Orca Tilikum, involved in three human deaths, very ill

Tilikum, an orca whose aggressive behaviour at Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay resulted in the 1991 death of his trainer, is in ill health and close to dying.

SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where Tilikum is currently being exhibited, reports that the whale’s behaviour “has become increasingly lethargic” over the past few weeks.

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In a post on its website on Tuesday, SeaWorld describes a life-threatening bacterial infection in Tilikum’s lungs. The bacterium is resistant to treatment, according to SeaWorld, and a cure has not been found.

“It’s extremely difficult to treat,” said staff veterinarian Dr. Scott Gearhart in a video posted to the SeaWorld blog. “I wish I could say I was tremendously optimistic about Tilikum and his future, but he has a disease that is chronic and progressive and at some point might cause his death.”

Veterinarians and trainers are trying to manage the infection and make sure the whale is comfortable, the blog says.

Tilikum has been at SeaWorld Orlando for 23 years and has been used many times for the park’s breeding program. He is estimated to be about 35 years old, at or near the average life expectancy for male orcas.

“It has been our duty and passion to make sure we give him the utmost care we possibly can,” said Daniel Richardville, SeaWorld’s animal training supervisor, in a statement.

The news of Tilikum’s poor health drew fire from animal-rights organizations that have long called for the release of the orca, which was born in the wild.

“If Tilikum never sees the ocean again, after being stolen from it 30 years ago, his blood will be on #SeaWorld’s hands,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, said via Twitter.

Tilikum was sold by Sealand in Oak Bay to SeaWorld in Orlando in 1992 after the drowning death of 21-year-old trainer Keltie Byrne. A report revealed that Byrne was dragged below the surface by Tilikum and two female whales.

In 1999, a man who had trespassed into SeaWorld Orlando after the park closed was found dead in Tilikum’s pool.

In 2010, the orca grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau after a “Dine with Shamu” show and pulled her into a pool, killing her.

Despite the deaths, SeaWorld in Orlando returned Tilikum to theme park performances in 2011.

Tilikum was at the centre of the controversial 2013 documentary Blackfish, which criticized SeaWorld’s treatment of its orcas and argued that killer whales become more aggressive to humans and each other when in captivity.

The documentary fuelled criticism of SeaWorld by animal rights activists.

After the documentary’s release in 2013, several entertainers pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks, and Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year marketing partnership with the theme park company.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation issued a statement on its website Tuesday after learning of Tilikum’s failing health.

“We are heartbroken to learn of Tilikum’s fate, and although there is little we can do for Tilikum at this moment, we CAN continue making progress to end the cruel practice of captivity once and for all.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

— With files from The Associated Press

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