On hearing that Tilikum was dying I would never have imagined that his death would hit me this hard.
I knew Tilikum from the moment he arrived in Victoria, BC, in 1984; until the day he was shipped to SeaWorld Florida, in 1992. It's been twenty four years since I last saw him and in all honesty, until Feb. 2010, I hadn't thought about him much at all.
It was the death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific that led to my losing touch with Tilikum. It was SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau's death that reconnected me with him 18 years later.
On Feb. 24th 2010, a local journalist contacted me saying that a SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, had died at SeaWorld, Florida... killed by Tilikum. I was taken off guard and my comment was: "I'm surprised it happened again. Tilikum was a well-behaved and balanced animal." "It was my understanding that Tilikum would never do shows with trainers in the water." When asked what I thought may have happened, I speculated that it must have been excited, play behaviour; a repeat of the accident in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific, in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Some days later, witness reports came out, describing how Tilikum had killed Dawn Brancheau. There was no semblance of play, it was brutally aggressive. How could this be? The Tilikum I knew was passive, playful and eager to interact with people.
SeaWorld are the self-proclaimed experts on captive killer whales care. Why had they allowed Tilikum's mental health to deteriorate to such an extent that he would brutalize a person with whom he was so very familiar. His aggressive behaviour towards Dawn was unfathomable.
What had changed Tilikum? There could be only one answer... life in captivity.
As the years of confinement, boredom and frustration wore on, it seems that Tilikum just gave up, and lost interest in life. In his final years, he would spend most of his days languishing in one spot or drifting listlessly around his confines. A few times each day he was encouraged to activity, in order to earn his next meal.
It's not unexpected that his body would inevitably succumb to disease. Any animal that spends all its days lying around, under stimulated and deprived of physical challenge, will suffer poor health and susceptibility to disease.
The chronic stress, frustration and physical inactivity will have suppressed Tilikum's immune system. Few killer whales have been able to survive in captivity as long as he and it's a great wonder that Tilli lived as long as he did.
SeaWorld will make an exaggerated claim that Tilikum had lived the "average" lifespan for killer whales in the wild. However, Tilikum's longevity in captivity is proof that he wasn't an average killer whale and it's known that males can live to an estimated 60 years of age in the wild.
Would he still be a healthy, vital and thriving animal if he was never taken from his natural environment? There's no doubt in my mind that he would.
No amount of SeaWorld's "enrichment" and care, can replicate life in the wild where each day, each moment, is different from the one before.
Life in captivity stole Tilikum's health and warped his mind.
He was no ambassador for his species, no willing subject of research. For SeaWorld, Tilikum was a showpiece that attracted dollars to the front gate. He was masturbated for his off-spring to propagate magnificent animals that, through successive generations of captivity, have lost much of their natural abilities and vitality.
I need to believe that the tragic story of Tilikum's life has fostered a legacy of realization in the harm we are doing by depriving killer whales of a life that is so much less than what they deserve.
Personally, I still struggle with guilt about the part I played and I have been forever altered by the tragedy of his life. For myself, and so many others, Tilikum has become an icon and an inspiration.
Let this be Tilikum's legacy:
That he inspired empathy, fostered change and led us to the understanding that by keeping killer whales in captivity, we are: loving them to death.