Free Tilly!

Yesterday at SeaWorld in Orlando, Flor., a trainer was killed by an orca named Tillikum that she worked with.

Yesterday at SeaWorld in Orlando, Flor., a trainer was killed by an orca named Tillikum that she worked with. Dawn Brancheau, 40, had worked at the park since 1994, fulfilling a childhood dream to do so. The incident happened in Shamu Stadium just prior to the start of a public performance. One report indicated that the orcas seemed agitated during an earlier show, though Tilly was allegedly in fine spirits at the time of the killing. Further still, the 12,300-lb. Tilly was involved in two previous deaths, in 1991 and 1999.

And none of them are his fault.

Orcas are apex predators at the top of the ocean’s food chain. Although they are commonly called killer whales, the moniker is misleading because they actually are dolphins rather than whales. But, yes, they are killers, though not naturally of humans. That is an entirely man-made phenomenon wrought upon ourselves and Brancheau’s death is yet another reminder.

Here’s what the animal rights organizations have to say about it all:

PETA: “For years, PETA has been calling on SeaWorld to stop confining oceangoing mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub. It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.”

Joyce Tischler, founder of and general counsel for Animal Legal Defense Fund: “These behemoths are denied all of their natural, instinctual inclinations, and we humans tend to think, ‘Well, this is just a bad animal.’ But it is a wild animal, used to running free in an entire ocean, but now confined to a very small space. The people who run these theme parks are not interested in conservation or protection, they are interested in making money. I would be asking, ‘Why was this animal kept after the first death?’ ” 

David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute: “The vast majority of the orca whales in captivity would be far better off to be returned to the wild. Orcas are unbelievably ill-suited to life in theme parks and can be successfully returned to the wild. We know, because we have done it. This isn’t the first time that stressed-out orca whales have injured or killed people, and unfortunately, it is not likely to be the last. It is high time that the marine park industry get out of the captive orca business.” (Phillips led the effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and release the killer whale Keiko, aka Free Willy.)

Chris Palmer, author of Shooting in the Will: “This is a giant warning sign that society needs to rethink this question of holding large predators in captivity. Having a trainer killed this way can’t justify whatever benefits we get from conservation or protection.”

There are prices to pay on every side of this situation, the death of this trainer not least among them. To fully grok the costs for the animals, watch Whale Wars and The Cove and you will begin to understand why Tilly should never have been put in a tank to begin with.