I have vivid memories of visiting Seaworld, Orlando in my childhood, and attending the Shamu stadium, watching in awe as the Orcas performed magical tricks and stunts in front of a noisy, packed crowd. It was an exhilarating experience, and as an excited, awestruck 10 year old, it didn't really cross my mind that it was wrong in any way. It was only as I got older that I started to look past the glitz and glam of these theme parks and consider the ethics behind taking a wild animal, and keeping it in captivity, forcing it to perform for our entertainment, that I really began to see the sadness behind the spectacle.
In 2013, the heartbreaking documentary, Blackfish really sparked a change in public perception of places like Seaworld, inspired by, and following, the tragic story of Tilikum.
Tilikum, nicknamed Tilly, was a bull orca, who was captured from the wild in 1983 and eventually went on to become one of the 'stars' of the famous Shamu stadium at Seaworld Orlando.
Blackfish told the life story of Tilikum, focusing specifically around his involvement in the death of three people: a trainer at the now closed Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia in 1991, a man trespassing on SeaWorld Orlando's property in 1999, and a trainer, Dawn Brancheau again at SeaWorld, Orlando in 2010. (source)
The documentary really shone a light on the treatment of Orcas in captivity, and after it aired, visitor numbers, shares and profits for SeaWorld plummeted. Several musicians who had been scheduled to perform at concerts at SeaWorld locations, including Willie Nelson, cancelled.
Last year, in response to the extremely negative response the public had after watching Blackfish, SeaWorld chief executive Joel Manby announced that the current breeding programme would cease immediately, the Orcas in Seaworlds possesion would be the last generation of Orcas in captivity at Seaworld and that the controversial killer whale shows would come to an end at the end of 2016, to be replaced with “an all new orca experience focused on the natural environment.”
Sadly, for Orcas like Tilikum, this offered no solace, and he continued to live out his life in his concrete bathtub, in ill health and suffering.
It was announced today that Tilikum passed away in the early hours of this morning. All I can say is that Tilikum, I hope you have finally found some peace, away from the crowds, the captivity, the fear, the aggression, the frustration, the boredom and the loneliness.
Swim free, and swim far, beautiful boy.
In my lifetime, I truly believe that we will see the end of marine animals in captivity, and we'll never stop fighting for it, in memory of you and all the others before you who have suffered this cruel fate.