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Tilikum (c. November 1981 – January 6, 2017)

Tilikum (c. November 1981 – January 6, 2017)

Tilikum is dead. The orca made famous in the 2013 documentary Blackfish was two years old when he was seized in the open waters off Iceland in 1983 and had lived in small tanks ever since. He died today at SeaWorld Orlando, where he’d been held in captivity for the final 24 years of his life. It was last March that SeaWorld announced the orca had a drug-resistant bacterial lung infection, though the official cause of death has yet to be announced.

I researched Tilikum for my 2013 book Bleating Hearts, and in doing so I learned much about orcas. I discovered that in the wild they can live to be 100 years old or more. (Tilikum was 36 when he died.) Highly social animals, orcas are especially vulnerable when restricted to tiny spaces like aquarium tanks and pools. These are some of the largest predators on Earth, reaching up to 32 feet in length. They travel as far as 100 miles in a single day and have been known to suffer depression when deprived of their family and the stimulation of life at sea.

A clue to the toll confinement takes on killer whales can be easily seen in their dorsal fins. In nature, these sleek, black fins stand straight and high, while in captivity, the dorsal fin of all adult males and many adult females collapses, or droops over to one side—a byproduct of the orca spending a lifetime near the water’s surface, though scientists are unsure why this phenomenon occurs.

blackfish-posterIn 2010, Tilikum killed his “trainer” at SeaWorld Orlando, Dawn Brancheau. Dawn was not the first human death Tilikum was responsible for (he’d killed a part-time trainer while being held at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, and then a visitor who’d slipped into the pool after hours at SeaWorld Orlando in 1999), and SeaWorld should have recognized both the psychological stress Tili was under and the danger of allowing park employees to be in the water with him.

Dawn’s death eventually led to the documentary Blackfish, which focuses on Tilikum. The film was shown on CNN and Netflix, resulting in a public outcry against captivity that SeaWorld could not ignore. Attendance at the park plummeted—along with revenue—and the company was forced to make changes. Clearly, were it not for Tilikum and Blackfish, today it would be business as usual at SeaWorld. Instead, the company has agreed to phase out its orca performances and halt its orca breeding program.

There are scores of orcas in captivity worldwide, and we can do better for them than simply waiting for them to die.

What You Can Do:

Never visit a marine park or the other enterprise that keeps marine mammals (or other animals, for that matter) in captivity. Ask family and friends not to visit, either.

Join the efforts of activists who campaign against animal captivity. Groups such as CompassionWorks International and the Captive Animals’ Protection Society focus their work on animals in captivity and assist others doing the same.

Support efforts to “retire” orcas from parks like SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium and release them into seaside sanctuaries. Click here for more information.

Sign the petition to make the results of Tilikum’s autopsy public. Doing so will help ensure SeaWorld is transparent about how and why Tilikum died.

Help the Southern Resident killer whale population. These endangered orcas are suffering from a lack of salmon to feed on thanks to hydro-electric dams on the Snake River in Idaho. Click here for actions you can take.

Learn more about Tilikum and other orcas in captivity. Watch Blackfish, which is available on Netflix, or purchase a copy of the film on DVD. Hold a screening for your family and friends.

I also recommend you follow advocates actively working on behalf of orcas in captivity, including Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center; former SeaWorld trainers Samantha Berg, Carol Ray, and Jeffrey Ventre; Paige Nelson; Dr. Ingrid Visser; and the Orca Project.


If you’re a regular reader of this blog (well, of the blogs I infrequently post here, anyway), you know that I’ve written a couple times about the power of online activism – notably here and here. While there are other forms of advocacy I prefer, I don’t think there’s any question that online petitions have become an influential force in the movement. We need look no further than SeaWorld for evidence.

Yesterday’s news that Southwest Airlines is ending its quarter-century relationship with SeaWorld came as a surprise to no one who has noted SA_SeaWorldthe growing popularity – and power – of petitions hosted on social-change platforms like Care2 and Southwest’s marketing partnership irked many of its customers, leading some to boycott the airline altogether. One such customer was Robin Merritt, who launched a petition on calling on Southwest executives and its board of directors to dump SeaWorld. “Southwest Airlines has a choice,” read the petition. “Will it support the animal cruelty at SeaWorld or make a compassionate choice to end this partnership of cruelty?” More than 32,000 people signed the petition with a simple click, and the air carrier finally made the compassionate choice.

