Regardless of what SeaWorld decides as Tilikum's long-term future, a conversation has started within the whale research and advocacy communities about what ought to be done with an orca linked to three human deaths.
Killer whale experts know the giant mammals to be highly intelligent and incredibly social beings. All of the authorities contacted by the Orlando Sentinel said they would rather see killer whales in their natural habitat — the earth's oceans — than in tanks at an Orlando theme park.
One suggested that building a tank the size of Rhode Island wouldn't be large enough for a six-ton male such as Tilikum, an animal capable of swimming 100 miles in a day
Re-introducing Tilikum to the wild would be costly, would include serious risks for the animal and would not guarantee his survival, they say.
Nonetheless, in the aftermath of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau's death this week, authorities such as Naomi Rose argue there is a moral obligation to release Tilikum.
"There is absolutely a risk in keeping him where he is," said Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal scientist for the Humane Society of the United States. She predicted Tilikum will kill again if he remains in captivity.
"I will take bets on that and win," Rose said. "Boredom, depression — these cause physical problems in human beings, chimpanzees and, believe me, killer whales."
SeaWorld officials said Friday they intend to continue using Tilikum in performances. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President Jim Atchison said removing him from shows "would be a shame." The orca's participation in shows is "very important to his overall health and husbandry."
That's not the news many in the killer whale community wanted to hear. At the same time, such experts acknowledge that putting Tilikum in the wild is something that never has been done successfully long-term with a whale who has been held in such captivity.
Keiko, of "Free Willy" movie fame, was held in captivity for many years before taking off on his own from the Iceland coast. But Keiko never bonded with other orca "pods" his handlers thought might adopt the whale.
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