Friend. That is what Tilikum means in Chinook, a language spoken by the old North American Indian tribes. More famously Tilikum is the largest killer whale in captivity. His immense size (about seven meters long and five and a half tons in weight) also makes him the most dangerous.

An indication of this is Tilikum’s controversial past. He’s been linked to two deaths previously, while a more recent one has been flooding the news headlines. On February 24 an experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed after Tilikum dragged her into the water by her ponytail during a show at SeaWorld in Orlando.

This incident has sparked heated debate about the ethics of holding such large and dangerous animals in captivity. Renowned marine biologist Martha Holmes, who has made several documentaries about killer whales, says that they are, by nature, killers. They’re hunters, making it tempting to say that what occurred was because of Tilikum’s natural instinct. But she says,                            “[M]y instincts … are that Tillikum was not acting naturally at all. I’m convinced that keeping such big marine creatures in such small water parks is cruel and places the animals under tremendous stress.”

Animal rights advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had the same opinion in a released statement saying that it was an unnecessary tragedy. They said, “For years, PETA has been calling on SeaWorld to stop confining ocean-going mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub.”

Perdeby asked some students what they thought.

Imtiaaz Karrim, a first-year BCom Accounting student, thinks that sometimes it is okay to keep such whales in captivity. He says that an injured whale that has been rehabilitated but can’t be released into the wild has no other alternative. But he adds, “To capture a healthy whale just for the sake of putting him in a show is wrong.”

Another issue raised is that killer whales are extremely social animals that are normally found swimming in tight-knit families in the wild. Holmes says putting them in captivity alone is like “placing a human being in solitary confinement – for life. It probably has the same consequences too.”

Many are calling for Tilikum to be released into the wild or even be put down. Yudasha Harilal, a third-year BCom Financial Management student, thinks that further investigation should be made into Tilikum’s nature. “If he’s found to be violent he should be let back into the wild.”

SeaWorld is rejecting both suggestions. They will not cull the whale, and because Tilikum was captured when he was just two years old he wouldn’t have the skills to survive in the wild. They have released a statement on their website saying, “We have every intention of continuing to interact with this animal, though the procedures for working with him will change. We are still reviewing this incident and will evaluate the situation and make a decision accordingly.”

Some are still asking the question: is SeaWorld keeping Tilikum because of what he is worth to them? Former SeaWorld employee, Jeff Ventre, said that Tilikum is “worth millions, and he represents the future of the breeding program for SeaWorld.”

Also, one of the most common justifications usually offered for the existence of places like SeaWorld is that they offer education about animals to the public in an entertaining way. Martha Holmes’s response to this is, “If they do pass on any knowledge, it’s certainly not enough to justify keeping these magnificent creatures in such wretched captivity.

“As a documentary-maker, my objective is both to inform and entertain…but we go about it in a completely different way. Working in the wild, we’re in and out with minimum disturbance to the creatures we’re filming. We find, we observe, we film– and then we move on.”

 Both Harilal and Karrim agree that they would go and watch whale shows because they give you the opportunity to see these animals that a person might not see in the wild without difficulty and expense. These arguments about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity are not new. They’ve been going on for decades and are put in the spotlight whenever an accident, such as Tilikum’s, occurs. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like an answer will ever be found, at least not an answer that will make everyone happy. What would you do?

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