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Tilikum and Captivity Controversy

by Sabina Elkins


January 23, 2017 | Sciences

Tilikum regards some trainers outside of his enclosure. via National Geographic

Keeping animals in captivity is a very controversial topic. Ranging from discussions of animal testing to the existence of zoos, there are many valid points to be heard. Animal testing can be an effective way to get medicine on the market and help save human lives, but it also often encompasses cruelty towards and mistreatment of living beings. Zoos can help bring populations back from the brink of extinction, but are representative of cages that we do not have the right to impose. The argument is not black and white.

One popular case study along this vein is that of Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca who passed away earlier this month. This dolphin (fun fact: killer whales are actually dolphins) killed three people during the 25 years he lived in captivity.

After being featured in the 2013 documentary entitled Blackfish (can be found on Netflix), Tilikum inspired many. The film follows Tilikum’s life in captivity, and the horrible conditions he and other marine mammals are forced to endure. Many of the interviewed trainers speak of the intelligence of these creatures and of the relationships that they develop with them, which makes our treatment of them (note: collapsed dorsal fin) even more heartbreaking.


Blackfish Movie The documentary’s movie poster.

Orcas, like many marine mammals, travel in herds known as pods. They are extremely social creatures and are evidenced to be very intelligent. This intelligence suggests a higher awareness that they are in captivity and leads to behavioural anomalies. They often display aggression towards other whales and toward their human trainers. Moreover, due to the social lives these animals lead, they have developed regional behaviours traits that are comparable to human languages. When whales from different ‘cultures’ are placed into the same enclosure they lash out at each other, even sometimes going so far as to kill one another.

This aggressive behaviour resulting from their captivity is what led to the death of Tilikum’s victims. The documentary increased awareness for this issue; so much so that in 2016, SeaWorld ceased its program of breeding orcas in captivity. The documentary gave activists the support they needed from the public and even some SeaWorld performers to apply severe enough backlash to end the program.

While most view this development as a good thing, there are also some negative aspects to the end of the program, apart from the corporation’s financial losses. SeaWorld bred their animals for monetary gain, but they still bred them. Orcas are an endangered species, as of 2008. Therefore the fact that this wealthy company was investing the time to breed them led to a greater understanding of the species, and a better idea for many scientists as to how to help them (and how to increase their population size in the wild).

After the public announcement of the end of the orca breeding program at SeaWorld, many scientists spoke out. They shared their support for the discoveries that the program had led to and their fears for what the future may hold for Killer whales if we are not equipped to help them.

The stories of Tilikum and of countless other animals in captivity are often difficult to stomach. Yet, they are sometimes beneficial to the health of the species (or our own health). They pose important moral questions and are not always as black and white as we might think.

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