Killer Killer Whale "Tilikum" May Have Been Over-Stressed; Won't Be Euthanized

By Andrew Moseman | February 25, 2010 5:49 pm

orcaThere was no “Shamu Show” at SeaWorld today as people at the park mourned the death of Dawn Brancheau, the 40-year-old trainer apparently pulled to her death by Tilikum, one of the multiple killer whales the park uses under the name Shamu. As details continue to surface, park owners must decide what to do with the 12,000-pound aquatic animal.

First off, the public should keep in mind that this incident is highly unusual, says Wayne Perryman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He studies orcas (another name for killer whales) in the wild and says that they’ve never been known to attack a person as Tilikum has done, pulling Brancheau under water until she drowned. Perryman points out that other captive animals are known to snap and turn on their trainers—not just killer whales. “I think this isn’t really a killer whale issue,” he said. “It’s when you’re dealing with large mammals in a captive situation'” [National Geographic].

Nancy Black of California’s Monterey Bay Whale Watch notes that Tilikum had a more aggressive track record than other orcas, perhaps because of his history. He was captured near Iceland in November 1983, according to Discovery News, and kept in small tanks for most of his life. “I’m sure it was a high stress situation,” says Ms. Black. “Being kept in a small tank like that, especially because he was originally from the wild” [Christian Science Monitor]. And this is the third human death with which the killer whale has been linked. The first was in 1991, when a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific fell into the tank with Tilikum and two other orcas. In 1999, a homeless man sneaked into the whale tank at Sea World in Orlando after hours. The man died of hypothermia, although bruises and bite marks suggest that the orca may have had a role in his death [Christian Science Monitor]. This time, though, a crowd of people was on hand for the tragedy.

SeaWorld has said it will evaluate the orca, but added that it has no plans to euthanize the animal. And Brancheau’s friends say that though they miss her, she knew the danger of her job. Earlier today, Jack Hanna, a well-known animal expert with ties to Central Florida, spoke on national television about the tragedy, saying animal experts such as Brancheau are aware of the risks, as well as the benefits, of working with live animals [Orlando Sentinel].

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Image: iStockphoto

  • kjlksdf

    Maybe one day we all will realize whales and all other animals were not put here to entertain us. The only one in this story who deserves sympathy is the whale.

  • Cory

    “put here” by what? Despite the relative tragedy that is the captivity of whales held for entertainment, their unfortunate role has brought their wild counterparts the sympathy and protection with which they might not exist.

  • Manny

    While this may be a tragic story to hear about, we must be open-minded about the whole situation. As sad as it is to hear about someone’s death, you have to ask yourself something; what would you do if you were being kept somewhere against your will for the entertainment of others?…
    If the animal can not be trained, than simply release him back where you took him from. The place where they deserve to be; the wild.
    Euthanasia shouldn’t even be an option in anyone’s mind here. If Tilikum really is unstable, then he will die in the wild. But who the heck are we to order the death of this whale simply because they couldn’t tamed it to entertain us!?

  • nick

    After being a lifelong slave, you’d probably rather starve to death free than continue in your slavery, right? These mammals are pretty darn intelligent, no reason to assume they might wish otherwise.

    Also, orca is the scientific name for killer whales, not just ‘another’ name. :) Orcinus orca to be exact.

  • Chelsea

    I agree with the other comments. Whales should not be confined for our entertainment. They are huge creatures, and I can only imagine what Tilikum has been through for the past 26 or so years that he’s been confined.

  • patrice

    it’s very sad “we” feel it’s ok to pluck this whale out of his life then give him inadequate accommodations.

  • Jon-Paul

    I agree with all the comments,and also have great points.But the fact of the matter is we should look into the microscope and see it is what it is.We are taking away there natural habitat.and then to assume that we have a right to try too hold them in tanks and cages is the wrong we do.I honestly want the whale to live and should be free,but if what the people say that he won’t make it in the wild cuz he has been trained,that is not up to us to decide.The whale should goes through the life cycles every other animal has the freedom out at see..

  • Woody Tanaka

    The best and most heart-breaking analogy I’ve heard for the process of enslaving these animals — with their echolocation sense and their ability to swim 50 miles per day — and putting them in relatively small, sound-dead concrete pits, is to imagine putting a human in a telephone booth, with all the windows painted black, for the rest of that person’s life. It’s a wonder more of these animals don’t lash out.

  • Lucas

    I don’t feel bad about what happened to the trainer at all. She died doing what she loves and knew the risks involved. What’s sad is that this poor whale will never be free because of the idiots who want to make a profit off of them. This whale did this before, perhaps it’s a sign, you lousy piece of crap park, you need to let these animals be free! I only hope that the people responsible for the continued treatment of these whales have loved ones that suffer a horrible accident that keeps them alive but cannot move out of their beds for the rest of their lives.

