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Can SeaWorld Free Tilly?

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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)

While there is no doubt that these animals have advanced brains and memories, one must wonder how much of his life in the open ocean Tilikum remembers. At about 34 years old, Tilikum is very old by captivity standards (the oldest male to survive living in captivity is Ulises, who is still alive and estimated to be 37) and getting up in age by wild standards (the oldest male in the southern resident population was J1 Ruffles, who died in 2010 when he was an estimated 60 years old). Is it possible for an animal so far removed from their natural habitat for so long to regain their freedom?

Tilikum's personality and past are also major factors. Some call his logging at the surface and unwillingness to perform shows lazy, others say it is depression. It is hard to know for sure. However, it makes you wonder if he would be willing and able to grasp the concepts that would need to be retaught to him in order for him to live a healthy, happy life in the wild.

As an orca involved in the deaths of three people, it is almost impossible to ignore the possibility of a human getting hurt with him in the wild. How can anyone know how he might react to someone he comes across? Every person to enter his tank did not leave it alive. Would he seek out humans like Keiko did? Or would he avoid them altogether? And what about the safety of Tilikum? If there is a killer whale out there that people know has proved to be lethal in the past, what is to stop someone from hurting or killing him?

It is impossible to know what would happen if Tilikum were to be released, but it is important to realize that these factors and many more need to be considered before terms such as "Free Tilly" can be effectively used as slogans for the anti-captivity movement. It appears that a larger tank or a sea pen may be the best future in store for this abused and lonely whale. Now for the biggest question of all: is SeaWorld willing to give him that chance?