ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Tilikum, the killer whale responsible for killing a SeaWorld trainer whose story helped turn the tide against keeping the species in captivity, has died, the company said Friday.
Tilikum's story has been inextricably linked to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. During a live performance in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum pulled Brancheau under the water by her arm as she reached out to pat him, drowning her before a horrified audience.
A subsequent documentary film, Blackfish, about Tilikum's story helped turn public opinion against SeaWorld's longstanding practice of keeping killer whales in captivity. The company announced last year amid increasing protests from animal rights groups that it would end its controversial killer whale breeding program, making this the last generation of killer whales to be held in captivity. SeaWorld has not captured killer whales from the open ocean for almost 40 years, the company said in its statement announcing Tilikum's death.
Though SeaWorld was not responsible for his capture, Tilikum was hauled from the ocean by a Canadian company, Sealand of the Pacific. There, he was one of three whales in the same tank where another trainer was killed in 1992. The theme park closed and Tilikum was taken in by SeaWorld Orlando shortly thereafter.
Though the breeding program has since been halted, Tilikum was the most prolific sire of the SeaWorld program, fathering 14 calves during his time in captivity.
SeaWorld said Tilikum was estimated to be 36 years old, nearing the upper end of a killer whale's lifespan. The company said the whale had been suffering from a severe respiratory infection, though the official cause of death will not be known until a necropsy is completed.
"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," said SeaWorld President & CEO Joel Manby. "My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family."