If you’re not familiar with the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” and you’re in the mood to fucking wreck yourself emotionally and break down into uncontrollable bouts of tears, watch it right now. If you’d rather not have a breakdown, I’ll just provide a short synopsis. The film centers around the turbulent life of Tilikum, an orca housed at SeaWorld whose maltreatment resulted in the death of three people.
The movie is a tragic snapshot, looking at the structural oversights at SeaWorld, and the negligence, greediness, and carelessness of the organization which ultimately endangered both the lives of employees and the dolphins and whales in their care.
Other areas explored in the documentary were the cruelties which accompany life in captivity for these magnificent animals. Their extreme intelligence (emotional and otherwise) rendered their life in containment utterly depressing, and their separation from the family and pack mentality that they’re naturally accustomed to makes proper socialization (and therefore a fulfilling life) impossible.
Following the popularity of “Blackfish,” SeaWorld reluctantly made monumental changes to their policy. They were essentially forced to reassess their captivity program, and address the demands of animal rights activists who claimed that continuing to raise whales and dolphins the way that they’d done for generations was unfair both to the animals and to the humans who worked alongside them.
Last March, SeaWorld announced that they were housing their “last generation of orcas,” meaning that they would no longer breed orcas in captivity, and that therefore, when the whales that they had in their facilities eventually passed away, their spots would remain empty.
The announcement was monumental to be sure, but some felt that the remaining whales should be released as well, rather than to be forced to wait out their lives in the tanks which have imprisoned them for so long. SeaWorld claimed that the orcas (having been raised in captivity) would not be able to fend for themselves in the wild.
Many activists argued that the whales should then be placed in ocean coves, protected by netting and assisted and fed by humans but given space to roam and swim in areas which more closely resembled their natural habitats. SeaWorld declined to do so.
Tilikum’s death is significant for many reasons: after the documentary, he became a symbol for those fighting for the rights of orcas. He died at about 36-years-old from a bacterial infection in his lungs.
Although Tilikum’s passing is certainly sad, his legacy will live on. I know that’s a bit corny, but, in all honesty, without Tilikum (and the filmmakers who told his story), who knows how many more orcas would’ve been bred, born, and raised in captivity.
Here’s to you, Tilikum!