Tilikum: A Star in Changing the Conservation Conversation

After the heart-breaking death of world-famous killer whale Tilikum, the debate about the role of zoological parks has come into the limelight again. Tilikum principally rose to fame through the documentary Blackfish, which highlighted the cruelty subjected to orcas as they are captured and forced into the entertainment business. Most importantly, the lesser-known intelligence and emotional capacity of these majestic mammals became an increasingly integral part of the documentary and the wider argument. Gone are the days when we were unaware of the brain capacity of these creatures. We are now aware that killer whales have an area of their brains linked to emotions and relationship connections with a higher capacity than ours does. Yet knowing this, SeaWorld, alongside other marine zoological parks, continue to disconnect families and break up pods. This is highly distressing for these marine mammals and has contributed to what some scientists are referring to as a psychosis in some individuals.

It is exceedingly rare for killer whales to attack a human during interactions in the wild. In captivity, this is a very different case, with Tilikum himself having been responsible for three major attacks during his time in confinement. Most notably, the tragic death of senior-trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. With such a high intelligence ranking, it is arguable that the confinement of these enormous mammals causes a form of psychosis within their brains, which in turn creates irritable and erratic behaviours. One tactic utilised by SeaWorld is the withdrawal of food in order to encourage the orcas to perform the ‘tricks’ they are so infamously known for, which understandably adds to their tension.

Undoubtedly, zoological parks play a very significant role in the conservation story. They are integral to gaining the interest of young kids into the natural world and the importance of being environmentally aware. Many children’s first encounters of lions, tigers, zebras – the list could go on, have all usually taken place within the confines of a zoo. They engage and they educate. Nevertheless, in terms of animal welfare, they don’t always get a gold star.

San Diego Zoo is perhaps the best example of what zoological parks of the future should look like. At 100 acres in size, and as a pioneer of cageless, open-air exhibits that aim to re-create the animals natural habitats in the best way possible, it is highly regarded as a zoo of the future by experts. It makes sense to me that if an animal has a large territory in the wild, then that should be reciprocated in captivity. There are several species which cannot thrive within the confines of cement and glass – for example, Great White Sharks are greatly pelagic, which is one reason scientists believe they die soon after they enter a captive environment. Great White Sharks are also known to become greatly depressed and agitated if they are kept in a confined space for any length of time. Killer whales are one of many creatures that can swim up to 100 miles a day too, therefore to keep them in captivity does not seem to be logical or ethical either.

For many people, the tragic story of Tilikum raised the public profile of a lot of the problems associated with captive animals. It inspired a younger generation to rise up against the large multinational companies, like SeaWorld Entertainment, and demand that enough is enough. It was announced that SeaWorld Entertainment experienced a $15.9 million loss following the release of Blackfish, which many critics attributed to the message of the film causing thousands to stop attending the SeaWorld Parks. Public demand then forced the SeaWorld officials to announce plans for a new killer whale enclosure – Blue World Project. Of course, this was eventually abandoned, as more public pressure led to the decision to end all killer whale breeding at SeaWorld Parks. As a result, this will be the last generation of orcas within their marine parks.

Although some may argue that the fight is not over until the current generation of killer whales are released into their natural environment, it seems more realistic to me that it is realised that this will probably not happen. The result of the ending of the breeding of killer whales at SeaWorld is nevertheless a fantastic result. Tilikum should, and will, always be remembered as the star of this conservation story.

Because of his story, thousands of people have been encouraged to carry out acts of conservation and to educate themselves more on the importance of animal ethics. People are now more aware of the intelligence of these cetaceans, as well as a whole host of other organisms. There are more individuals wanting to make a difference, and there are more kids wanting to become conservationists and marine biologists.

We may not have saved Tilikum, but we have saved future generations of killer whales from being enslaved by SeaWorld. But unfortunately, it is not over yet. There are still killer whales being kept in a number of marine parks across the world in terrible conditions – most notably Lolita at Miami SeaAquarium. And let’s not forget the thousands of dolphins and belugas that are kept within the zoological entertainment business, as well as the tens of thousands of other animals’ captive in terrible conditions across the globe.

Zoological parks do have their place within the conservation story. It is a highly complicated topic, which deals with many different ethics and issues, players and impacts. The story is far from over, but thanks to Tilikum, the waves can finally start rolling.

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Hannah is currently a second-year Biological Sciences student at Lancaster University. She actively writes her own blog - Ecological Me - as well as edits the Lancaster University Biological Sciences blog. Hannah has aspirations of becoming a wildlife investigative journalist and broadcaster and is keen to get involved in as many ways as possible.

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