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Monday, January 9, 2017

A Farewell to Tilikum

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.

Deceased J34 – image via CBC


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  2. It's very sad regarding Tilikum. Thank you for sharing the article about J-34, the wild orca. As you say, the deaths of wild animals unfortunately do not make the headlines, for obvious reasons. Tilikum was at SeaWorld and SeaWorld has been in the news recently for various reasons. The trainers at SeaWorld are, I'm sure, intelligent people, yet they continue to support the entertainment industry that is SeaWorld by training animals to perform tricks. I'm glad this form of entertainment is fading out. That's all it is - tricks and entertainment, to make money. You say you love the photo of Tilikum "listening" to the staff meeting. Do you honestly think that's what he was doing? I'm sorry, but it's a sad image. Look at his collapsed dorsal fin - a sure sign he was not a happy Orca. His tank was far too small for his immense size. May he rest in peace and swim far and free in Orca heaven.

    1. A collapsed dorsal fin in not a sign of depression in orcas, nor is it a sign of poor health. It's a side-effect of orcas spending more time at the surface; without the pressure of the water to keep the dorsal fin upright, it flops over (this has been observed in wild orcas as well as captives). To say that SeaWorld is all about making money is to ignore the thousands of animals that have been rehabilitated and released by their rescue team, the research that they've done which has gone on to benefit wild orcas, and the great sums of money they've poured into wildlife conservation. As far as I'm concerned, the only sad image up here is the one that shows a very dead orca.