  • MartyM

    We should be careful not to personify the whale. Its is not human and doesn’t think and feel like one. That being said, I do wish for decisions to be made in the best interest of the whale. And my sympathies go out to the trainer and her family and friends.

  • Katharine

    The comments on this post are disgusting.

    Consider the facts – Tilikum was wild-caught, and probably not by Dawn Brancheau, a very long time ago. It is not this particular trainer’s fault.

    I feel sorrow for her death; she had the bad luck to be the trainer dragged under by Tilikum’s stress.

    The most compassionate thing to do would to let Tilikum go and mourn Dawn Brancheau’s death, since she loved the animals she worked with. Replace him with a captive-born animal that is better adjusted to captivity.

  • Chris TMC

    While I totally agree that there are important and fundamental problems with captivity- to the point where I question the prevalence of these situations, as well- there is still no reason to pretend that species do not benefit at ALL from it. The reason Dawn Brancheau dedicated her life to sea animals was her own visit to a water park when she was nine. These parks provide information and raise money and awareness for wildlife. People are inspired to learn more about these creatures, and (hopefully) work to provide a better and more positive situation for the endangered members in the wild. Zoos have their problems no doubt, but they have their benefits as well. I think doing ones best to see both sides is the type of objectivity that is necessary in situations like these.

    The people who work in these parks (Like Dawn) lovingly do their best to care for these animals. Wishing that their loved ones “suffer a horrible accident that keeps them alive but cannot move out of their beds for the rest of their lives” is a disgusting and absolutely shameful thing to say. Get a grip, Lucas- that is a horrible thing to “hope” for. It is also completely disrespectful to the memory of Dawn Brancheau.

    BTW- Kathleen, you say, “The most compassionate thing to do would to let Tilikum go” I understand your good intentions but really, how do YOU know that? You think just throwing him in the ocean decades later, nowhere around his family, lost and alone, would be “compassionate”? Im not sure about that. This isnt a movie, this is real life.

  • Liz

    You’d think a magazine like Discover would point out that this is not a whale. ‘Killer Whales’ are actually the largest species of dolphin.

  • Art

    Nobody calls them killer dolphins, even though they technically are dolphins. If Discover were to print “killer dolphin” it would imply there is a murderous dolphin on the loose, and that’s not what they are known as.
    “Orca” would be sufficient though as well as “aquatic mammal”, both of which were used in the article. The writer never called them whales, only: orcas, killer whales, and aquatic mammals.

  • Katharine

    “BTW- Kathleen, you say, “The most compassionate thing to do would to let Tilikum go” I understand your good intentions but really, how do YOU know that? You think just throwing him in the ocean decades later, nowhere around his family, lost and alone, would be “compassionate”? Im not sure about that. This isnt a movie, this is real life.”

    According to , Tilikum has been in captivity since 1983; he was captured when he was two. Two years is rather a bit for a whale. However, he is about 27 by now.

    Shall we weigh the consequences of either alternative?

    1) Not releasing Tilikum would result in further agitation to the dolphin and probably more death. There is a possibility that his collapsed fin would contribute to hazards in the wild.

    2) Releasing Tilikum would probably result in less aggression and a happier dolphin; I don’t know the extent to which rehabilitation would help, but if I recall correctly, Keiko was released successfully after a long period in captivity, and besides, I think it’s ridiculous to put park profits before the health of the animals there. If the health of an animal requires releasing it, do that.

  • Roger

    My wife and I were discussing it this morning. Apparently the trainer was feeding the killer whale some fish just before the attack. Sometimes I’ve even seen trainers hold a fish in their mouth for a dolphin. I was told the victim had a pony tail, and was grabbed and dragged under the water by the pony tail. I’m sure from under the water the whale basically just sees a silhouette. It seems possible that he grabbed the pony tail and pulled thinking it was another fish. It may not have been a deliberate attack at all.

  • Kathryn

    Just want to clarify something said above. The person above says “Keiko was released successfully after a long period in captivity” – not true. After public pressure it was attemped – but he never adjusted, never attached to other whales, and ultimately died of sickness.

    From what I have read, it’s pretty impossible to expect a whale who has spend years in captivity to adjust to being released. It sounds nice, but the reality is that the released whale would probably die.

  • Lori

    I think they should let him go.
    Like some of you said… he may not make it, but what else could they possibly do?

    and… even though he may not survive, it it possible that he would be happier being free even if it wasn’t long term? Rather than a longer life with more servitude for our entertainment?

