ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tilikum the orca has died after more than two
decades at SeaWorld Orlando, where he gained notoriety for killing a
trainer in 2010 and was later profiled in a documentary that helped sway
popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity.
World officials said Friday that Tilikum died but didn't give a cause of
death. In a statement, they said Tilikum had faced serious health
issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection.
He was estimated to be 36 years old. A necropsy will be performed.
2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during a performance with
Tilikum after a "Dine with Shamu" show shocked the public and changed
the future of orcas at SeaWorld parks.
Brancheau was interacting
with Tilikum before a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando when he pulled
her from a platform by her arm and held her underwater. An autopsy
report said Brancheau drowned but also suffered severe trauma, including
SeaWorld Entertainment officials announced in
March 2016 that the tourist attraction would end its orca breeding
program and theatrical shows involving killer whales.
breeding program continued, Tilikum was SeaWorld's most prolific male
orca, siring 14 calves. He arrived at the park about 25 years ago.
had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the
SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world
that he inspired," SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby said. "My heart
goes out to our team who cared for him like family."
Tilikum was noticeable for his size at more than 22 feet and 11,800 pounds.
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights advocates
have argued for years that SeaWorld's orcas and other marine mammals
should be released into sea pens or coastal sanctuaries. Outside
SeaWorld parks, the animals could "spend the rest of their lives in as
natural a setting as possible, which, contrary to the company's greedy
claims, is both reasonable and achievable," PETA Senior Vice President
Lisa Lange said in a statement.
Others found something worthwhile in Tilikum's time at SeaWorld.
saw an animal that was socializing with other animals and interacting
with his trainers, and he was just an impressive animal," said Grey
Stafford, president of the International Marine Trainers' Association.
He's also a former SeaWorld employee, though he never worked with
Tilikum. "We lost a great ambassador today and, yes, his tale is
complicated, but that doesn't mean he didn't deserve our love and
Tilikum was born off the waters of Iceland and moved to
Sealand of the Pacific in Canada after being captured. While at Sealand
in 1992, Tilikum and two female orcas were responsible for the death of a
part-time trainer who fell into their pool and was submerged by them.
Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld Orlando a short time later, and Sealand later closed.
decision to end the SeaWorld breeding program and theatrical shows came
six years after Brancheau's death and three years after the release of
the documentary, "Blackfish," which chronicled Tilikum's life and
Her death was not the only one linked to
Tillikum at SeaWorld. In 1999, a naked man who had eluded security and
sneaked into SeaWorld at night was found dead the next morning draped
over Tilikum in a breeding tank in the back of Shamu Stadium.
"Blackfish" documentary argued that killer whales in captivity become
more aggressive toward humans and each other. After the documentary
played at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on CNN, several
entertainers pulled out of planned SeaWorld performances and animal
rights activists increased their demonstrations outside the parks.
attendance dipped, company profits fell and Southwest Airlines ended
its 25-year relationship with the theme park company.
Cowperthaite, who directed "Blackfish," told The Associated Press in an
email that it's time to focus on other whales in captivity. She called
it "a model where no one wins."
"Tilikum's life was so incredibly
tragic. He lived a horrible life, he caused unspeakable pain, so at
least his chapter is over," Cowperthaite said.
SeaWorld's CEO acknowledged that the public's attitude had changed about
keeping killer whales captive and that the company would end its orca
"We needed to move where society was moving," Manby said.
death was another blow for SeaWorld employees and supporters already
reeling from job cuts announced last month across SeaWorld Entertainment
Inc.'s 12-park system. Stafford said the loss of staff who cared for
captive marine mammals may inadvertently weaken other conservation
efforts, such as a captive breeding program proposed for endangered
porpoises called vaquitas in the waters off Mexico.
"That human experience isn't likely to be replaced," Stafford said.