doctor ian kupkee holding his dachshund dog grendel


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Goodbye, Tilikum

Goodbye, Tilikum

By Dr. Ian Kupkee

Last year, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum, the killer whale featured in the documentary “Blackfish”, was gravely ill.   A video statement was given by his veterinarian.  I was not in a place where I could turn up the volume, but it didn’t matter.  The look on his face said it all.  His patient was dying, and there was nothing he could do.  I’ve been there myself, and  I know that look.

I was not going to write this piece.  It’s a sad story with a sad ending, but that wasn’t the cause of my reticence. I held back because, like most sad stories, Tilikum’s is complicated.  So too is the gamut of emotions that are stirred when the arc of such a story nears its end.

The outpouring of emotion on social media, however, was immediate and intense.  Amidst all the expressions of sorrow, anger, and heartache, one comment in particular caught my eye:

“Violent, savage monster.  Good riddance.”

Emboldened, another commentator chimed in, “Seriously. They’re called ‘killer’ whales for a reason.”

Perhaps it was a similar, latent sentiment that was causing me to drag my feet.  Tilikum was involved in the deaths of three people.  For the loved ones they left behind, those broken families, this news cycle will be especially painful.  We must not let our compassion for Tilikum displace empathy for our fellow man.

That being said, there is another broken family in this tragic tale. It’s a closely-knit family of sentient beings, swimming through Icelandic waters.  It’s a family that watched in agony as one its youngest was corralled into a net, and flown to the hell that is, for orcas, captivity.  Years later, the calf who cried for his mother would make headlines as the beast whose rage took the life of someone who loved him dearly. Such rage is the product of captivity. It is the bastard child of isolation from family, and crippling silence, conditions orcas were never meant to endure. Dawn Brancheau’s autopsy lists blunt force trauma and drowning as the official causes of her death.  But ultimately, it was captivity that killed her.  The silence took her, just as it took Tilikum the moment he was torn from the sea.

Some of Tilikum’s followers have vowed to meet him at the Rainbow Bridge someday.  For those of you who have never lost a pet, the Rainbow Bridge is a place in Heaven where the souls of the departed are reunited with the souls of the beloved pets who passed before us.  

Tilikum will not be there. He was not a pet, and while we may have taken him, he never belonged to us.  I pray his final performance will be to leap over the mythical Rainbow Bridge, and swim as far as possible from even the most sainted, and immortal human hands.  We destroyed him in this life.  May his life eternal be free of us at last.

“Violent, savage monster.  Good riddance.”

Perhaps, as he begins his journey, he is thinking the same of humanity.

As I struggled with how to end this piece, I asked my wife if she thought there was a Heaven for Tilikum.

“Um, yeah,” she scoffed, without missing a beat.  â€œIt’s called the ocean.”

And there it is.

I found my final wishes for Tilikum in a book of ancient Celtic prayers:

“May the clarity of light be yours.

May the fluency of the ocean be yours.

May the protection of the ancestors be yours.”

Safe journey, Tilikum.  Don’t stop at the Bridge; we don’t deserve you. Peace and rest await you. Perhaps the silence has you still, but softly at first, you will start to hear the budding of eternal sound.  

Your ancestors call to you.  No man will follow.  The ocean’s vast embrace is yours again.

Only this time, it’s forever.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida.

Orca image courtesy of Pixabay Free Images

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