British Columbia

Tilikum's former trainer says dying orca was once 'gentle, passive'

One of Tilikum's first trainers — who says he remembers a time when the killer whale was "gentle" — is calling for an end to whales in captivity.

Orca involved in deaths of three people has contracted a bacterial infection that may be fatal

Tillikum, seen here performing at SeaWorld Orlando in 2009, is in deteriorating health. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

As orca Tilikum's last days seem to be approaching, one of his first trainers at a former Victoria-area aquarium — who says he remembers a time when the killer whale was "gentle" — is calling for an end to whales in captivity.

"Tilikum is doomed to live and die where he has been for the last 23, 24 years," said Steve Huxter, who worked at Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay and was the first to greet Tilikum when the orca first arrived in 1984. At the time Huxter, who is now retired, was the head of animal care and training.

SeaWorld Orlando announced March 9 that Tilikum, a 34-year-old bull orca, is believed to have a bacterial infection in his lungs that may ultimately cause his death.

Tilikum involved with deaths of three people

Tilikum was the focus of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, in which experts and trainers (including Huxter) spoke about the circumstances around the orca's involvement in the deaths of two trainers in separate incidents at Sealand near Victoria and at SeaWorld Orlando, as well as the death of a man trespassing on SeaWorld Orlando's property.

The orca Haida gives Steve Huxter a "kiss", while Tillikum rests on the deck of the pool at Sealand of the Pacific. (Steve Huxter)

Huxter, who no longer works as a trainer and is against whales in captivity, said the controversial documentary has "the correct narrative."

"There was definitely something dark going on," he told host Robyn Burns in an interview on All Points West.

"Those of us who worked with Tilikum knew him to be a very passive, very gentle animal."

Huxter, who started having serious doubts about whales in captivity when he was working at Sealand of the Pacific, left that line of work when the aquarium closed in 1992.

'He simply snapped'

He said he was shocked when, in 2010, Tilikum pulled his trainer Dawn Brancheau into the pool at SeaWorld Orlando and drowned her.

Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer, was killed by Tilikum at the SeaWorld Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla in 2010. ((Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/Associated Press))

"It was aggressive, outwardly aggressive, and that was not the Tilikum we knew," Huxley said.

"He left [Sealand of the Pacific] being the Tilikum we always knew, gentle, happy, eager to interact with us, and that's not what we saw in 2010.

"All we could speculate was that the years of boredom and frustration and being attacked by other animals there … he just snapped, just simply snapped."

Huxter said that incident was different from when Tilikum was involved in the death of one of his colleagues at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991.

In February 1991, Keltie Byrne, a 21-year-old marine biology student, slipped into the pool containing Tilikum and two pregnant female orcas, and was submerged and dragged around by the whales until she drowned.

"To say that it was traumatic and a tragedy would certainly be an understatement," he said.

"Even throughout all the tragedy we knew that you could not blame Tilikum or the other two whales. For was just something that was new. It was novel. It was exciting, and it was nothing more than very, very playful behaviour.

"But they don''t know that us humans don't have the same capabilities in the water as they do."

Huxley said he was motivated to speak out about killer whales in captivity when Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite asked him to be involved in the documentary.

Steve Huxter feeds Tilikum moments after the orca arrived at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C. on Nov. 11, 1984. (Steve Huxter)

"They should not be in captivity, it's just as simple as that," he said, adding that breeding killer whales in captivity should also be stopped. 

Huxter said his bond with Tilikum deepened over the years the orca was at Sealand of the Pacific.

"I was the first trainer to greet Tilikum when he arrived, and I was just dumbfounded," he said.

"Here was this animal he had been ripped from his family, transported halfway around the world, trucked, slung in a crane and then lowered into a strange pool, and he sees me holding a fish out, and he opened his mouth, and he was immediately happy to see me."

When asked how he will remember Tilikum, Huxter got choked up and simply said: "With love."

With files from CBC's All Points West

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Tilikum's former trainer remembers dying orca as 'gentle, passive'


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