SeaWorld's prized and controversial killer whale, Tilikum, died this morning after after a prolonged battle with a bacterial infection. He was estimated to be around 36 years old. The world he leaves will never look at another killer whale the same way again.
At SeaWorld and beyond, Tilikum was the stuff of legend. He captured the eyes of a nation in 2010 when he killed his trainer, and he captured its heart when he starred in the eye-opening documentary "Blackfish." He became a worldwide symbol of the elegance and violence that dwells inside every killer whale, and how those traits can be addled in a tank.
In his 25 years at SeaWorld, Tilikum scarred public perceptions of killer whales after he was linked to the deaths of three people. The most notable, of course, was his trainer Dawn Brancheau, whom Tilikum pulled into the water and violently killed during a live show.
That fateful encounter inspired "Blackfish," which explored Tilikum's fraught history and the complications of keeping an animal so intelligent and so powerful in captivity — in other words, what happens when humans try to control what they cannot control.
Tilikum became both villain and victim — a wild animal that never wanted captivity and could not handle its bounds. The film chronicled Tilikum's history of violence and the mental anguish that captivity seemed to have brought him. In the eyes of Ric O'Barry, a marine mammal trainer who starred in "The Cove": "They're bored. We literally bore them to death. It's like you living in the bathroom for your life."
Tilikum, through "Blackfish," catapulted a national movement against the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity. The galvanized protesters led to SeaWorld finally ending its captive breeding program, though the park will still retain its current killer whales.
The exceptionally virile Tilikum was an invaluable part of that program, siring at least 21 calves in his life at the park.
Tilikum dies at 36 — old for a killer whale living in captivity, but 15 or so years younger than the average lifespan of a male orca in the wild.
“Tilikum 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. My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family," Joel Manby, SeaWorld's president and CEO, said in a statement.
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