The tragic death of Sea World’s most veteran orca trainer, Dawn Brancheau, has raised a lot of questions with animal rights activists and laymen alike this week. Tilikum, the whale who grabbed his trainer off a platform in front of a live audience at Sea World’s Orlando park, had already been involved in 2 other human deaths before this latest tragedy. The largest and most dominant whale on Sea World’s roster, Tilikum was known as being different from the other whales, and was the only whale with which the trainers were forbidden to swim. Branchaeu was one of the few trainers allowed to work with him.
Sea World’s lead trainer says that the whale has been in captivity too long to be safely returned to the wild, but at least one leading whale scientist disagrees, noting that it’s unsafe to keep him in captivity. Ironically, it seems that Tilikum’s size and testosterone levels are the very reason Sea World refuses to return him to the wild where he was born. Tilly is the most prolific stud whale ever in captivity, having sired 13 calves. And so, while so many are questioning why Sea World would continue to work with a temperamental whale already involved in 3 human deaths, his breeding successes and crowd-pleasing “splashes” due to his size seem to be the answer.
Tilly was not born in captivity himself. He was captured off the coast of Iceland and housed in a Canadian aquarium. After he and 2 other whales were involved in the death of a trainer, he was transferred to Sea World Orlando where he was immediately put to work to perform and to sire more whales for Sea World.
As Sea World prepares to resume its Shamu shows, many animal rights activists are asking that Sea World release Tilikum – either into the wild, or to a sanctuary off the coast of Chile wherein his world will resume to a size beyond that of what, to a human, would be a hot tub.