The phrase "Free Tilly" has gained immense popularity since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The film centers around Tilikum, an Icelandic male orca who was captured in 1983 at about two years old. However, when we take a step back from the film and do more research a very important question arises: can we free Tilikum?
The 12,000 pound bull first gained notoriety when he and his two female tank mates Nootka IV and Haida II (both deceased) were responsible for the death of 20 year old Keltie Byrne. While it has never been clear who orchestrated the attack, all three whales had a hand in keeping the swimmer in the water until she drowned. Two more deaths, much more violent than Byrne's, would be attributed to Tilikum in the years to come. The most famous being senior trainer Dawn Brancheau who was pulled into the water and brutalized by the black and white giant.
Freedom advocates believe that freeing Tilikum should be as "simple" as the rehab and release of Keiko (best known as Willy in the Free Willy films), another Icelandic whale who was caught at a very early age. However, there are some key differences in these two whales which make them and their chances vastly different.
One thing you might notice if you have the chance to see Tilikum with his mouth open is that he has almost no teeth left, and the teeth that he does have are drilled. Not only could this make it more difficult for him to successfully hunt in the wild, but the exposed pulp in Tilikum's teeth open him up to many health problems. The most worrisome of all is septicemia, which caused the death of the original Baby Shamu, Kalina. It is because of this that the whales at SeaWorld have their teeth flushed daily.
(Photo: Kim Chapman)