“I started my petition on because Blackfish got so many people talking about how these orcas are confined to tiny tanks, and then 32,000 people joined me,” said Robin. “I’m so ecstatic. This just goes to show that companies do really value customers’ opinions, and I thank Southwest for listening to us and making this decision.”

This was just the latest in a string of anti-SeaWorld victories animal advocates have been celebrating in recent months, and let’s be honest, we owe a lot of thanks to Blackfish – that heart-wrenching 2013 documentary that is turning the tide against animal captivity. The film has not only raised public awareness about the plight of confined and exploited marine mammals, but it’s inspired scores of everyday animal lovers to launch online petitions against SeaWorld and other businesses that keep animals. And we’re experiencing a sea change.

Last year, says Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at, people launched successful petitions asking Willie Nelson, Barenaked Ladies, Heart, and other musical acts to cancel scheduled SeaWorld performances. “I think they were successful because the petitions were generally started by fans who were very sincere in their disappointment, and the artists realized it probably wasn’t worth risking their reputation for one show, and the right timing with people buzzing about Blackish on social media.”

When it comes to online petitions, strategy is more important than the number of signatures. “You can have one million people asking Congress to shut down all the factory farms, but that’s not winnable at the moment and not terribly interesting,” says Pulin. “But if you can get people to get behind a specific campaign to pressure an influential company to make a change, that’s more likely to win, appeal to media, and show the power of consumers.” One example he offers is Daelyn Fortney, whose petition urging Starbucks to stop using a food coloring made from crushed bugs got fewer than 7,000 signatures. “But the media coverage was pretty widespread and led to a relatively quick decision from Starbucks to switch to a non-animal-based coloring.”

So what makes one petition more successful than another? “There are free tips and guides for everyone right on,” says Pulin. “The main advice I have is to tell an authentic, compelling story where your ask is realistic, the timeline is clear, and you are clear why someone signing your petition can actually make a difference. For animal campaigns, a compelling photo is especially important. Then share it on your social networks, notify reporters, and constantly – but politely – try to engage with the decision-maker to make sure they see it as a way you’re bringing concerns to them rather than approaching it antagonistically.”

Oh, and after your victory, don’t forget to do what Robin Merritt will do this weekend: celebrate!


BlackfishIf one image could symbolize the last 12 months of animal activism around the world, I argue it would be a picture of an orca in captivity. That’s thanks to the success of the documentary Blackfish, which exposes the abusive treatment of animals at SeaWorld — treatment that ultimately led to an orca named Tilikum killing one of his trainers. (Orcas have never been known to harm humans in the wild; this behavior only occurs due to the stress of captivity.) The film has galvanized the movement to free orcas from marine mammal parks and inspired countless compassionate people to speak out against the captivity industry.

SeaWorld remained silent about Blackfish for months after its January 2013 screening at the Sundance Film Festival — no doubt hoping it would just go away — but as the documentary went into general release in the spring and CNN began broadcasting it on its network in the fall, the public outcry against SeaWorld led to musical acts cancelling appearances at the Orlando location, and the company launched an inept marketing campaign to try to discredit Blackfish and the former SeaWorld trainers who appear in it. The film not only helped tank attendance at SeaWorld parks, it also prompted California Assemblymember Richard Bloom to propose legislation that would ban orca shows in that state; AB 2140 is officially known as the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, but most people simply call it “The Blackfish Bill.” (Voting on the bill has been tabled until next year.)

Of course, activists have long campaigned against the captivity industry, but there’s no question Blackfish has invigorated the liberation movement. One of the results of this nascent energy has been animal lovers turning out for the Empty the Tanks campaign, which brings the struggle directly to the animal exploiters by rallying advocates worldwide to demonstrate in front of theme parks, aquariums, and other businesses that imprison whales and dolphins.