    They do teach him tricks even now, what’s to say he couldn’t learn some means of adapting to being back in the wild?
    I know they don’t have reintegration training for captive animals… but it would be great if they did. But that’s just wishful thinking.
    My only hopes are that the rest of Tilikum’s time, at Sea World or not, is as balanced and untroubled as possible and that he is not punished for being who he is. That is my wish for him.

    My sincerest condolences to the loved ones as Dawn Brancheau. She was so fortunate to spend her life doing what she loved.

  • Connie

    Tilikum has served his time, he has been taunted,withheld food, & used as a stud..He will snap again thru no fault of his own & someone else will pay for his being tortured. If he is released properly into his home waters of Iceland as was once planned, there is a good chance he will survive with a super pod. Give him back his life & freedom and the souls of his trainers will also rest in peace.

  • Josephine North

    I’m so relieved to find people that hold the same view. How would these people like to be underwater in a dry cage looking out at underwater life. And made to do tricks and mate with other humans too. It is terribly cruel. I hate circus’s and zoos. I’m sorry the trainer was killed but do not approve of what she was doing. How can she profess to love these maginificent creatures and yet taunt them like this? I feel much sorrier for the whale.

  • Mike

    The Orca wants to cruise around in pods eating seals in the icy sounds. It does not want to jump hoops for sardines while being baby talked to (good boy!), entertaining chubby consumers eating junk foods while they ooh and ah.

  • amphiox

    Releasing Tillikum into the wild now would be equivalent to letting a 50-something man who had been in prison since about age 10 free into downtown New York without any money, identification, job prospects, contact information, or follow-up. He might well still prefer it to remaining in captivity (and there is no way we could know unless we figure out some way to let him communicate with us), but chances are good that it won’t end well.

    If we do release this orca, or any other captive dolphin in future, I would suggest, if it is at all practical or possible, that as part of the reintroduction program, we first them how recognize and jump over fishing nets, and hope that they might actually be able to pass on this skill to other con-specifics in the wild. . . .

  • Jane V Wilson

    (1) The automatic assumption that animals are better off in the wild is false. Animals in the wild live far shorter lives, suffer without medical treatment and die slow often horrible deaths. Such determinations should be made on a case by case basis. If the animal could not be cared for properly do not remove it from the wild.
    (2) In mammals, even in domestic livestock the males are considered dangerous. This is why stallions, and bulls are routinely neutered going back into the history of domestication.
    This was a male whale known to be aggressive. Anyone with common sense should have known to keep him separately and to treat him with caution. I am not talking about isolating, just only use the females and immature males in any shows.

  • Jane V Wilson

    I do think a reintergration program has possiblilities. Especially if we could use training to teach dolphins, killer whales or anything else technigues to allow them to survive manmade deathtraps in the ocean. I am sure that they would pass this on to their pods,but that is the problem. Can an animal released in captivity find its original family group, provided the group still exist. If this is not possible will a another group accept them? This questions have never been researched, any released animal should be monitored closely and helped in any way necessary. Including feeding it until it gets used to hunting for its own food again.

  • Mary Contraire

    There is no excuse to keeping killer whales or other animals in cages and force them to entertain crowds to maintain their keep. This is not a single animal. Several animals are kept all at once. Researchers can only observe their behavior and then let them go back to the wild. This orca snapped and it is very stressful for it to be kept in a small confined area. LET TILICUM GO!

  • Connie

    Bob Barker who represents over 2 million people of PETA, suggested that Tilikum be released into a sanctuary and gradually released in a scientific fashion worked out by specialists, for his survival, l e t him feel the tide. Also if they partner with Disney, IMAX & sea animal experts an awsome replacement show could be created…Tilikum has paid the cost of his purchase price. He is real not a toy..Use all that education and advanced technology to help him survive in the wild!

  • kjhkjlkjh

    Just because she was doing what SHE loved didn’t mean she was doing what was in the best interest of the whale…excuse me, dolphin. And when you piss off a creature who is several times your size and being keppt prisioner, what do you expect.

    The whale can obviously not be released into the ocean where it belongs, but should be kept peacefully in a sanctuary or somewhere away from ridiculous tourists and their fat kids gawking at him.

    And for anyone who says these parks do any good for animals you’re an idiot.
    It should not take a bunch of LIVING animals put on display for us to have compassion for them. Get your ass in a boat and take some pictures & other than that LEAVE THE POOR ANIMALS ALONE…If we wern’t f***ing up their home they wouldn’t need our help anyway.

    Humans are the worst thing to ever happen to this planet.

