What We Know so Far
On March 8, 2016 SeaWorld announced that Tilikum is dying of an undisclosed respiratory illness (here). The internet immediately went nuts.
SeaWorld says Tilikum has “what we believe is a respiratory condition that is especially difficult to treat. The species we found is a type of bacteria that is found in a variety of species.” They then go out of their way to state that is also found in wild cetaceans and the only reason Tilikum has lived this long with his illness is due to the medical care he is receiving in captivity.
They go on to say that Tilikum is on a daily regimen of both antibiotics and antifungals. I find it extremely troubling that SeaWorld chose not to disclose what the specific illness is even though they hint that it is a common ailment. Who knows how long Tilikum will continue to live with his “chronic and progressive” illness but the fact that SeaWorld said anything at all means he is probably in his final days. SeaWorld was already laying the groundwork for this announcement since at least January of this year when they released another ‘animal care’ video. In it you can see Tilikum and Trua being kept in the facility’s back pools instead of their usual place in the large ‘shamu close up’ pool.
Reports of what has been happening since the announcement is even more troubling. On March 12 Ocean Advocate News reported that Tilikum had been seen kept only in the med pool 5 days prior to the announcement and every day since. Keeping such a large animal confined to such a tinny space hardly makes sense when the confinement would likely cause only more stress. That is until you consider the accounts former trainers have given about how violent orca deaths usually are.
Former trainer Dean Gomersall detailed the gruesome death of Kanduke in the blu-ray extras of Blackfish. He tells of Kanduke being kept in a stretcher during his death throws, coughing out blood as he struggled. John Hargrove stated in his book Beneath the Surface, that whales often panic as they struggle to breathe, emitting distressed vocals. Kanduke was kept in a stretcher during his last moments to keep him from panicking and thrashing about. Giving Tilikum’s history it’s next to impossible for trainers to get him into a stretcher since it would involve getting in the water with him, keeping him confined to the med pool with a floor that can raise him out of the water would be the next best thing.
Many have pointed to SeaWorld’s lack of transparency when it came to announcing Tilikum’s condition. They said he was sick, and will likely die soon, however they refuse to name the bacteria he is infected with. Niomi Rose and Ingrid Visser both point to a possible super bug being at fault for Tilikum’s condition. That is a bacteria made resistant to antibiotics from long-term antibiotic use. Voice of the Orcas points to the fact that Tilikum has been on constant antibiotics for chronic teeth issues as a possible cause to making the large male susceptible to resistant strains of bacteria.
Regardless of what might have contributed to Tilikum contracting the bacterial infection it seems clear now that SeaWorld is throwing in the towel. Reports claim he is being kept in the medpool around the clock now. SeaWorld claims that Tilikum is getting the best care possible, but wouldn’t that mean maintaining the best quality of life for as long as possible? How does keeping him in the med pool around the clock qualify? If he is in enough pain or distress that keeping him in the med pool is necessary would it not be kinder to euthanize him? SeaWorld has already admitted they can’t cure him, what kindness is it to keep him alive if he is too sick to leave the med pool?