Tilikum, SeaWorld orca and focus of the acclaimed documentary Blackfish, has passed away at the age of 36 due to a bacterial lung infection. Tilikum is perhaps most well-known for the 2010 killing of his 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of a live audience, as well as two other killings. The incident sparked outrage toward SeaWorld and inspired the documentary Blackfish, which closely examined the ethics of orca captivity. Reports of Tilikum’s deteriorating health have been circulating for some time, and in March of 2016, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite commented, “This is a profoundly tragic story in every way. Tilikum lived a miserable life.”
Now it seems Tilikum’s miserable life has come to an end. In an official comment to the New York Daily News, SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby said, “Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired. My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family.” The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who have long been critical of SeaWorld, voiced their feelings by tweeting a photo of Tilikum behind the words, “R.I.P. Tilikum: Dead after three decades of misery.”
Blackfish premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and quickly reached millions of stunned viewers. The well-researched documentary strongly critiqued the treatment of orcas in captivity by focusing on the life of Tilikum. Cowperthwaite utilized the power of interviews, past footage and expert testimonials to explain the reasons for Tilikum’s violent behavior and condemn the abuses of SeaWorld. Despite numerous PR attempts from SeaWorld to curtail Cowperthwaite’s condemnations, the public outcry became too much. In March of 2016, SeaWorld announced they would officially end their orca breeding program and stop all theatrical shows involving orcas.
At the time of his death, Tilikum was the largest orca in captivity. He had 21 children over the time of his captivity, 10 of which are still alive. See PETA’s tweet and watch a trailer for Blackfish below.