What Tilikum taught me

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Story highlights

  • Kristen Stine: As a kid, while sitting in the SeaWorld stadium, the orca "performances" were my favorite
  • After I graduated college, I finally got to see Tilly up close and my heart sank, she writes

Kristen Stine is the director of human resources for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The news of Tilikum's death was personal for me. I grew up in Florida, just outside Orlando. SeaWorld was a staple trip for my family each summer.

Seeing the orca "performances" was always the highlight. My friends and I would sit in anticipation of the end of the show, when Tilly would be let out to splash the crowd. He captured my heart. It quickly became my goal to be a trainer.
Kristen Stine
After graduating from college, I got a marketing internship with SeaWorld, and I could barely contain my excitement. I squirmed happily in my seat during the company's orientation, dutifully poised to take notes and determined to make a good impression. At some point, the words "How to deal with animal activists" popped on the screen in the classroom.
"Why would people who care about animals be against SeaWorld?" I wondered. I listened intently about how we should be sure to say "environment" instead of "tank" and "behaviors" instead of "tricks" and how dorsal-fin collapse was "perfectly normal in orcas and happens in nature all the time" (which, I later learned, isn't true) I memorized my notes, but a nagging feeling pricked in the back of my mind.
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After orientation, we got to meet the animals. That was when I learned that despite the cute name, a dolphin "nursery" was actually a small, barren, concrete tank where dolphins swam in endless circles. There was that feeling again. Maybe young orcas and other members of the dolphin family do better in small spaces, I reasoned. SeaWorld would know, after all — wouldn't it? But, all of that concrete. How does the animals' echolocation work when they're surrounded by hard walls? I shook off my doubts, and we were off to the next spot on the tour.
When we started to approach Shamu Stadium, I was giddy. We stepped up to the tank — I mean, "environment." It looked smaller than I remembered it from my visits as a spectator. My eyes scanned for Tilly. Then I saw him, and my heart sank. He was just floating there, confined to what can really only be described as a cage, as it was barely bigger than he was. He was listless.
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"When does he get to swim?" I asked. "During shows" was the quick answer, and before I could follow up with my impressive knowledge that orcas in the ocean swim up to 100 miles a day, the staff had moved on to other questions. The group walked on, and I followed, but a bit more slowly. I looked back. Was it possible that he looked sad, even lonely? There was that feeling again.
I began to think about what it means to care for animals. I found my way to PETA's website, and the phrase "Animals are not ours ..." glared at me on the screen. Tilikum had been taken from his home and family, and he was in isolation. How could we do that to someone we loved? Had I been wrong about everything?
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Eventually, I found a way to work for animals not as their captor but as their liberator. Tilly never left my thoughts. With SeaWorld's announcement that it is ending its orca "performances" in San Diego, I thought, "This is it. This is the beginning of the end." I wish Tilly had known how hard we tried for him, and how hard we all are still trying for the orcas who are still being deprived of all that is natural and important to them. Rest, finally, in peace, Tilikum.