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Tilikum, orca whose behavior influenced change at SeaWorld, has died

Tilikum, an orca whale who became known for killing a trainer in 2010, died early Friday morning in the care of veterinarians and trainers, SeaWorld announced Friday.

“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.”

Tilikum gained international attention when he killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. The incident sparked a public conversation about whether orcas, also known as killer whales, should remain in captivity.

The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” further inflamed the debate. The film narrated the Tilikum’s live and documented others he had killed. It also noted that Tilikum had been used to breed with other orcas and questioned whether an animal who displayed aggressive behavior should be allowed to pass on his genes.

SeaWorld has not retrieved an orca from the wild in nearly 40 years, but the controversy forced the company to go further and announce an end to its orca-breeding program.

Tilikum measured 22 feet and weighed 11,800 pounds; he was 36 years old. In the wild, male orcas live 29 years on average, according to the Center for Whale Research, although they can live up to 60 years.