In remembrance of Tilikum – whales and dolphins belong in their ocean homes
06 January 2022
By David Neale, Animals Asia’s Animal Welfare Director
Tilikum was a wild born orca, brutally separated from his family at just three years of age to spend much of the rest of his life isolated within barren pools until his tragic death on this day in January 2017.
Tilikum is a victim of the captive cetacean industry, an industry that has held a firm foothold in North America, Europe and Japan since the first beluga whales were reportedly captured from the wild and trained for shows by the notorious circus showman PT Barnum in 1862. Since then many thousands of individual animals have suffered, and continue to suffer in the name of entertainment at marine parks across the world.
In more recent years the captive marine mammal industry has seen a rapid increase across Asia and the Middle East. An industry that has brought much misery and suffering for untold numbers of animals in the Americas, Europe and Japan, now fuelling the public demand for seeing cetaceans at close quarters across many more Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
This is largely driven by companies profiting from animal suffering, ripping animals from their families and their natural environment, to incarcerate them in tiny pools either alone or forced to live with animals from outside of their wild social groups and made to perform tricks for their food.
Up until January 6th 2017 this included male orca Tilikum. Tiikum spent most of his life performing at SeaWorld Orlando. He was captured in Iceland in 1983 and a year later transferred to Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. He was subsequently transferred in 1992 to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he spent the next 25 years living in isolation before his tragic death.
On February 24th 2010, Tilikum took hold of his trainer ‘Dawn Brancheau’ after she leaned over the edge of his tank, dragged her into the pool, shook her violently fracturing much of her body and killing her. This was his third fatal attack, in February 1991, at Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver BC, Tilikum and his two tankmates submerged a young trainer and dragged her around the pool after she had fallen in. They reportedly pulled her under on numerous occasions until she died.
One morning, seven years later, a 27-year-old man was found dead, draped over Tilikum’s back in his nighttime pool. An autopsy found numerous wounds, contusions and abrasions covering his body. Exactly what had happened was never established after SeaWorld claimed that the event was not captured on any of the cameras that monitor the whales.
Tilikum spent the last 7 years of his life largely floating in a small enclosure, suffering from infections, until he died from what SeaWorld described as “a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” adding that he had been being treated with “combinations of anti-inflammatories, anti-bacterials, anti-nausea medications, hydration therapy and aerosolized antimicrobial therapy.
Whilst each of these incidents and the eventual premature death of Tilikum are all tragic events, the events of 2010 provided more evidence of the unsuitability of keeping such socially and cognitively complex animals such as orcas in captivity. Thankfully the tide is finally turning on the industry in the Americas and Europe, with public opinion shifting in favour of keeping cetaceans in the wild in countries such as the USA, UK and Mexico. In the Europe, whale and/or dolphin captivity is banned in Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia. Switzerland banned dolphin captivity in 2012 and sold their last remaining dolphins to a facility in Jamaica in 2013.
Canada banned cetacean captivity in 2019 with exceptions for animals already held in facilities and animals held for rehabilitation or licensed scientific research.
On September 29, 2020, the French government announced shows involving the performance of wild animals will be banned. Specifically, the possession of orcas for the purpose of performances will be banned by 2022, and the possession of dolphins for performances will be banned by 2027
Whale and/or dolphin captivity has also been banned, or else so strictly regulated that it would be impossible to do so, in India, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, Brazil, Luxembourg, Norway and the UK.
But as the lights begin to go out on captive cetacean keeping in one part of the world so they shine ever brighter within countries with a public that often have less awareness of animal welfare and porous legislative controls that do little to actually protect captive animals from suffering.
In Indonesia, wild caught dolphins are subjected to living in tiny pools and being made to perform. We can only imagine the stress this causes. The operators ‘justify’ their use by saying that the dolphins have been rescued due to injuries and entanglements with fishing nets, when in reality they are caught in order to supply an industry which sees them as commodities rather than sentient individuals.
In Vietnam, wild caught dolphins are subjected to poor living conditions to entertain a public largely unaware of the stress and suffering such conditions cause.
Whilst in China, there are over 11,000 wild caught whales and dolphins now languish in the country’s ocean parks, their lives often deemed as dispensable by those that operate the facilities.
A recent trend has also seen the development of ocean parks in shopping malls, encouraging shoppers to ‘stop by’ and view animals such as wild caught beluga whales stereotypically swimming within their tiny tankspools, in between doing their weekly shopping. This epitomises the attitude of the industry, using animals as commodities to be used, abused and eventually discarded and replaced when they fall ill and die.
The rise in the ocean park industry across Asia and the Middle East is fuelling the demand for more wild capture within Japanese waters. Many hundreds of dolphins, pilot whales and false-killer whales ripped from their ocean homes in Japan, and until recently beluga whales and orcas forcibly removed from their families in russian waters to meet this insatiable appetite for ‘bigger and better’ attractions.
The finger of blame for this cruelty must be pointed directly at those that are responsible for the wild capture, purchase, and eventual incarceration of these animals. With little or no regard for them as individuals that live within complex family groups, within societies built upon cooperation, empathy for fellow family members and moral behaviours which ensure group harmony and cohesion.
It is these messages of the emotional and cognitive capacities of these socially complex animals that must now be promoted across Asia in the hope that a largely uninformed public will one day turn their own backs on this industry and help to set free those individuals that continue to suffer in the name of entertainment and prevent further individuals from suffering the same fate as Tilikum.
On ‘Tilikum remembrance day please join us in opposition of the keeping of cetaceans in captivity.