captivity

07 Jan Tribute to Tilikum

A life well lived… Isn’t that the finest epitaph anyone can wish for? In the case of Granny (J2), beloved matriarch of the endangered Southern Resident population, that is indeed the case. In the first week of January 2017, as we learned of Granny’s passing, the loss of another high profile orca, Tilikum (Chinook tribal language for ‘friend’) also made headline news. But while Granny’s 105-year-old lifespan was spent in the wild, Tilikum’s fate has been of a much darker kind.

Brutally torn from his family off Iceland as a 2-year-old in 1983, after a year’s confinement in a holding tank Tilikum was sold to the now defunct Sealand of the Pacific, Victoria, British Columbia. Bullying by two dominant female orcas in a concrete tank replaced swimming in his mother’s slipstream in the open ocean; begging for a meal of dead fish after performing a trick (or being deprived of food if he did not co-operate) replaced hunting for live prey. Granny, too, was captured more than once, but she was not one of those orcas selected for dispatch to marine parks around the world.

Following trainer Keltie Byrne’s death at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991,Tilikum, branded a dangerous commodity, was sold to SeaWorld, Orlando, where he would endure more bullying from other orcas. With his flopped over dorsal fin, the classic hallmark sign of orcas in captivity, and his broken, drilled teeth, Tilikum continued to perform for a voracious, thrill-seeking public, oblivious to the pain behind the pleading eyes of the ocean’s top predator rendered helpless by enslavement.

With two more deaths to his name, namely Daniel Dukes in 1999 and trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Tilikum was relegated to spend much of his time in E pool, where he often lay motionless at the surface for hours. Yet he still represented a valuable investment to SeaWorld, worth more alive than dead. His future would be that of a sperm bank to perpetuate the ongoing reproduction of captive orcas.

After months of varying reports on Tilikum’s health, he has succumbed to eternity. But despite his long-term suffering, Tilikum’s life has not been in vain… His tragic plight, along with the death of Dawn Brancheau, spawned the haunting documentary film ‘Blackfish’ which revealed the stark truth about the cruelty of captivity. SeaWorld, the corporate entity which used and abused Tilikum, watched helplessly as a shocked public turned their backs on the Shamu show and profits fell, spiralling into a black and bottomless abyss. In 2016 they announced there would be no more captive orca breeding.

This, in addition to the banning by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) of trainers in the water performing degrading stunts riding on the backs of orcas and rocket-hopping from their rostrums, is Tilikum’s legacy. If he sought revenge, he has had it. May he, as Granny did in her lifetime, now swim free.

Sandra Pollard
WCA Individual Partner (USA)

Author of –
Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight to End Orca Hunting
(The History Press)