Since the very beginning, when as a two-year-old calf orca he was taken away from his family his life was ill fated. The bull orca was captured at Hafnarfjörður near Reykjavík in Iceland in 1983, picked out from his family because of his young and promising age. His might-have-been future of learning the culture and social interaction with his pod was abruptly and cruelly ripped away from him.
The following year, the orca was transferred to Sealand, an aquatic park in Victoria, British Columbia. This is where he was given the name Tilikum, which means “friend” and “welcome” in Chinook. The killer whale was anything but welcomed in his new life. Throughout his training, he was placed in the same under-sized pool as a trained female orca, and his training consisted of following the example of the female and learning from her tricks to be fed and to satisfy human amusement. He was brutally bullied by the female and until he achieved the tricks properly, food was withheld from him.
The ensemble of pressure, sensory and social deprivation, and abusive imprisonment would be the foundation of Tilly’s future. In 1991, the first death at a marine park ever occurred. Tilikum pulled a trainer, named Keltie Byrne, into the pool along with two other female orcas and repeatedly submerged her and bit off her arm. To this day, there is no record of an orca ever causing harm on a human when in the wild. This just goes to prove the degree of psychological torment and frustration that the animals endure in confined concrete pools that they can never escape from during the entire tormented lives. The park was then forced to sell Tilikum and the two other females involved in the attack before the park closed its doors.
Enter Tilikum’s second marine park: Seaworld Orlando, Florida. Seaworld knew about the attack and yet bought Tilikum, who was worth millions of dollars at the time. They didn’t just buy Tilikum for his splashing around to amuse us, though. No, they bought him because they needed a breeder. So, not only did they buy in an extra show attraction, they also used him as an extensive breeding bull. Seaworld’s plan worked as 54% of the orcas in the Orlando park today contain Tilikum’s genes.
During his time in Seaworld, Tilikum was basically squeezed in the same concrete confined space as the females, whereas in the wild, swimming freely, male orcas always keep the perimetre of the pod, as protection for the females and calves. This went against the killer whale system, as they are known to be peaceful and communicative in the wild. This frustration and stress led to a second killing on July 5th 1999. Tilikum was found that morning with the bleeding body of Daniel Duke draped over his back and only a decade later, Tilikum pulled a senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau, killing her in front of a crowd who had paid for a show.
Even after three incidents, Seaworld covered up every single death so that it was never Tilikum’s fault. All of this just so they could keep their orcas in captivity to continue maximizing their annual turnover. It was nothing personal, just business.
Tilikum is only one example of many cases like his, but his time in captivity is what makes him stand out. As Ric O’Barry, the Founder and Director of Dolphin Project, stated: “ Tilikum is a symbol to me. His life was a microcosm of what’s killing the planet: International corporate greed.” Tilikum was held in captivity for over three decades, and was not even given the opportunity to live his final days in an ocean pen, which would have allowed him to almost live as any orca should: free in its habitat.
It should not be morally acceptable for calves to be captured from their mothers, much less for them to be paraded around for our amusement. They deserve a life unbound by our desires of enjoyment. They deserve to live as a family with no barriers to stop them. They deserve freedom.