Faunasphere: RIP Tilikum (and puppy mill dogs)

  • Note: The Caregiver’s Thread went pretty well, last time, so I’ll repeat it again tomorrow morning – probably at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. (Unless we get crowded out by breaking news.)

Sorry for the lack of recent Faunaspheres. I’d have to say that most vegans and animal rights activists are as bummed by the recent election as everyone else, so not a lot of action recently. But I’ve written here before of the tragic life of Tilikum, the orca who endured a terrible decades-long captivity in cruel conditions at SeaWorld, and was responsible for three human deaths (at least one of which SeaWorld tried to cover up, and the last of which they tried to pin on the trainer).

His death was announced yesterday. Despite all the “care” he supposedly got at SeaWorld, he was 36, well on the short end of what would have been his natural lifespan.

A drooping dorsal fin, bite scars from hostile orcas he had been caged with when young, and ruined teeth from chewing on his enclosures testified to his decades of mental and physical misery.

His story was immortalized in Blackfish, which is streaming on Netflix and Amazon.

RIP poor Tilikum. I hope you’re finally swimming free with your pod.

Also, ICYMI, Rolling Stone just published an amazing expose of evil puppy mills. (Warning–the text and photos are both hard to take.) I won’t quote it because I know many of you are already familiar with (and properly enraged by) the issues. (But please read it!) But notice this: “We have millions of dogs on our streets, put down two million of them every year – and impose no limits on the number of dogs millers can breed. In England, by contrast, you need a license to breed even a single dog – and only 5,000 were euthanized in 2015.”

What do Tilikum’s story and the puppy mill story have in common? The degradation of animal “husbandry.” Tilikum was valuable as a breeding stud–the movie shows the trainers masturbating him and collecting the semen, which SeaWorld sold–and so are the puppy mill dogs. (Until they’re not, when they’re pretty much discarded.) He and the dogs suffered because their breeders treated them the way we treat most “useful” animals (cows, pigs, etc.)–stuck in tiny cages, given just enough care to serve our purposes but never enough for them to have decent lives.

Captivity sucks.

There has been good news:

Last year, SeaWorld bowed to decades of pressure and announced that it would no longer breed orcas and would phase out orca performances. (Virtual reality is cheaper / easier than maintaining live orcas, anyway!) In the meantime, many other orcas remained enslaved in the “entertainment industry.”

Also, this year Boston joined more than 120 other municipalities to ban pet stores from selling commercially-bred dogs.

Although many poor dogs remain stuck in mills.

(And, just to remind you: the good folks at TripAdvisor said they would remove many “animal attractions” from the site’s listings.)

21 replies
  1. 1
    Botsplainer says:

    I can’t remember – was Tillikum an ace? I seem to remember that some morbid comedians on the internet wanted him marked with stick figures of people representing his number of kills…

  2. 2
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Botsplainer: other than the fact that “marking” would be degrading and probably cruel, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

  3. 3
    Yarrow says:

    If you ever visit Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands (northwest of Seattle), the Whale Museum is interesting to visit. Most of the orcas in captivity come from that area. The museum does a good job of explaining whales and other marine life and also talking about the horrible period where orcas were captured and sent off to places like Sea World. Thankfully that practice has now ended.

    If you go to the other side of the island there is a park where they’ve repurposed an old lighthouse to be sort of an outpost of the whale museum. During the season they have someone there who listens for the orcas (they have underwater microphones) and you may be able to see the whales from the coastline.

    It’s not a super professional museum but more a labor of love by people who love the whales. Definitely worth a visit if you’re there.

  4. 4
    gene108 says:

    I have a stuffed animal Shamu, I got my mom to get me after we visited Sea World, when I was a kid. I thought thought the show as pretty cool.

    Then I got older and realized orcas are the apex predators of the oceans. They kill. That’s what they are good at. They are not cute and cuddly.

    Though I still have the stuffed animal Shamu somewhere.

  5. 5
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Yarrow: Thanks! I actually love “not super professional” museums that are labors of love. If I’m ever lucky enough to go to the SJI I will try to see it!

    Having lived in Boston, I have visited the New Bedford Museum, and it’s worth attending, but it’s mostly a celebration of whaling. (I also went there for the reading of Moby Dick on Melville’s birthday – WHICH OMG IS GOING ON RIGHT NOW – https://www.whalingmuseum.org/programs/21st-annual-moby-dick-marathon-2017/marathon-livestream-2017/ – )

  6. 6
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @gene108: Yeah, I had been there a few times as well. Not only are orcas not cute, but they can be really vicious – I remember a nature show about how they stalked a young fin? whale for days, wearing him and his mother down until she had to abandon him to save herself, then killing it and only eating the tongue.

