Tilikum, the orca responsible for the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 is sick. SeaWorld reports that the orca is responding to care. One conservation group however, is surprised he's still alive.
SeaWorld's bull orca Tilikum, was captured in Berufjörður off the east coast of Iceland in November 1983. He was around two years old at the time, considered a baby in orca terms. In his 29 years of captivity, he has killed three people, fast becoming the worst poster child for SeaWorld's captive orca program. Colleen Gorman, CEO of The Orca Project, believes that SeaWorld is just waiting for the 12,000 lb killer whale to die.
We caught up with Colleen, shortly after she had spent several hours observing Tilikum at SeaWorld, Orlando. Gorman has followed the orca's well-being for some time, attending all of the hearings on the SeaWorld -OSHA case to date. It was very clear to Gorman that the bull orca was unwell:
"Everytime the trainers came to tend to him they used a small net to scoop up remnants of what he's leaving behind; mucus or fecal matter, or both. After, they would give him 3 pieces of Gelatin (to hydrate) and next stop, 3 small fish that more than likely had meds in them. He didn't move much, but how can he in that tiny pool that is only 8-feet deep with no where to go? He barely did any blows, and the few I did see over many hours were very weak. No spray whatsoever."
Two days ago, SeaWorld issued a statement saying that Tilikum was showing signs of improvement under veterinarian care, so we asked Gorman for her opinion on the orca and what she had witnessed firsthand.
EB: Do you disagree with SeaWorld's assessment that Tilikum is getting better?
CG: No I don't, but in my estimation, it's been over a week that he's been ill, which is pretty remarkable for a killer whale. I observed him on Tuesday, he can't move really in that pool, and that's my biggest issue right now because they're keeping him in the medical pool. It's ridiculous that they're keeping him in there, he's 22-feet long and this medical pool is only eight-feet deep, he can't really move. There is no reason why they can't keep him back in his regular pool which is the E pool, it's bigger and it's deeper – still only 15-feet, but better. I do feel from my intuition that he's improving, because it's pretty remarkable that he's even made it this far if he was ill.
EB: What do you mean by made it this far?
CG: Well we've done the research on almost every captive killer whale out there. My business partner and co-founder, John Kielty did most of the stats for every single killer whale in captivity. John Jett, a research professor at Stetson University and Jeffrey M. Ventre, a physician in New Orleans, LA, [both former SeaWorld trainers], teamed up with The Orca Project for the research, and it showed that when you average the ages of captive orcas out, orcas do not live this long in captivity. Normally when killer whales are held in captivity like this, they tend to expire pretty quickly, so for him to still be around, I think he probably is making an improvement, but anything can happen.
EB: So would you say Tilikum is an exception?
CG: Considering his history it's amazing, because he was captured as a baby basically of two, and then shipped of to Canada, and he had a horrible life there. He was beaten up by the dominant females and then killed the trainer [Keltie Byrne] who fell in the water, and then moved to SeaWorld, and he's been sick on and off for years. Last year, when I first started to go and see him in Aug. 2010, he was not well at all, he didn't move. He was in the Dine with Shamu pool, where you can see him in the underwater viewing area, and I observed him for about 20 hours.
I spent two days in a row about 10 hours each day just watching him, and they had moved him to another pool and I stayed there watching him through the gates. But when he was in there, he just bobbed in the water like a cork, and just didn't move and that's really abnormal for an orca to ever do that. They would never do that in the ocean unless they were sick. I don't know how much longer he can live, but he's a fighter.
EB: How did you manage to observe him on Tuesday?
CG: I watched three shows and positioned myself so that I can see right back into the medical pool where he is kept. It's very hard to do because they've made a backdrop now and they [SeaWorld] will say it's bigger back there than it is, but I used to go there all the time and report on his condition, so I know how big it is.
EB: So what is wrong with Tilikum do you think?
CG: They're not saying what's wrong with him, but SeaWorld often uses the excuse of a cold or the flu, which is another word for pneumonia. It's too hard to say. Of course his teeth are so awful, they're all drilled and they have to get treated every day, and he gets infections quite a bit. Now he's been on antibiotics on and off through the years, to the point where they're probably not working like they were. When he killed Dawn [Brancheau], he was sick. The medical records did show OSHA says, that he was on antibiotics, at that time and before. I think they thought he was going to die then.
