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Killer
Tilikum died last week at the age of thirty-six. That’s a long time for an orca in captivity.*

At his death, he was the most famous member of his species, or at least the most infamous. During his sad life, he was involved directly in the deaths of three humans. In the last of these incidents he acted alone, and the killing was particularly brutal.

There were calls at the time to “put down” Tilikum. “Execute him” better reflects the public mood right after the incident. People naturally reacted with horror at the thought of a 12,000-pound killer whale murdering a defenseless trainer who meant it no harm. The rage passed, though, when the creature’s life story became known.

Tilikum had been captured off Iceland when he was about two — just on the cusp of living separately from his mother. Like all orcas, he was utterly dependant on the close-knit social structure of his family. His first stop, however, was a small concrete tank where he waited alone for over a year for his destiny to unfold. When that day came he was kept in tight confinement with two larger orcas who disliked and physically abused him. At times during his long captivity he exhibited behavior consistent with deep depression, stress, and psychosis. When people learned how he had been mistreated — especially after the movie Blackfish came out describing his plight — opinion quickly turned in his favor and against the inhumane practices at places like SeaWorld.

Tilikum was spared. His actions were, after all, a product of his own nature and the awful environment he was made to live in. Also spared were the humans who enslaved and mistreated him. Whatever responsibility they bore for the deaths was forgiven, SeaWorld paid a fine, and everyone moved on with their lives. For Tilikum, that meant a long illness in captivity and his eventual, very difficult, death.

It’s hard to find fault with the people who care for orcas or any of the creatures held for public display at zoos and aquariums. They seem to genuinely care about the animals in their charge. Members of the public (including me) like seeing the animals and watching them perform. It is hard to deny, though, the inherent cruelty of the whole enterprise. A zoo is a prison. The “performances” are unnatural abuses of living beings. The misuse of captive animals, no matter how humanely managed, is an ugly reflection on the humans who oversee it.

Including us.

*Most marine biologists place the life expectancy of male orcas in the wild at 60 years.

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