ORLANDO, Fla. — A 35-year-old killer whale that was connected to three deaths and became the focus of the “Blackfish” documentary on SeaWorld’s orcas is seriously ill, the company said Tuesday on its Facebook page.
Tilikum is suffering from a bacterial infection in his lungs, SeaWorld Orlando said.
"He does have what we believe to be a respiratory condition that is extremely difficult to treat," SeaWorld veterinarian Scott Gearhart said.
Tilikum has undergone treatment, but the whale's condition continues to deteriorate. Gearhart said there is no cure for the disease.
“He has a disease, which is chronic and progressive, and which, at some point, might cause his death,” Gearhart said.
Gearhart said Tilikum would have died a long time ago if he contracted the disease in the wild.
SeaWorld officials said 35 years old is the upper end of the life expectancy scale for male orcas in the wild.
Officials said Tilikum would not be replaced with another orca.
Tilikum was captured in Iceland in 1983 at age 2 and was later taken to Sealand in British Columbia, Canada.
A trainer fell into a pool with three orcas in February 1991 and it was reported that Tilikum pulled the 20-year-old student to the bottom, where she drowned.
After Sealand closed its doors, Tilikum was put up for sale, but he could not be legally transferred to SeaWorld unless it was a medical emergency.
Another killer whale at Sealand was pregnant, and SeaWorld Orlando requested a permit to take Tilikum “due to the disruptive and potentially harmful impact this male may have on the success of the mother calf nursing and bonding.”
In the permit, SeaWorld also essentially blamed the Canadian trainer’s death on the killer whale’s lack of training and made the case for why another death wouldn’t happen in Orlando.
“SeaWorld’s animals are all highly trained and are accustomed to interacting with trainers,” the permit application said. “Sealand’s animals are essentially untrained.”
Tilikum was brought to SeaWorld in 1991, a few months after the death of the trainer.
The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service reviewed and approved the application, which SeaWorld pointed out after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
“SeaWorld could not have imported Tilikum without the permission of either the U.S. or Canadian governments after their respective careful review of all the facts and the record,” the company said in a statement.
Tilikum was also connected to the death of a 27-year-old man in 1999 who entered the orca tank after hours.
The documentary film "Blackfish" was released in 2013, criticizing SeaWorld's treatment of orcas and the involvement of killer whales in Brancheau's death.
On the movie’s website, the documentary is described as the story of Tilikum, “a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.”
Director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite “compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore (Tilikum’s) extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multibillion-dollar sea-park industry,” the site says.
In the wake of the film, SeaWorld's revenues and attendance declined and its stock value tumbled.
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. CEO Jim Atchison stepped down in 2014 and the company announced layoffs aimed at saving $50 million annually.
The company fought back vehemently against the film, calling it “propaganda, not a documentary.”
SeaWorld launched an entire section of its www.seaworldcares.com site to debunk "Blackfish."
“We object to ‘Blackfish’ because its two central premises are wrong: that life at SeaWorld is harmful for killer whales and for trainers working with these animals, and that SeaWorld has attempted to cover up the facts surrounding the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, as well as the history of Tilikum, the killer whale involved in that accident,” the site says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.
“To make these ultimately false and misleading points, the film conveys falsehoods, manipulates viewers emotionally and relies on questionable filmmaking techniques to create ‘facts’ that support its point of view,” the site says.
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