EB: Why are his teeth so bad?
CG: There's a thing called jaw popping that orcas do when they are mad and it grates their teeth. It's also from chewing on the gates, which they do a lot and it breaks their teeth, and when they break the teeth they have to drill a hole down to the root, so it hits the root. I also don't think they're getting proper nutrition by eating dead fish. Tilikum could very well be a transient orca, he should be eating sea lions. Of course, no one really knows for sure whether he's a transient or a resident orca that eats fish, but even so, he should be eating live fish. Just like a human being, you've gotta eat healthy to have healthy teeth and gums.
EB: So how are they treating him?
CG: It didn't appear to me that they were doing as much as they could because every time they went over there to treat him, and I have seen this, before and after each of the shows, they never spent more than 2 or 3 minutes with him and they would just walk away. And the poor guy, he sat there with his mouth wide open and they just walked away. It was heartbreaking to watch, because after they had left, he put his head down as if to say, "Oh, they're gone again."
EB: How has Tilikum been treated since Dawn Brancheau's death?
CG: He was isolated for 13 months after he killed Dawn [Barncheau], which in my mind there was no reason for him to be isolated like that. They were just hoping people forgot about him, but I kept blogging on him and finally they got him out of there and back in the shows.
EB: Are trainers allowed in the water him?
CG: They've never been allowed in the water with him, that's been their rule, they have a certain "Tili" talk that they give. SeaWorld blamed Dawn after her death for being in the position that she was, but that was pretty normal because a few trainers have been that close to him before, you know touching him and doing 'dry work' which can even be in inches of water. Water work is when they're all the way in the water with him.
EB: So are they allowed in the water to treat Tilikum?
CG: They don't enter the water to treat him, they don't physically touch him at all, unless he's out of the water and they can go up from behind and poke him with their needles and stuff. This is a SeaWorld rule, not OSHA. That they're out of the water with the other whales has nothing to do with OSHA, is SeaWorld's protocol. They chose to keep all the trainers out of the water at all of the parks. That's not OSHA's ruling and people get that very confused, especially the fans, because they blame OSHA for the fact that they are not in the water with the whales, and that's ridiculous.
EB: So they could get in the water with the mammals if needed?
CG: SeaWorld likes to blame OSHA, but Kelly Flaherty Clark who is a trainer there, and a few of the other trainers are blaming the death of another orca – Kalina, back in Oct. 2010, on the fact that they couldn't get in the water with her. They could have gotten in the water with her.
EB: So what do you expect for Tilikum now?
My gut feeling is that I thought he would have been dead by the end of this year, I can't even believe he's alive still because he's pretty much isolated all the time, but he keeps on going. I am going to keep fighting for his release, and his return back to Iceland where can be put in a sea pen and looked after in his own waters. He's better off in my opinion living a month, 6 months, a year, however long it is, in ocean waters. Of course, if he dies within a significantly shorter time period after release, it's going to be seen as unsuccessful.
Keiko, the orca made famous in the 1993 movie Free Willy was released in 2002 after years of captivity. In Sep. 09 1998, Keiko arrived in Iceland to continue his assisted released. The Orca Network said, "as soon as he is immersed, Keiko pumps his flukes to swim clear of the stretcher and immediately dives. He surfaces a full minute later, circling the pool, echolocating and vocalizing excitedly." Two days later, Keiko is vocalizing like never before and his activity level is higher as he porpoises out of the water.
Dr. Cornell, a veterinarian who assists Keiko, says he is visibly moved by the orca's response so far. “As a veterinarian, Keiko's medical supervisor and a human being,” he says, “it can't get any better.” Despite Keiko's health being the best it has been in years, his release is still viewed by some as unsuccessful. Not so says the award-winning documentary, Keiko The Untold Story, which describes the bull orca as a mammal who enormously embraced his own freedom.
The Orca Project Corp is a 501(c)(3) public charity, which collaborates with marine mammal experts and caring professionals to change the public’s attitude and government supervision of marine mammals in captivity through research, investigation and education.
SeaWorld was contacted about Tilikum's current illness, but declined to comment.