Dear Tilikum: An open letter to the whale who changed our minds.

Dear Tilikum,

In the Pacific, your name means “friends, relations, or tribe.” For a bull orca, an intrinsically social species whose identity is thought to be spread across a group, it’s a profoundly fitting name.

But your life, which ended on January 6, was one of loneliness.

When it was announced that you, a notorious whale who came to public attention in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, had passed away, I didn’t know how to feel.

On one hand, I knew you were finally free after three decades in captivity. Your life inside a relative bathtub, taken from your ocean family and filled with stress and pain, was over.

But your life was unnecessarily tragic. Estimated to be 36, you lived only a fraction of the life you might have had in the wild. As an animal known for your strong social bonds, you were separated from your children and spent your time in isolation, or shared your home with whales you had no affinity with. Your collapsed dorsal fin was just one physical manifestation of the damage done by your life in captivity – and how it had manipulated your fundamental instincts and behaviours.

You were involved in three devastating human deaths. In 1991, you, along with two other whales, drowned a 21-year-old student working as a Sealand trainer. In 1999, a 27-year-old man was found dead in your tank, and in 2010 Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer, was dragged by her pony tail into the water, and died as a result of drowning and blunt trauma.

You didn’t know who was trying to help you and who was trying to hurt you, because humans had done both. You had been taken from your family as a baby, spent your adolescence alone in darkness, and were then expected to trust the very species that had inflicted your pain.

"Dawn Brancheau was dragged by her ponytail into the water." Image via Youtube.

Only one person has ever been injured by a wild orca, and no known human deaths have ever been recorded. Your species are not violent in their natural habitat, and we can assume you wouldn't have been, either.

Following your death on Friday, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said, "[you] experienced horrific pain. [You] caused unspeakable pain. At least there's no more suffering."

But despite your dark life, I believe your purpose was to teach humanity a lesson. You've left a legacy much bigger than yourself, and your story has made an entire generation aware of the plight of not only killer whales, but wild animals in general that live in captivity.

"Your collapsed dorsal fin was just one physical manifestation of the damage done by your life in captivity." Image via Youtube.

You launched an unprecedented public conversation about our treatment of animals for human entertainment. Our empathy for you has generalised to countless other animals, in countless other contexts. No longer can we mindlessly ride an elephant in Thailand, or watch a show at the zoo, or look at large marine mammals in tanks, and ignore their subjectivity.

You've made it impossible to justify captivity of wild animals for trivial purposes - and, quite simply, we'll never look at animals in captivity the same way again.

Your story catalysed the movement that caused SeaWorld to end its orca shows. You were the icon in mind when SeaWorld announced an end to its captive breeding program. You were the one that gave people pause when considering a trip to SeaWorld, resulting in a tangible decrease in attendance rates, and a substantial financial loss.

Tilikum, your story gave a voice to the voiceless, and your life - tragic and lonely and painful - means the next generations of orcas won't suffer the same fate.

We're sorry for your suffering. It's our responsibility now to not forget you, or your collapsed fin, so that your death won't be in vain.

nailed it

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