Tilikum: How Did We Get Here?


As a vegan, my social media feeds are often full of tough posts to read. It can be too much to read the pleas about dogs on death row at the pound, to see the images of skinned minks, their fur destined for the coats of ignorant consumers, to click the link to a heartbreaking story or video where someone (not something) has been exploited.

I mute my feed when it becomes necessary. I believe that bearing witness is an important part of activism. I also believe that self-care is necessary, or else activists cannot be at their best when speaking up for those without a voice.

Tonight I got wind of the news that Tilikum, the orca who became the focus of the CNN documentary Blackfish, isn’t well. It seems that the end is near for this poor boy, who was taken from his pod some thirty years ago and has lived in captivity ever since. A whale does not belong in a pool. A whale’s purpose is not to do tricks for a crowd of stupid humans. A whale’s fate should not be to die in captivity. And yet, poor Tilikum is nearing the end of a life stolen from him.

Tilikum’s story – just one in a long string of equally unjust stories – breaks my heart. I’ve been sitting here, thinking about how we got here. How did humans get to the place where they can domesticate animals for food and for labor, where they can trap animals for entertainment, where they can raise animals for their skins? How did humans evolve into creatures who think they are entitled to the lives and bodies of other sentient species? How do humans reconcile the fact that they love their dogs and cats and eat those cows and pigs? How do humans ignore the fact that there is something truly wrong with caging an animal and expecting him not to be negatively affected by it?

Tilikum deserved better than he got. He deserved a life with his pod, swimming the miles of the ocean, free to be an orca. He did not deserve to be kidnapped, to be trapped in a tank, to be made to do tricks. It’s no wonder he went mad. It’s no wonder he killed people. Those people are victims as well – victims of a truly twisted system of exploitation that must stop.

I take comfort in the fact that SeaWorld has suffered in the court of public opinion as of late. Its stocks are plummeting and its ticket sales are down. I hope that one day, SeaWorld’s doors will close, and dolphins, whales, and other sea life will never have to suffer a life as tragic as Tilikum’s.

Tragedy is happening every day, sometimes behind closed doors, and often out in the open. Speak up. Speak out. Keep your eyes and your heart open. Don’t let stories like this one end the same way.

For more on Tilikum, check out blackfishmovie.com.

Photo: Milan Boers

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