  7. 7
    errg says:

    Everyone should watch both Blackfish and The Cove if they haven’t. We have no right to keep any of these animals in captivity, I believe.

    RIP Tilikum

  8. 8
    Elmo says:

    Mrs. Elmo and I once helped out our local shelter after a puppy mill bust netted them 110 cockers, JRTs, and Aussie Shepherds. Ugly stories below, skip if squeamish…

    One of the cockers had to be clipped out of his cage because the coat and fecal matter mat had all grown around him and stuck him fast. His muscles were atrophied and he had to be put down.
    We adopted one of the Aussies, who was so feral it took my wife nearly a week of patiently sitting quietly outside her kennel for hours at a time before the dog would approach.
    We also fostered a cocker who was an honest to FSM hermaphrodite. We named her Victor Victoria, and she ended up being adopted by a lovely older lady who paid to get her surgically altered to reduce her risk of cancer later.
    I am an avowed atheist. I do not believe in gods. But after 25 years of dog rescue, I strongly believe in devils.

  9. 9
    Yarrow says:

    @Hillary Rettig: I think you’d really enjoy the Whale Museum, then. It’s not a celebration of whaling at all and they are committed to protecting the orcas in the area. And there are a lot of them! Whale watching tours are a big business there. Some are unethical – get too close to the whales and disturb them. So the Whale Museum has some they recommend that run better tours. It’s quite interesting to learn what has been done to protect the whales in more recent years. Definitely different from when people just came in and took whales away.

  10. 10
    Aleta says:


    orcas are the apex predators of the oceans.

    Splashing water waves up on audiences in order to wash them into the sea and eat them.

    (Sea World is the only murderer here though.)

  11. 11
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Elmo: omg. thanks to you and everyone else involved for the rescue. I’m an avowed atheist, too – but bless you.

  12. 12
    ArchTeryx says:

    @gene108: @Hillary Rettig: Well, to be fair, Tilikum didn’t see humans as prey. What he had was a really, really bad case of Lonesome Lenny Syndrome.

    When dealing with an animal that weighs half a dozen tons, with which you (as a trainer) have only a tenuous connection to, there’s a hell of a lot of risk, but the risk is much more that you’re just going to get in the way, or that the animal might get pissy momentarily and whack you with a 25g fluke strike, or just get (as above) a bad case of the Lonesome Lenny. The orcas were mostly controlled by access to food. They did the job, they got fed. But they’re designed for a far greater stretch of ocean then any tank can ever replicate, and locking them in a tank tends to do very bad things to their minds.

  13. 13
    Aleta says:

    I hate when organizations announce they will “phase out” abusive animal performances. “We want to get credit now for being humane, so people will keep coming. And for the next few years we’ll max out profits and market these shows as “your last chance to see this.”

  14. 14
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Aleta: been reading a bio of William Lloyd Garrison – he was an “immediatist” relative to slavery and would have tipped his hat to ya!

  15. 15
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    OT, but may I ask, Hillary, if you know when the next writing thread will be?

  16. 16
    JanieM says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Tomorrow.


    (This will probably be one among a dozen replies. ;-)

    (Edited to unfancy-up the link. Yech.)

  17. 17
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Thanks, Janie!

  18. 18
    Persia says:

    Slate notes that Sea World may still find injured orca that they will claim can’t be returned to the wild, so…stay vigilant.

  19. 19
    Doug R says:

    Showing my age here, but I saw the “Killer Whale Show” at Sealand when I was a kid before they had Tillicum. I remember when he killed the trainer there and Sealand sold him to Seaworld..
    I agree that even a million gallon tank isn’t big enough for a whale to live in, however if they do find an injured orca, I’m fine with an aquarium nursing it back to health before releasing.

  20. 20
    pseudonymous in nc says:


    Most of the orcas in captivity come from that area.

    And the southern resident pod is feared to be in decline because the Chinook salmon numbers are dropping. I unexpectedly saw a group of orcas pass by one of the Gulf Islands (the same archipelago as the San Juans, just on the Canadian side) some years ago and it is a memory that will stay with me as long as I live. I’m not a religious person, but there’s something profound about being able to witness such things.

  21. 21
    Ella in New Mexico says:

    Poor Tilikum, may he be enjoying his next life free from pain and imprisonment.

    Thank you, Hilary, for reminding all of us of just how important kindness and compassion and empathy are in the world with your posts.

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