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.
He swam to Norway, sought out humans again and died of pneumonia while in their care in 2003.
Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Orca Network in Washington, said he could envision a situation in which handlers might take Tilikum on "walks" before a true release. And if he could not find his family, he could learn to return to areas where humans could help.
"They need companionship above all, more than food," Garrett said of orcas. "In the absence of family, they'll follow human friends."
Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., said any talk of releasing Tilikum would require serious consideration and planning.
"He has been in captivity since he was two. It's what he knows," Atkinson said. "I can't say what I want for that whale is what the whale wants because I can't ask him. . . . You don't know how he would respond in the wild or how the wild would respond to him."
She would like to see SeaWorld become "an advocate for no more wild captures."
Ideally, researchers would want to locate Tilikum's family members — males normally stay with their mothers for life — but Rose said, "It would be very difficult to identify his pod."
Tilikum was taken captured in the Iceland area when he was about 2 or 3, Rose said. He is 30 now.
Any attempts to release Tilikum, nicknamed Tilly, would have to include efforts to build his muscle tone and cardiovascular strength and for him to learn life skills he would need to survive in the ocean, authorities say
An large, enclosed "bay pen" could be used for any transition to the ocean.
Killer whale experts agreed this discussion following another human tragedy would not have to take place if killer whales were no longer held in captivity.
Donna Sandstrom, director of Whale Trail, an effort to establish sites in the Pacific Northwest where people can observe whales from shore, said, "The public appetite for captive orcas is waning if not gone."
"The ideal would be that SeaWorld end its captive orca program," said Sandstrom, adding that she would like to see the organization be a leader in the future of observing marine life in a non-intrusive way rather than prolong a practice she likened to the "dancing circus bears of the past."
"I hope it's a wakeup call for everyone," Sandstrom said.
Rose said doing nothing to change Tilikum's living conditions is a little like following a common definition of insanity — "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. . . . They should learn from that."
"I would hope this is a tipping point," Rose said. But she added, "SeaWorld is not going to change, at least not without some serious pressure from its customer base."
Anthony Colarossi can be reached at email@example.com or 352-742-5934.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times