Chewed on steel gates in between killing three people
ORLANDO, Florida––Tilikum, 36, the most notorious of orca whales, died at SeaWorld Orlando early on January 6, 2016 “surrounded by trainers, care staff and veterinarians,” SeaWorld said in a prepared statement.
The death of Tilikum leaves SeaWorld with 23 orcas, including seven males and 16 females, one of whom is reportedly pregnant. Eleven orcas are at SeaWorld San Diego, seven at SeaWorld Orlando, and five at SeaWorld San Antonio.
Lolita, the only other captive orca in the U.S., has been at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.
Ill for more than a year
Tilikum was known to have been ill for more than a year.
“Like all older animals,” the SeaWorld statement continued, “Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues. While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection.
“The suspected bacteria,” SeaWorld said, “is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil, both in wild habitats and zoological settings. Tilikum’s veterinarians and caretakers delivered various treatment regimens over the course of this illness, which consisted of, among other things, combinations of anti-inflammatories, anti-bacterials, anti-nausea medications, hydration therapy and aerosolized antimicrobial therapy.”
Will necropsy be released?
Considered old for a captive male orca, Tilikum was only middle-aged compared to the oldest known wild male orcas, such as the Puget Sound orca Ruffles, the first numbered member of J-pod, believed to have died in 2010 at age 59.
Whether SeaWorld will release the necropsy report on Tilikum remains to be seen. Anticipating Tilikum’s death, Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector in March 2016 posted a Change.org petition at http://tinyurl.com/houevfa, supported by a March 14, 2016 open letter to readers of ANIMALS 24-7, asking SeaWorld to “Please provide Tilikum’s necropsy report to the public upon completion.
“Transparency is highly important to a world of environmental researchers, marine ecology students, and SeaWorld’s own vast customer base,” Rector reminded. “Transparency in sharing necropsy results was once a federal requirement. We now ask you to provide it voluntarily in our mutual interest to further conservation efforts.”
Dental issues linked to stress
The major question that the necropsy report might answer is whether the bacterial infection that allegedly killed Tilikum originated with dental issues associated with the stress of being in captivity.
Wrote David Kirby in his 2012 book Death at Sea World, “Even when they were not challenging each other through the restraints of the gates, some whales,” apparently including Tilikum, “passed the time fighting boredom by simply chewing on the bars, or on the corners of the concrete pools. Several times [trainers] Jeff [Ventre] and John [Kielty] discovered teeth or fragments of teeth on the bottoms of the tanks, especially near the gates.
“All that breakage left a lot of exposed tooth pulp. If left untreated, decaying pulp can form a large cavity that becomes plugged with food. Impacted food can cause infection and inflammation and possibly harm an animal’s immune and cardiovascular systems.”
Wrote Kielty and Ventre themselves in a 2011 paper entitled “Kero & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity, “Poor dentition can lead to a host of diseases including valvular heart disease, gingivitis, pneumonia, stroke, and heart attack.”
Many of the SeaWorld orcas, Kirby explained, undergo frequent “pulpotomies,” meaning that their teeth are drilled out and “irrigated” to flush away detritus and impacted rotting food.
“The open bore holes left behind by ‘pulpotomies’ create a direct route for pathogens to enter the blood, Kirby wrote, “where they can then be deposited into the tissue of various organs throughout the body, such as the heart or kidney.”
“Unfortunately,” Kirby continued, “orca necropsies are mostly done in-house, by park personnel, and under a relative cloak of secrecy. Could the cause of pneumonia [a frequent killer of captive marine mammals] be bacteria carried to the lungs from rotting food plugs or tooth decay? This is unclear due to insufficient research and lack of scrutiny.”
Imported for health reasons?
Rector in 2012, after years of pursuing Freedom of Information Act requests, obtained 1,057 pages of documents pertaining to the 1992 SeaWorld purchase of Tilikum and two female orcas, Haida and Nootka, from the now defunct Sealand of the Pacific marine mammal park in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Rector contends that the documentation establishes that SeaWorld imported Tilikum illegally, on the pretext that he needed more advanced health care even then than Sealand of the Pacific could provide.
Same age, from same waters as Keiko
Captured near Iceland in 1983, Tilikum was the same age and came from the same waters as Keiko (1976-2003), the star of the Free Willy! film trilogy and subject of a decade-long $20 million effort to return him to the wild.
Keiko was eventually released in 2002, spending most of the last 15 months of his life as a free whale, but strongly habituated to humans.
Tilikum was about three years older than Keiko when captured. By far the largest of all captive orcas, Tilikum was nonetheless bullied by other orcas, according to Kirby’s many sources, contributing to the psychological issues that were said to have led to three fatal attacks on humans.
While at Sealand of the Pacific, Tilkum in 1991 violently drowned trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, throwing her about and thwarting her escape attempts before a screaming but helpless audience.
After Tilikum was transferred to the SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, he killed a night intruder in an unwitnessed incident 1999.
Transferred again, to the SeaWorld Orlando, he killed trainer Dawn Brancheau before an audience on February 24, 2010.
The 2013 hit documentary film Blackfish, based on Kirby’s book Death at Seaworld, centered on Brancheau’s death.
The release of Blackfish immediately preceded a year-long SeaWorld attendance slide, during which SeaWorld stock value fell by two-thirds.
SeaWorld, which also operates the Aquatica water parks and Busch Gardens theme parks. has never fully recovered, laying off 311 staff in December 2014 and another 320 in December 2016.
The release of Blackfish also coincided with an increasingly aggressive campaign against SeaWorld by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which in January 2016 specifically targeted the 32-year-old SeaWorld orca breeding program.
No more breeding
Acceding to the apparent inevitable, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. president and chief executive officer Joel Manby on March 17, 2016 announced an end to the breeding program.
“Times have changed, and we are changing with them,” said Manby. “The killer whales currently in our care will be the last generation of killer whales at SeaWorld. The company will end all orca breeding as of today.”
Since orcas from the current SeaWorld population may live for another 20 to 40 years, and SeaWorld will therefore still have orcas on exhibit for as long as any survive, Manby was not pressed to discuss the future of the trademarked “Shamu” marketing theme that has characterized SeaWorld operations for 50 years.
No more “Shamu” shows, either
Earlier, in November 2015, Manby announced that SeaWorld would end the choreographed “Shamu” shows for which the SeaWorld parks have been known since 1965, and would instead “spend $100 million to expand its killer whale enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego,” reported Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times. The SeaWorld orca tanks at Orlando, Florida and San Antonio, Texas were also to have expanded.
“The California Coastal Commission, which has authority over construction along the coast, approved the project,” Martin summarized, “but added the condition that SeaWorld end its breeding program and import no new orcas.”
The longterm future of orca exhibition in the U.S. had appeared to depend on the SeaWorld captive breeding program. An internationally protected endangered species in the wild, orcas have not been captured in U.S. waters since 1976, and have not been imported into the U.S. from other captive venues since 2001.
The first SeaWorld park without orcas, and the first outside the U.S., is scheduled to open at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi in 2022.