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Famous orca Tilikum dies; researcher relieved

Orca whale Tilikum watches trainers at SeaWorld while they are on break. (AP)
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One of the world’s most famous animals died Friday. While the sad news about the orca Tilikum surprised some, for others it’s a relief.

“I was sad, but relieved,” Howard Garrett told the Ron and Don Show about Tilikum who died in captivity at SeaWorld Jan. 6.

“If they weren’t going to do the right thing for him – to put him back into the ocean, in a protected sea pen, feed him and give him medical care, and give him room to move in the home he was born and snatched away from … back in 1983,” he said. “If they weren’t going to do that for him, he had no life. I was relieved that he ended it, I have to say.”

Related: 2016 was the deadliest year for wild Northwest orca

Garrett, a killer whale researcher, co-founded the Orca Network, an organization opposed to keeping orcas in captivity.

In a statement announcing Tilikum’s death, SeaWorld said that the orca lived a long life. He died at the age of 36 after suffering from a bacterial infection in his lungs.

While today is a difficult day for the SeaWorld family, it’s important to remember that Tilikum lived a long and enriching life while at SeaWorld and inspired millions of people to care about this amazing species.

But according to Garrett, it’s not really all that long. For example, “Granny,” aka J2, recently died somewhere in Puget Sound. She was more than 100 years old. According to SeaWorld, however, female orcas live to be between 30 to 50 years, and males live between 19 to 30 years. Other sources claims males live up to 50-60 years. Granny had a son named Ruffles, however, who died at the age of 60 in 2010.

“(SeaWorld) is sort of fudging the facts,” Garrett said. “There are some statistics, but they are based on some disturbed populations so they aren’t reliable on how long males should live.”


Tilikum was famous beyond the confines of this tank at SeaWorld. The orca was known to have killed three people, including the high-profile death of his trainer at SeaWorld. The death was a focus of the film “Blackfish,” which chronicled the controversy around keeping the large mammals in small tanks.

SeaWorld has said the deaths were sad, but kept Tilikum alive despite some calls for this death.

“They’ve never (killed people) in the wild, and very few in captivity,” Garrett said. “They are incredibly tolerant and somehow recognize us as fellow intelligent beings … what he showed, and what ‘Blackfish’ really taught people, is that they have a breaking point.”

There’s a very good reason that Tilikum acted in such ways, Garrett said.

“He led a terrible tragic life in that tiny little metal cage in Victoria … then at Sea World he was isolated and tormented by some of the dominant females the entire time he was in captivity,” he said. ” He was bored out of his gourd. I can’t believe he could live that way. There’s nothing around. It has concrete walls. It’s like living in a hall of mirrors with nothing to do but float listless. How bored could he have been? With a brain four times the size of ours that is constantly processing, but nothing to process. How did he even survive that long?”

Garrett said that such conditions are conducive to creating psychosis in orcas. Especially since they are not evolved to be in such conditions.

“Orcas are the most social mammals known to science,” he said. “They are constantly a part of a family. They are cooperative, they share their food, they share an acoustic repertoire that is like a language. They are always embedded in their social lives, and they have none (at Sea World).”

One of the reasons that Tilikum could have been kept alive is because he sired a number of orca calves. He fathered 21 in captivity — 10 survived.

“The ones that died demonstrate they don’t last long in captivity,” Garrett said.

“It’s not that they don’t care about them or try to keep them alive,” he said. “They just can’t.”

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