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Tilikum’s Death and the Future of SeaWorld in 2017

The controversial documentary “Blackfish,” featuring killer whale Tilikum sparked a world-wide discussion on cetacean captivity. Now that Tilikum has died, what’s next for SeaWorld and captive cetaceans in general?

The release of controversial documentary “Blackfish” in 2013 sparked a change in public attitudes towards cetacean captivity. It also triggered a series of major changes at SeaWorld facilities across America. Now Tilikum, the orca at the center of the “Blackfish” story, has died.

Rumors that Tilikum was gravely ill have been circulating for months. Last week, SeaWorld Orlando officials confirmed that the 11,800 pound (5,350 kg) killer whale had finally passed away. Serious health issues including a “persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection” were cited as the cause of death. SeaWorld will not know specifics until after Tilikum’s necropsy.

Who was Tilikum?

Tilikum was 36 years old. He spent 34 of those years in captivity, after being torn from his wild Icelandic family as a two-year-old calf. He was passed from facility to facility, and eventually gained notoriety for his involvement in the deaths of three people. The first was trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991, followed by SeaWorld trespasser Daniel Dukes in 1999. Finally,  Tilikum fatally drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

This history of violence made Tilikum a poster child for the effects of captivity on a cetacean’s mental and physical wellbeing, which “Blackfish” explored in detail. The documentary concluded that the stress of confinement caused Tilikum’s aggressive behavior. We have no known examples of wild orcas ever harming humans, reinforcing this claim.

SeaWorld’s reaction to “Blackfish”

Tilikum’s death elicits mixed emotions. The sadness of his passing is tempered with the consolation that he is now free from the pain and indignity of a life spent as a forced performer and sperm donor. Tilikum was also an unwitting conservation hero. His story helped illuminate the cruelty of keeping intelligent, highly social cetaceans like orcas in captivity. This ultimately sparked a wave of public outrage that drastically affected SeaWorld’s reputation, sales and success.

Between 2014 and 2015, SeaWorld profits dropped by 84 percent. Desperate to regain public favor, the company announced in November 2015 that it would phase out theatrical orca shows at its San Diego theme park by the beginning of 2017. In March of 2016, SeaWorld further attempted to counter the tide of ill-will by announcing the decision to end its captive-orca breeding program.

This means that the 22 orcas currently housed at the SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio represent the company’s last captive orcas. In accordance with their 2015 pledge, SeaWorld San Diego hosted its final One Ocean performance on January 8th, 2017. Orca shows at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio will remain operational until 2019.

SeaWorld goes back on its promise

For the 11 orcas housed at these facilities, the show (and the cruelty) will therefore go on. One of SeaWorld San Antonio’s orcas, Takara, will give birth this spring. This means that in Texas, orca captivity will continue into the next generation. Even at SeaWorld San Diego, the end of the One Ocean show doesn’t mean that the park’s resident orcas will live out their days in quiet retirement.

Instead, the park is launching a new show named Orca Encounter. According to the company, visitors will “witness natural behaviors up close.”

Critics of the company are concerned that these new shows will simply be a repackaging of the old ones. In reality, very little will change for SeaWorld’s captive orcas.

In a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, former SeaWorld trainer and Vice President of Zoological Operations Al Garver stated that “you will still see a whale leaping out of the water. We want to be able to demonstrate behaviors people would see in the wild with killer whales…and most behaviors people have seen in our shows will be very suitable for demonstrating that.”

Tilikum’s legacy

SeaWorld’s new park in Abu Dhabi, however, will open without orcas. Whatever SeaWorld’s future shows look like, the company’s policy changes are irrelevant for orcas at other marine parks around the world. Cetacean captivity is far from a thing of the past. If SeaWorld’s official statement regarding Tilikum’s death is anything to go by, it seems that the company’s habit of purposefully spreading misconceptions is also far from over.

The statement declares that Tilikum lived a “long and enriching life.” But as wild orcas can live to 103 years, 36 years seems paltry in comparison. It is also impossible to label a life of imprisonment as enriching. However, the statement’s claim that Tilikum “inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species” is certainly true, although perhaps not in the way that SeaWorld meant it.

Ultimately, Tilikum’s life and death has inspired people all over the world to seek the truth about cetacean captivity. This truth translates into the public pressure that forced SeaWorld’s recent changes. Only time will tell whether these changes have any real meaning for the company’s current orcas. Whatever the new orca shows look like, however, the end of SeaWorld’s breeding program is proof that Tilikum’s story made a difference.