What we can learn from Tilikum

The very public death of the orca whale Tilikum, who lived at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, has caused yet more discussion and arguments over exotic animals being kept as ‘entertainment.’

In 1983, Tilikum, along with two other orca whales, were captured in Iceland when the orca was 2 years old. Since then, he’s spent his life in various resorts – firstly in SeaLand in the Pacific, which was shut down after he and two other female orcas killed Keltie Byrne, a 21-year old marine biology student. He was moved to SeaWorld in Orlando, where he lived out the rest of his life. Tilikum’s life was brought far more to public eye by the documentary Blackfish (you can watch it on Netflix), and an aerial shot of his pool, which seemed to show him living in an area where both his nose and tail touched the sides. And… for what?

Tilikum and plenty of other orca whales, as well as plenty of other performing animals, are kept as entertainment for humankind. The same humans who have taken them from their homes, from their families, mind you. But who would really enjoy watching these animals, knowing the sheer amount of unhappiness they experience on a daily basis?

Of course, we can go back decades and look at zoos and circuses, and what they were like back then when the enclosed exotic animals were used for entertainment.

Kept in tight conditions, on short leashes and fed food which wasn’t suitable for their consumption (Victorians especially used the ‘trial and error’ approach of what food agreed with what animal, as they didn’t know what they ate in the wild). Chances are, if you’ve been to a castle or a heritage site with a museum, there will be some taxidermied circus animals who were left behind.

In the current day, there are sports like bullfighting and horse racing, which are still seen as enjoyable sports by people who go to them. The Grand National has a high death toll for horses who are forced to jump abnormally high fences at too high speed. According to PETA, 40,000 bulls are killed every year in bullfights; after their deaths (or even, as they’re still dying), if the crowd deems it, the matador is presented with the ears, tails and hooves, whilst yet another bull is brought for the cycle to start again.

It is obvious why people want to keep exotic pets and go and see them in a convenient manner – because they are exotic. They are difficult to see in the wild, whereas if you go to SeaWorld you will definitely see an orca for example. Not everyone has the money to travel hundreds of miles to see a wild giraffe – but an hour or two to the zoo is far more likely.

But the question still stands: why are animals being unnecessarily tortured, starved, killed, and used for humanity’s ‘entertainment’?

Allegedly, only 29 percent of Spaniards support bullfighting. Thousands refuse to go to SeaWorld, or circuses, because of their history. Hundreds of thousands support charities like PETA, WWF, and the RSPCA, who not only work with domestic pets but exotic animals who have been left behind by the people who took them from their homes too.

Celebrities, like Michael Jackson who had his famous chimpanzee called Bubbles, Paris Hilton with a pet kinkajou, even Elvis Presley who had a pet kangaroo, support the industry of animal trafficking, and keeping animals for entertainment. Bubbles the chimpanzee was removed from Jackson’s house after he matured and became, like most captive chimpanzee’s, overly aggressive, even dangerously so, especially to Jackson’s new-born son (although Bubbles could easily have killed Jackson himself).

Why, then, not just because animals are hurt and unhappy, do we keep them if they could be dangerous? For example, Tikikum killed/drowned three people during his lifetime, and injured dozens of others. In the wild, however, only one person has ever been injured by an orca.

Of course, there are times when exotic animals in captivity can be beneficial to the species/the individual animal: ie, when animals are kept in zoological breeding programmes/rescue centres before being returned to the wild, or helping to raise the population of an otherwise dying species. Some animals cannot be returned to the wild, either due to injury or because they do not know how to survive on their own. A successful case study is that of the Przewalski’s horse – the last known subspecies of horse to be truly wild. In the 1960s, they were entirely extinct in the wild, but through breeding programmes and conservation work, they have now been reintroduced.

There is also education. Zoos use their popularity and visitor numbers to teach said visitors about the animals they are seeing. Many zoos have talks about animals and conservation areas on their parks where visitors can learn about the animals in the park, what the zoo is doing about their decline in the wild, and what they can do to help. Zoos also focus on understanding: it is primarily a learning environment, for vets, keepers and visitors alike.

It is true, yes, that the animals are there to entertain the public. They have things like ‘zoo days’ and tug ropes through a tiger’s enclosure. Yes, some zoos have come under fire in recent years for too small enclosures. But the key difference is that zoos are not primarily for entertainment of the visitors. Not anymore, anyway.

As for me: I believe that whilst establishments like zoos and aquariums, made for the education of the population and to learn about the species themselves, should be left to their education, establishments like SeaWorld and bullfighting arenas should be shut down and the animals returned to the wild where they belong.

I do not get entertainment through watching an animal perform party tricks, especially when I know that they are suffering terribly behind the scenes. Feel free to keep a cat, dog, hamster, guinea pig, or another assorted domesticated pet, but leave the monkeys and creatures in the wild, please. For Tilikum’s sake.


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July 2021
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