous integrity and openness is dealing with Tilikum's medical history over the past several months, knowing that no matter what they do, there's a certain set of the population which will revile them. Few things are harder than losing a beloved animal companion, but you can always count on PETA to help make it worse.
As a final thought, I wanted to share this excellent article that I found, contrasting Tilikum's passing with the recent death of another orca. What it says about our comparative reactions, I think, explains a lot about why so many species are circling the drain while we all sit and point fingers.
Rest in Peace, Tilikum. Thoughts and well-wishes to those who knew him and cared for him.