5 life lessons my son and I learned from SeaWorld’s killer whale, Tilikum

My son Noah’s first peaceful protest was at age 4. We wanted to raise awareness to support the release of Tilikum from SeaWorld back into the wild and teach others about his unfair captivity. At that time, Tilikum, the largest orca whale in captivity, had already been living in a tank for over 30 years (picture living in a bathtub to get an idea of what it’s like).

The documentary Blackfish made Tilikum a household name when it was released in 2013. But way before this inspiring film was made, Noah and I were learning about life, love and compassion from Tilikum, a whale we never met.

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Here are some of the lessons Tilikum taught us:

1. All creatures deserve compassion

Sadly Tilikum’s life is probably coming to an end very soon because he is sick, as reported in the media yesterday. Incidentally, if he were living in the wild, he would probably have never gotten sick in the first place. Compassion and kindness are very important to us and extend to all animal species, regardless how small. I believe it is important to develop compassion at a young age and teach children about empathy, respect and kindness. Tilikum was often the example we used when discussing how not to treat others. If you love whales, you don’t go visit them in jail — it’s really that simple.

2. Stealing is always wrong

It’s important to understand that Tilikum was stolen from his home in the wild. I taught Noah that we do not take what is not ours, and stealing is wrong. When Tilikum was only 2 years old in November 1983, he was violently captured from his home in Iceland. This is not OK. Families and pods are torn apart when they are stolen from the ocean.

Noah and I have also discussed Lolita, another whale who was stolen from her family as a baby and has been kept in the same tank at Miami Seaquarium for almost half a century, where she is forced to perform tricks, such as jump through burning hoops of fire. The bottom line is that we do not take what is not ours or participate in activities that exploit another species.

In case you are wondering, it’s also not natural for humans to “ride,” “kiss” or “pat” a dolphin or whale. This is a cruel, stressful and inhumane thing to do, not to mention unsafe for your child.

3. Find other ways to learn about whales, dolphins and ocean creatures

As year after year passed, Tilikum was still in captivity at SeaWorld. He is believed to be about 35 years old. Male orcas in the wild live 50 to 60 years in freedom, but when forced into captivity, the average age of survival is 12. Not a single orca in captivity has ever died of old age. So how did I teach my son about the creatures of the ocean?

Over the years, we have taken humane boat rides in open water and have seen seals, dolphins and sharks. We have gone snorkelling with fish and swum through ocean reefs. Scuba diving in another great alternative. Of course, budgets don’t always allow for travel, so from the comfort of our home, we have read books about whales, watched humane documentaries that filmmakers have created without harm and searched online videos and photographs.

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Noah and I have yet to see an orca whale in the wild, but when we do, it will be in the ocean, and it will be spectacular.

4. Fight for what you believe in

This morning, through tears, I told Noah that Tilikum is dying. He will die in captivity because people continue to buy tickets to marine parks and aquariums. The simplest and easiest thing you can do if you want to help future Tilikums of the world is to never attend a marine park.

Tilikum has taught Noah and me to fight for what we believe in, and this will not change when he dies. The sadness we both feel for a whale we never met is overwhelming, and I know we will never forget what he has endured for the sake of “entertainment.” But to us, Tilikum is a hero, and his legacy will always live on. Noah and I will continue to explain to others why it’s wrong to keep whales in captivity, and we will continue to fight for their freedom.

5. Tilikum inspired my son to become an activist

Noah is almost 10 now, and for the past six years, we have attended protests outside Marineland and Ripley’s Aquarium in Canada to let people know that it is not OK to keep these giant creatures in captivity. Noah and I have distributed hundreds of flyers, and we have stood firm in our belief that together we can advocate for whales and dolphins in captivity.

Because of Tilikum’s tragic life, Noah and I continue to speak up for the voiceless, and we won’t stop until all the tanks are empty.

Dear Tilikum, we are sorry we couldn’t save you. We tried. We will always love you.

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