Tilikum, the killer whale who killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and inspired the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish, died today at the age of 36. The cause of death has not yet been released, but the orca had been suffering from a treatment-resistant bacterial lung infection since 2015.
Poor Tilikum. He was taken from waters near Iceland in 1983, torn from the other members of his pod (male killer whales typically live their entire lives with their mothers) when he was just two years old. He spent the next year in a cement holding tank in Iceland, while he waited to be transferred to a marine park. Then he spent the rest of his life in tiny pools, doing tricks for food.
The practice of keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity is cruel. Even orcas bred in captivity have existences that bear no semblance of what their normal lives would be if they were free. Orcas are travelers by nature, swimming up to 62 miles a day in the wild.
Then there's the social aspect—like humans, orcas have disproportionately large brains. Their limbic lobes, which in humans is the part of the brain that is "associated with emotional life and behavior as well as the formation of memories," are much more complex than those of humans. Orcas could very well be the most social animals on Earth. Separating them from their families and confining them to what is the equivalent of a bathtub to a human, is barbaric.
The killer whales bred at SeaWorld are routinely moved around, and often taken from their mothers much too young. The groups of animals, forced together, don't always get along with each other in their tiny confines, causing them so much stress they get ulcers.
Dawn Brancheau wasn't the only human whose death was caused by Tilikum—he also killed a trainer named Keltie Byrne in 1991 at when she fell into the pool at Sealand of the Pacific , and a trespasser named Daniel Dukes in 1999, who had climbed into his tank at SeaWorld after the park had closed for the night.
It's worth noting that, according to marine biologist Nancy Black, there has never been an instance of an orca killing a human in the world. It's also worth noting that, despite his propensity towards aggression, 54 percent of the whales owned by SeaWorld have Tilikum's genes, according to Peta2.
Finally, poor Tili is free. It's just too bad it had to end for him like this, instead of in a safe ocean pen where he could still be fed by the humans who'd trapped him so many years ago, while enjoying at least a semblance of a normal ocean life.
If you want to find out more about killer whales (and about why keeping them in captivity is abominable), check out David Kirby's excellent book, Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.