My brothers and I watch anxiously from the benches. A black and white shadow glides seamlessly across the bottom of the tank before rising graciously to the top. A 22.5-foot Orca suddenly erupts into the air. He hangs for a moment mid-flight before crashing back into the water. A salty wave washes across the stands. The trainer gives the killer whale his reward along with a sturdy slap on the back. Wild-eyed and excited, the crowd rapturously applaud, as the shadow descends into the abyss. Too young and naïve to understand the implications of the display, my brothers and I join the crowd and praise Tilikum - our showman, our entertainer, our prisoner.
One of the trainers at SeaWorld Orlando at that time was Dawn Brancheau. Dawn's name has become synonymous with both human and animal tragedy. Dawn was intelligent, experienced and caring - by all accounts a consummate professional. She also possessed a genuine love of animals. She volunteered in shelters during her spare time and adopted stray ducks, chickens and birds. Dawn was the poster-girl of SeaWorld - her face plastered on billboards across Orlando.
After 15 years of working at SeaWorld, Dawn was tragically killed during one of the 'Dine with Shamu' shows. As guests enjoyed their dinner, Tilikum dragged Dawn into his tank - perhaps by her arm, perhaps by her ponytail - and thrashed her about until she drowned. An autopsy showed that Dawn had a severed spinal cord and several fractured bones throughout her body, along with a removed scalp. Dawn's death was extensively publicised by international media and reports suggested that she was the third person to die in the company of Tilikum.
This story gained additional notoriety following the commercial success of Blackfish - a documentary detailing the brutality of Tilikum's life at various parks. It emerged that Tilikum had suffered serious mental and physical ailments caused by captivity, which inevitably played a role in Dawn's death. Tilikum became something of a celebrity, lionised by his suffering. Normal folks, not just animal rights activists, started to identify with his cause. People across the US and beyond empathised with Tilikum, adopting the belief that such an imposing creature was unable to flourish in confinement.
This notion of human-to-animal empathy is at the heart of the animal rights movement. The movement represents the idea that non-human animals deserve rights in a similar vein to humans, as they too feel pain and harbour emotions. The debate roars over the extent of the rights non-human animals should receive, but on this occasion, a general agreement prevailed. It was widely acknowledged that this animal, and through logical deduction certain other animals, should have at the very least the right to a greater degree of freedom and the right to protection from sustained manmade harm.
This wide acknowledgement of one particular animal's rights was thus a victory for all animal rights. Tilikum's brutal experience in captivity, so extensively publicised, created an army of inadvertent activists. Folks that typically ignored such issues started to pay attention. These individuals were hardly the boy from Free Willy - a film that created its own group of anti-captivity activists - but they were nonetheless willing to share articles, join a march, or sign a petition. These small acts of individual activism have little impact on their own, but collectively they have the potential to enact serious change.
The publicity brought oft-ignored questions about animal rights to the mainstream. Folks started to question the morality of SeaWorld as an enterprise, which occasioned a huge boycott. This inexorably led to wider questions regarding animal captivity in general, with previously apathetic folks criticising the immorality of zoos and aquariums that exist for the sole purpose of profit. Folks arranged more marches and protests, the boycott was sustained, the petition grew and SeaWorld suffered monumental reputational damage - all of which was made possible through the proliferating effect of social media.
This activism resulted in rare gains for the animal rights movement. In 2016, SeaWorld announced, in an act of damage control, that they would cease their Orca-breeding programme and end theatrical shows involving killer whales. This victory demonstrated the power of widespread, small-scale animal rights activism and further bolstered the movement against captivity. Tilikum's long-standing suffering and the tragic deaths that emanated therefrom thus paved the way towards serious change.
Tilikum died on 6 January 2017. He was 36. He spent most of his life in tanks that consisted of 0.00001% of his natural habitat. He was fed only processed and frozen fish. He performed tricks each day to the rapturous applause of folks like my brothers and I. SeaWorld released an almost laughable statement claiming that he had lived an 'enriching life'.
Tilikum's death will nonetheless reignite arguments concerning the treatment of animals in captivity and will again bolster the animal rights movement. Just as Dawn was once the poster-girl of SeaWorld, Tilikum has become the poster-boy in the fight against institutions such as SeaWorld. He serves as a profound and poignant example of why we should not confine animals to the indignity of captivity and why they deserve basic rights.