Friday, January 6, 2017

Tilikum is Dead but SeaWorld Can Extend His Legacy Through Science

Sadly, a week into 2017, we learn of the loss of Southern Resident Matriarch J2, Granny, and now Tilikum, the killer whale that changed the world. In our opinion, SeaWorld now has an opportunity, in death, and can extend Tilikum's Legacy beyond the show pool:
Collaborate with outside scientists, do an MRI of his brain, share tissue samples of dorsal fin collagen, examine his eyes, and in general, share necropsy results with the outside world.  

SeaWorld reported that Tilikum had been battling a serious and persistent lung infection, 
with pneumonia being the leading reported cause of captive killer whale mortality. Efforts to treat Tilikum have finally failed due to decades of antibiotic and antifungal therapy, medications that three-of-us at VOTO have fed him, and medications he was on for a very long time, including when he last killed in 2010. Watch below as former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member, Dean Gomersall, describes the "death throes" of former SeaWorld killer whale Kanduke, another large male that died under similar circumstances in 1990:  

Tilikum was fed antibiotics consistently for at least two decades, primarily because of his badly damaged teeth, including open bore holes that were flushed with antiseptic solution 2-3 times daily. See SeaWorld's video below. These bore holes lead to fish particles, roe, and other debris getting into the jaw and eventually into his blood stream, causing chronic low grade infection(s), able to seed various organs, including the lungs. 

In his final weeks he was likely suffering from pulmonary edema, or excess fluid in his lungs.When the surface area of his alveoli diminished sufficiently, he likely suffocated and went into death throes, as described above, in the video. 

When Tilikum was near death in 2016, SeaWorld produced this video, below, filled with misinformation, regarding his health & the "similar diseases" found in wild whales. Sorry SeaWorld, wild orca don't have antibiotic resistant "super infections" 

Compare Tilikum's dorsal fin to this personal video from the mid 1990's. 

Many citizens, including some in the scientific community, are hopeful that SeaWorld will dedicate Tilikum's cadaver to science. This gesture would advance our understanding of the impact of captivity on marine mammals such as Tilikum. 

Histological samples of dorsal fin collagen would help us understand collagen fibrillogenesis in killer whales, and why dorsal fins collapse in captivity. Kidney tissue samples could help us understand the effects of chronic dehydration on orcas, like Tilikum, who require gelatin as a dietary supplement. Cardiac tissue could be examined for evidence of physical deconditioning. Eye tissue could be used to understand the effects of looking upward toward trainers, a behavior that is probably contributory to early cataract formation in show animals that must look up for hand signals from trainers. Blood tissue can be used to test for elevated titers of viruses such as West Nile, St Louis encephalitis, and other mosquito transmitted "bugs" associated with zoos, but not seen in wild animals. Immunoglobulin levels could provide information on captive orca immunity. Detailed bone and joint examinations could be examined for evidence of various arthritides. DNA testing could help identify Tilikum's natal pod, and so on. 

The four of us @Voice_OT_Orcas talk about Tilikum & captivity in this brief #Blackfish clip: 

From the movie "Concussion," Take the NFL as an example 

Samples of brain tissue were critical in understanding the newly described condition (seen in NFL players) known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopaty (CTE), and as depicted in the film "Concussion," with Will Smith. The NFL was initially resistant to outside scientists performing these studies, but is now helping to fund them. SeaWorld can mimic the NFL, and CEO Joel Manby can get credit for the change.

Killer whales in captivity are also known to slam their heads on solid objects such as gates and concrete walls, especially adult male killer whales, with Kanduke being a famous example. Learn about Kanduke in the first video of this article. 

Tilikum's brain tissue, via MRI as depicted in Blackfish, could push our understanding of the orca brain forward, a brain four times larger than our own. 

An MRI can be used to scan Tilikum's brain. This has been done once, previously, & was depicted  in Blackfish movie 

SeaWorld has an opportunity to extend Tilikum's legacy beyond the performance pool and to substantiate it's claims of performing relevant science. We are hopeful they will take up this idea for the benefit of science, the public, policy makers, whale lovers, and for future killer whales. 

Thank you, Tilikum, for your sacrifices. Your legacy will live on through us and the millions of people your story has touched.  

Jeffrey Ventre MD

Blackfish cast member 
Former trainer at SeaWorld 


  1. My thoughts are also with you, John, Sam and Steve and all the other trainers who loved him and exposed his sacrifices and the horrific circumstances he lived in all his life.

    I hope SW does right by him now.

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  2. I'm so saddened to know Tilly has passed away at SeaWorld. To think his legacy could be the expansion of scientific knowledge on orcas through the study of his cadaver is a ray of hope in an otherwise hopeless life. Poor, poor boy. After three decades of captivity, another right move for SeaWorld to take would be a seaside sanctuary named in Tilikum's memory.

  3. He deserves more of a legacy than having killed one (actually more than one) Orca trainer which headlines every single article on his death. He helped spearhead a movement. I think more needs to be told about infections in the wild vs those that are clearly related to overtreatment of antibiotics and antifungels in captivity, i.e. zoos and aquariums and marine parks.

  4. Like others, this would be a great way to change the story so he is more than the whale that killed somebody. I have little faith in SW to agree to do this though.

  5. Cheer up everyone - try reading "Orca Boy" at Amazon books

  6. If they have nothing to hide, why aren't they scrambling to do this? If captivity is just fine for orcas, wouldn't they want to prove that?