Tilikum died from a bacterial lung infection on January 6, 2017 at Seaworld. He was about thirty-five years old, weighing 12,500 pounds and stretching over twenty-two feet in length. This whale was the “star” of the documentary Blackfish which largely influenced the public against keeping killer whales in captivity. Before arriving at Seaworld, he was captured from his family at the age of two near Iceland and was taken to Sealand. While he was held there in captivity, he killed a trainer. This caused Sealand to close, so Tilikum was moved to Seaworld.

He became responsible for two more deaths: a man who broke into Seaworld and the experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau. She was drowned and also suffered trauma. Handling Tilikum and other whales in captivity was a risk for everyone, regardless of experience. Tim Zimmermann, associate producer and co-writer of Blackfish, said “It was Tilikum’s circumstances, not Tilikum himself, that killed Brancheau.” Even Brancheau’s friends and other trainers said they wanted Tilikum to be treated with respect, and not as a monster. This death and the release of Blackfish led to the decision in 2016 to end Seaworld’s orca breeding program and entertainment shows. Also, attendance at Seaworld has plummeted and SouthWest Airlines are no longer partnered with the company. 

Tilikum was never given the chance to live his life in the ocean alongside his family. Perhaps he would have lived longer, since according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average lifespan of orcas in the wild is between thirty and sixty years. However, in captivity, a long life for in orca is twenty years. One reason for this could be difficult adjustment from swimming a hundred miles per day to the confinement of a twenty by thirty foot pool. Fifty-eight orcas are still held in captivity in marine parks worldwide. Protesting and raising awareness had a large impact on Seaworld. Tilikum’s death should lead to more resistance against the captivity of these remaining orcas. 

At The Ellis School, I started the club Animal Human Alliance, where students are free to share their opinions on animal rights issues and plan how to take action. Currently, we are watching Blackfish. This documentary is one example of effective protest. There are many other causes which need our support, so educating ourselves and advocating to others is the first step to making a difference in the lives of animals.