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • Angela Katherine

    It all got started the following way: The killer whale pulled the young lady by her pony tail to then attack her. Wild animals generally like to pull hanging down objects, because these envoke their hunting instincts. Once the hunting instincts were envoked the animal decided to attack the lady. Most cats will play with anything that hangs down the way the lady´s pony tail did. I am indeed surprised that nobody – neither the zoo owners nor staff were informed about this fact. I happen to know these things because I really liked biology at highschool and also because my cat behaves like that – she pulls everything that hangs down and she then playfully attacks. Fortunately, she is just a small cat and not a tiger or a killer whale! (Thus she does not hurt anybody).. Anyway the basic rules of the game are the same: Something hangs down and moves a tad, so if you are wild animal you decide to pull this something and attack the person who is attached to it.

    Personally I think staff should be warned about such risks and not permitted to wear pony tails when working with wild animals.

    I also wish to express my true and honest grief over the loss of a young lady who loved animals very much, who was a family person and who was surely generally a very nice person. I have huge respect for people who live their passion and so the loss of this young lady is a huge loss for our world in which so many people have sold their soul.

  • annomius

    Hi my name is jhon jhon smith and i want to ask a question why do people hate and kill killer whales because they dont realy want to eat human they just do it because they annoy them. by… annomius

  • Brittany

    Jesus Christ, you realize this is the Third Death… You know of his [past] Why would you want to keep trying and trying until another one die again and again? Think oh we’ll eventually get it right one day. Yeah after more and more people are dead. The whale is unhappy, god only knows if he has been abused physically. They should just let him go. I don’t think it was a mistake at all… Even though they think her ponytaill was a fish, but I didn’t know she was the third and he has a terrible past. Thanks for hte information. This is so sad. I would just let him go and swim in the Ocean, and Find happiness in there, and make friends of his own kind, not humans.

  • Brittany

    And I think Whales and Dolphins have a EXCELLENT MEMORY. They remember who hurt them, and what happen. I’m sure it replayed in his mind and that’s what triggered.

  • Brittany

    @AngelaKatherine Yes, I understand, but this is the third… Why did he attack the others?

  • Lydia

    The orca whales Sea World has you have to understand they not only use to entertain but they also use to educate the public about the whales and they use them as an icon for their conservation fund. And for the record Tilikum was not captured he was ill and they took him in and nursed him back to health. By the time he was healthy again he was too used to human interaction to be released so they kept him in captivity.
    @Brittany The trainers don’t hurt the whales they treat them kindly. You think if they hurt the whales they’d be getting in the water with them? They get in the water with Tiama and Kalina and Katina and Kayla and Trua and Malia and none of them have even attempted to harm anyone.

  • Lydia

    Oh and Brittany; he didn’t think her pony tail was a fish. He thought it was a rope to this toy that we have here at Sea World Orlando. It’s this big barrel that usually has fish on it and he takes the rope attatched to it and plays with it until he gets the fish off. It’s an enrichment activity usually used to praise him after and between shows.

  • shel

    where does tilikum live now and what is going to happen with him? please someone update me to the latest

  • madeleine

    Y’all are right killer whales dolphins and more are not made for our enjoyment. Look this is wrong how about u try 2 be taken from your HOME and feed what ever they feed you and made you do silly shows then you will die of depression y’all are going to leave that whale to die I would if I could pet him feed him and tell him I love him because I do I wanted to work with those animals sience I was 3 years old and I know a lot look up LOLITA the killer whale its sad the only preditor to the killer whale the things they are afraid of our US we take them from theier home family friends mothers fathers yeah sea world for y’all to conect is to leave them out and not show them love I know a lot about orcas and 1 thing is they don’t belong for our entertain ment and splashing and doing shows what animal will want to die in a TANK and never see their family or home their home is in the ocean were they belong guys lessen to the song parts ” KEEP IT TO HEART KEEP IT IN MIND” “WHEN IT COMES TO SAVEING THIS AMAZING PLACE THE ANSWER IS BLACK AND WHITE” ITS OUR WORLD AND ITS OUR CHANCE TO MAKE IT….. RIGHT!!!! Please show tilikum some love before he seed the last of his life hated…….. every creater great and small isn’t time to take them all under our wing that’s the sea world song right well compared to this it dosent seem that song fits just right now dose it???? NO!!!! Thanks please reply and tell me what you think about my comment if u have any questions about orcas I will let y’all know I will get more facts about tilikum for y’all thanks ps I love u tilikum hope u get loved soon

  • madeleine

    I feal the same way humans are horibble to oceans land and animals what’s wrong with you people what did they ever do to you let them go if you don’t litter and go whaleing and kill these things they wouldent need capivity the rome the oceans and live longer whaled in the wild can swim for miles whales in captivity can swim in circles come on who wants that this is ridiculous why don’t we take all the animals and put them on display for our entertainment oh sea world takes good care of there animals yeah right they shouldn’t even be there in the first place you only want them for the MONEY hugo died and they put the body of the whale in the miami sequarium dumpster look up hugo and lolita or lolita slave to entertainment or thanks


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