Vallejo, Calif., 2013.

Vallejo, Calif., 2013.

Empty the Tanks is the brainchild of Rachel Greenhalgh, who was a Cove Guardian in Taiji in January 2013. “On one of my last days there I was thinking about how I could find a way to be productive and proactive in this fight against the captivity industry after I returned home,” she says. “That’s when and where this whole idea began. The captive animals floating listlessly in their tiny sea pens in Taiji are a sight that cuts you to your core. I wanted to come home and continue fighting for them.”


Tokyo, 2013.

The first-annual Empty the Tanks Worldwide took place seven months later. “There were 24 locations participating in 12 countries around the world,” says Rachel. “This year on May 24, the second-annual Empty the Tanks Worldwide will have over 40 locations in 20 countries participating. The numbers have doubled since last year, which is so amazing.”

Not surprisingly, this kind of success is the result not only of grassroots activists, but using Facebook and Twitter to get the word out. “Social media is an amazing tool,” says Rachel. “Facebook has created a way for activists from around the world to connect to each other and plan events such as Empty the Tanks. I honestly don’t know how this worldwide event could have happened without social media.”

Modern technology has given activists a tremendous advantage, but as Rachel points out, effectively speaking out for animals often comes down to good old-fashioned hard work. “If you want to make a difference in this world, you need patience and dedication. Anyone can go out there and be a part of making the world a better, kinder, more compassionate place. Come up with a plan and just go for it.”

In the meantime, you can participate in an Empty the Tanks demo near you on May 24. Just check out their Facebook page, of course.



As I write this, Ric O’Barry is in Taiji, Japan, risking his life. But when we spoke by phone the other day, he was relaxing at his home in Florida. Well, maybe not relaxing, exactly. Ric, who spent 10 years capturing and training dolphins for the entertainment industry and the last 40 years as an anti-captivity activist, is constantly working on behalf of these charismatic marine mammals. In between packing for his trip, Ric was taking time to respond to questions from reporters, authors, and bloggers alike. “I was just speaking to some newspaper in London,” he tells me. “With everyone I talk to, my message is always the same: Don’t buy a ticket.”

By that he means, of course, do not patronize facilities that display dolphins. Much of his work—and, indeed, the captive-dolphin industry—is centered around what goes on in Taiji every September, when local fishermen begin driving dolphin pods into a shallow inlet. The ensuing months-long slaughter, made famous by the 2009 documentary The Cove, kills thousands of dolphins for Japan’s dolphin-meat trade, while live dolphins are sold to marine parks and aquariums for as much as $32,000 apiece.

For Ric, stopping this lucrative business is not just a moral imperative, it’s personal. In the 1960s, he worked for the Miami Seaquarium, training the five dolphins used for the popular TV series Flipper. Upon witnessing the death of Kathy, the dolphin who played Flipper most often, Ric became a passionate and outspoken campaigner against keeping dolphins in captivity. I was thrilled to be able to speak with him.

Is captivity more stressful for dolphins than other animals?

Yes, because they are sonic creatures—their primary sense is sound. If you go to the zoo, take a look at the reptile exhibit and find a snake. You’ll see that the snake is given more consideration than the dolphins at Marineland. You’ll see that the snake has got tree limbs to climb on, he’s got rocks to hide from the public if he wants to, grass—there’s always something natural about the snake’s habitat. But if you look at the habitat of a captive dolphin, you’ll notice there’s nothing there. It’s just a blank, concrete box. Is that stress? Of course it is.

Why can’t marine parks create better environments for dolphins?

It’s really not what’s best for the dolphin; it’s about getting people to come and watch a show, and then getting another group of people to watch the same show. Even the best of the bad ideas, SeaWorld in Orlando, has concrete tanks. There’s no way you can fix that. The dolphins are separated from the natural rhythms of the sea: the tide, the current, the sounds of the sea, the things we take for granted. All of that is missing. That is what we call sensory deprivation. That makes it more stressful for them than other animals in captivity.

You’ve been doing this for four decades now. Are you seeing any progress?

Ric cutting chain link fence to let dolphins escape. Photo by Daniel Morel.

