Tilikum, SeaWorld's infamous killer whale, dies

Tilikum linked to 3 human deaths, including trainer Dawn Brancheau

ORLANDO, Fla. – Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando's infamous killer whale linked to three human deaths, has died, the park says.

[READ: Full statement from SeaWorld on death of Tilikum]

The orca, estimated to be 36 years old, died early Friday at SeaWorld Orlando from an apparent bacterial lung infection. 

"Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues," SeaWorld said in a statement. "While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings."

Tilikum dragged SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater in 2010 during a "Dine with Shamu" show, killing her.

"Tilikum’s life will always be inextricably connected with the loss of our dear friend and colleague, Dawn Brancheau," the park said. "While we all experienced profound sadness about that loss, we continued to offer Tilikum the best care possible, each and every day, from the country’s leading experts in marine mammals."

Tilikum was profiled in the documentary "Blackfish," which helped sway popular opinion against keeping killer whales in captivity at SeaWorld parks.

The 12,000-pound, 23-foot orca became a part of SeaWorld’s family 25 years ago and sired 14 calves.

“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. “My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family.”

[FLASHBACK: Watch previous videos connected to Tilikum, Brancheau] 

The killer whale was also linked to two other human deaths.

In 1997, Daniel Dukes, 27, of South Carolina, climbed into Tilikum's tank after hours. Duke's body was found floating in the tank. 

In 1991, when a 20-year-old trainer slipped into a tank in British Columbia, Tilikum and two other whales tossed her around and the trainer drowned.

Tilikum was not born at or collected by SeaWorld. The park obtained the killer whale from Sealand of the Pacific in Canada. 

SeaWorld announced the end of its orca breeding program last March, effectively making the whales currently at SeaWorld the last generation of orcas under human care. 

In response to Tilikum’s death animal rights group PETA, called for SeaWorld to release all remaining animals from its parks.

“SeaWorld's announcement that it's ending its orca-breeding program came too late for Tilikum ... 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,” PETA Senior VP Lisa Lange said in a statement. “Tilikum must be the last orca to die inside a SeaWorld amusement park.”

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