PETA: Tilikum the Killer Whale was a martyr for the cause or something

You may recall the rather horrifying story from 2010 when Tilikum the killer whale made good on the species name and drowned his SeaWorld trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau. She was, in fact, the third person that Tilikum had killed. And now the orca has died in captivity.

Tilikum, an orca that killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 and was profiled in a documentary that helped sway popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity at SeaWorld parks, has died.

Sea World officials said Friday that Tilikum died but did not give a cause of death. In a statement, the officials said Tilikum had faced serious health issues including a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. He was estimated to be 36 years old. A necropsy will be performed, according to the statement.

This entire story has been horrible from beginning to end, so don’t go into this tale looking for rainbows and a happy ending. But as we consider what it all means, let’s take a moment to read the somewhat over-the-top response from the head of PETA. Ingrid Newkirk penned an editorial for Time Magazine in which she declares that Tilikum died for his freedom.

Tilikum—an orca who was imprisoned at SeaWorld for nearly three decades and was the “star” of the damning documentary Blackfish—finally has his freedom. But he shouldn’t have had to die to get it.

Caring people worldwide have urged SeaWorld to release Tilikum and the other orcas languishing in its tiny concrete tanks into coastal sanctuaries, where they could enjoy some semblance of the life that has been stolen from them. But the company has staunchly refused. Instead, it feeds the public lines about “family“—but families don’t keep their members in tiny, barren spaces for life and exploit them for decades to make a buck…

Tilikum died in an artificial environment where he did not belong. He never again felt the waves and tides or knew the joy of swimming with his family and exploring the vast ocean. His miserable life is over, but there’s still a chance for the other animals trapped at SeaWorld—including his ten surviving offspring. The company can and must immediately begin a plan to rehabilitate and return all the orcas, beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, walruses, penguins and others back to nature or release them into coastal sanctuaries.

Dying should not be the only way that animals imprisoned at SeaWorld get to escape their tanks.

This is probably going to come as a shock to long time readers here, but I’m going to agree, at least in part, with Newkirk. I know that statement might startle some people since I’ve been crossing swords with PETA on these pages for years and on at least two occasions have received notifications of possible legal action against my employer over my commentary. But when it comes to Orcas and other large marine animals, I’ve been opposed to their captivity from the beginning. (I’m no fan of large mammals in zoos either, but that’s a subject for another day.)

When SeaWorld announced they were ending their killer whale shows, I strongly supported the move. (Even though they almost immediately turned around and said they weren’t actually ending all of them.) Any progress is better than none. I refuse to assign the concept of “rights” as we know them for human beings to animals and don’t want the government imposing such a mandate on zoos and facilities such as SeaWorld. That’s something which is best handled through the normal pressures of capitalism if enough people don’t want to see these animals in shows. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still find the entire subject troubling in the extreme.

Orcas, whales, dolphins and the other, higher order animals of the sea are simply too intelligent to ignore and act as if they have no more sense of their surroundings than a goldfish or a smallmouth bass. It seems needlessly cruel to pen them up for their entire lives in such tight confines, and their disturbing behavior over the years is well documented, looking like the actions of a prisoner who has spent too long in their cell. The big problem is what to do with them.

Some activists call for their immediate release into the wild. I’m on the fence about that. There are too many studies which seem to indicate that an orca released into the open ocean will not have a social unit, won’t be accepted into a new pod and probably won’t even know how to feed itself. There isn’t 100% consensus, but many experts seem to agree that they’ll just die in the wild shortly after being released. Then again, there’s another part of me which wonders if perhaps a death in the open ocean (with at least a chance of making a go at survival) wouldn’t be better than a lifetime living in what amounts to a bathtub.

But there may be a third way which serves as a compromise. Again, I would stress that this isn’t something for the government to mandate or for the taxpayer to be put on the hook for. But some private groups have been working on marine sanctuaries in the sea which are penned off from the rest of the ocean. Its’ still not the same as being part of a pod and covering thousands of miles of range, but it’s got to be far better than a tank.

Something to think about, anyway. These shows are horrible in my opinion and I will never again pay to go see one. SeaWorld should move faster, not slower, to get all of the orcas out of their tanks and into something better.