Tilikum, the orca that’s famous for killing a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010 and was profiled in the documentary Blackfish, has died, SeaWorld announced. He was 36 years old.
“Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues. While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” SeaWorld said in a statement.
Tilikum spent 33 years of his life in captivity after he was caught off the coast of Iceland when he was just a calf in 1983. Male orcas typically live for around 30 to 60 years in the wild.
He had reportedly been fighting an infection for many years, but SeaWorld never said exactly which one. Despite SeaWorld’s claims, a lot of experts have noted that the stress of captivity makes animals more susceptible to infections. Tilikum’s daughter, Unna, also died from an infection last year.
For the past three decades, Tilikum was arguably the most famous orca in the world—he came to symbolize everything that’s wrong with captivity. He killed three humans over the years likely because of his frustration with being held captive in a tiny tank.
He was responsible for the death of Keltie Byrnes, a trainer who fell into his tank at Canada’s Sealand of the Pacific in 1991. He was sold to SeaWorld Orlando where he was reportedly involved in the death of a homeless man who fell into his tank in 1999. In 2010, he pulled SeaWorld star trainer Dawn Brancheau (pictured above) into the water and killed her.
Tilikum showed a lot of unnatural behavior. He would regularly be seen floating motionless in his tank for hours on end—something orcas in the wild never do because they’re constantly on the move. He also destroyed his teeth by chewing on the sides of his tank.
His tragic plight was the focus of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which exposed SeaWorld’s unethical treatment of many of its animals. The documentary sparked public outrage and caused attendance to drop in SeaWorld’s marine parks. It also pushed the company to make some important changes to improve the lives of its animals, including ending its controversial orca breeding program.
Despite the tragedy of his life and the human deaths he was responsible for, Tilikum left behind a powerful legacy. He never had a human voice to speak, but his behavior was the catalyst that started an amazing movement that’s changing the lives of other animals living in captivity.
Tilikum’s death comes just a few days after Granny, the oldest known living orca, went missing and is presumed dead. She was 105 years old.