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Free the killer whale

By Jane Velez-Mitchell, HLN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An experienced trainer was killed by a whale at SeaWorld
  • Jane Velez-Mitchell says the animal was unnaturally confined to a relatively small space
  • She says the killer whale should be released in a marine sanctuary

Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell hosts "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell," a topical event-driven show with a wide range of viewpoints that airs every night on HLN at 7 p.m. ET. An animal activist, she is a member of the board of Animal Cruelty Investigations and a member of PETA.

New York (CNN) -- When it comes to animal exploitation -- follow the money. Using animals for entertainment is big business, plain and simple. The killer whale Tilikum has helped SeaWorld sell millions of dollars worth of tickets.

In the process this highly intelligent, social creature has gone through what we can only assume is hell. The hell is called confinement. Veteran whale trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed February 22 when the 12,300-pound killer whale dragged her into a tank at the park and held her underwater long enough to drown her. It happened in front of a crowd, just as she was rubbing the whale after a show.

As talking heads debate this avoidable tragedy, few pause to reflect on where it all started. It began in the oceans off Iceland. That's where Tilikum was born. He was born free, free to swim up to 100 miles a day, as killer whales are known to do in the wild.

His idyllic life turned into a living hell in 1983. That's when he was captured. Capture of a wild animal is invariably traumatic. He was put in a small pen. After a stint in a Canadian aquarium that ended in tragedy when a trainer was killed by Tilikum and two other whales, the animal was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

Tragedy struck again. First a man who sneaked into SeaWorld was found dead on Tilikum's back. Now, the experienced trainer is dead -- a horrific and violent death.

iReport: See photos of moments before the incident

Video: OSHA warned whale would kill
Video: Killer whales in captivity
Video: Jane Velez-Mitchell vs Hanna
Video: SeaWorld opens investigation
Video: Kill the killer whale?
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Tilikum has spent more than a quarter of a century swimming in circles, in a space that critics say would be equivalent to keeping a human being in a bathtub. Would you get resentful, angry, maybe even a little rageful and psychotic if you were kept in a bathtub-sized tank forced to swim in circles for more than 25 years?

The time has come to free Tilikum. Brazil and Chile are just two countries that have created huge coastal sanctuaries, some running thousands of miles, where whales like Tilikum can return to an active life, one in which they can frolic and explore. This is how nature intended these creatures to live.

Zoos and animal amusement attractions use the cover of "science" to justify their shows. Getting a whale to splash kids with water is not science. SeaWorld says it supports wildlife conservation, research and education and has rescued thousands of stranded and sick animals. While many of the handlers are undoubtedly well-intentioned and love the animals, the fact is that parks such as SeaWorld are money-making operations. It's about profit.

There are many ways to help save the whales. Organizations like Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Humane Society and -- yes -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all campaign in various ways to stop the decimation of whales and other intelligent creatures of the sea.

SeaWorld needs to stop using Tilikum to breed. He's reportedly sired 17 calves, some of which have not survived. Those that do survive become part of the system of exploitation for profit.

Nature did not put whales on this earth to splash kids while stuck in a pen. This is the 21st century. It is time to change.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Velez-Mitchell.