SeaWorld killer whale Tilikum of 'Blackfish' movie fame dies

TAMPA, Fla., Jan 6 (Reuters) - Tilikum, the orca who killed several people and was featured in the documentary "Blackfish" making the case against keeping orcas in captivity, died on Friday, SeaWorld Entertaintment Inc said.

Thought to be about 36 years old, Tilikum drew international attention for dragging a SeaWorld trainer underwater to her death during a 2010 show in Florida.

Tilikum had been experiencing declining health and receiving treatment for a bacterial lung infection, the company said in a news release. It noted that an official cause of death would not be known until a necropsy was completed.

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"Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired," SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby said in a statement.

The theme park saw its image tarnished after the release of the 2013 documentary, which depicted the captivity and public exhibition of killer whales as cruel.

The film chronicled the life of Tilikum, who was captured in 1983 around the age of 2. He spent 25 years in SeaWorld's care.

In addition to killing trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of horrified guests in Orlando, Tilikum was involved in the deaths of a worker at a different marine park in 1991 and an Orlando tourist who was found on the whale's back in 1999 after trespassing into its tank.

"From the moment he was taken from his ocean family, his life was tragic and filled with pain, as are the lives of the other animals who remain in SeaWorld's tanks and exhibits," Lisa Lange, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a statement.

Tilikum was bred 21 times, with 11 of his offspring previously dying, PETA noted.

After the documentary and protests by PETA, SeaWorld cut jobs, lost promotional deals and faced attendance drops. The company last year pledged to stop breeding killer whales in captivity and to phase out its whale entertainment shows.

With Tilikum's death, SeaWorld now has 22 orcas at parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego.

The company noted that Tilikum was slightly older than wild killer males live in the region that he came from.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says males typically live for 30 years, but can see 50 to 60 years, while females typically live 50 years and can reach up to 100 years.

The world's oldest known killer whale, known as Granny, whose age was estimated to be over 100 years when she went missing last autumn, according to researchers.

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