Yes. I am seeing great progress, and that’s really what keeps me going: measureable results. For example, when I first started campaigning in Germany, there were 12 or 15 dolphinariums. Today there’s only one left. It’s easier in Europe, because people are better educated. In 2011, I received a Bambi award, and it’s a live event. Fifteen million people are watching this in German-speaking countries. It’s like the Academy Awards. I had several minutes on TV to look right into the camera, explain the problem, and say, “Please don’t buy a ticket!” It’s based on supply and demand, like any other product, and we as consumers have the power. And it’s working. People are getting the message. Two dolphinariums in Germany closed since then.

Can governments step in to speed up progress in other countries?

Governments aren’t going to close dolphinariums. Governments protect corporations; they don’t protect people and other animals. Like the National Marine Fisheries Service, who were supposed to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They’re actually a part of the Department of Commerce. Commerce’s job is to facilitate commerce; they have a mandate. To tell them to protect dolphins and facilitate commerce is like telling them to stand up and sit down at the same time. So the system doesn’t work; it’s an inherent conflict of interest, and the only hope is consumers. That’s what I do: try to get to the consumers.

Please tell me about your campaign in Taiji.

When we’re in Japan on September 1st, the message is, Don’t buy this dolphin meat. If the Japanese people learn that the product is poison, they will stop buying it. As a matter of fact, in the last four years, the killing has dropped dramatically because the demand has dropped off dramatically as people learn that the product is contaminated with mercury.

I’ve been going to Japan four or five times a year since 2003. I’ll be back there September 1st; we have two busloads of people from around the world who are going to meet us there. We have 93 cities that are going to be protesting on that same day. We’re just trying to keep Taiji and this cove in the news. You know, it’s hard to keep any issue alive in the media; they move on to other things. We’ve been lucky to keep that issue alive, and when we show up September 1st, there’ll probably be 100 people from the media there. We’re just trying to remind the media that today is the day that the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world begins and will go on for six months.

Do you ever feel physically in danger there?

Well, I am physically in danger; there’s no question about that. The police have told me that. The fishermen themselves have told me they would kill me if they could. They probably wish they had back in 2003, because it wouldn’t have been a big news story. But today they probably wouldn’t do that because it would bring too much attention to them. I have a very high media profile in Japan now. It offers some protection, but it doesn’t offer protection from, you know, the young yakuza wannabe who wants to make a name for himself. Or some drunken fisherman who makes a bad decision and does something stupid.

When “The Cove” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, director Louie Psihoyos, producer Fisher Stevens, and star Ric O’Barry took to the stage. As Psihoyos and Fisher accepted their Oscars, Ric held up a banner reading “Text DOLPHIN to 44144.” Over the next 24 hours, so many people sent the text message petition to President Obama and the Japanese prime minister that, Ric says, the system crashed. Associated Press photo.

Are you seeing a decrease in dolphins taken for captivity in Taiji?

No, I’m seeing an increase in that. I’m sure we’re going to stop the killing. It takes the captivity industry to stop the captures. They could do it anytime they want to, but they refuse to get involved and police their own industry. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the AZA, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, SeaWorld—it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. They just want to look the other way and pretend it doesn’t happen.

Why the increase in captures?

Most of the dolphins captured at the cove are taken to facilities in Japan. Japan is the size of California, and it has 51 dolphin abusement parks—51. It’s amazing. That’s more than all of Europe. They are substandard facilities. They are disposable dolphins for a disposable society. The fishermen capture them and drag them there kicking and screaming, they keep them for as long as they can, the dolphins die, they dump them, and they get more from Taiji. That’s why the captures continue. Also, China and Turkey are big markets.

Aside from not patronizing facilities with dolphins, what can people do to help?

They can go to our website. We don’t have a huge fan base like Sea Shepherd or the Humane Society. We’re actually quite small. We’re understaffed and underfunded. If you want to help, just go to and make a donation.

My thanks to Ric for taking the time to talk to me. In addition to visiting his website and contributing, you can like Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project on Facebook and follow them on Twitter: @dolphin_project. You can also forward this interview to family and friends!

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