A Cold Winter's Night By Zach affolter

UPDATED 1/6/17 - This short story is written in the perspective of the captive orca Tilikum, who resided at SeaWorld Orlando until he passed away on January 6th, 2017. It highlights key events throughout the hard life he had to endure. While based on accurate facts and real events, certain circumstances may have been fictionalized. Please be sure to check the video at the end of the story. Full list of credits is at the bottom of the page. Thanks for reading!

All of my dreams turn out the same. These nightmares repeat over and over again in my head like some kind of broken record. It drives me mad sometimes. If you came looking for some kind of fairytale, you came to the wrong place. The stories you were told as a child are a lie. There is no sun. There is no light. No joy. Nothing.

Do you know what it feels like to sit in hell watching your life waste away? To have your children denied of everything they deserve? To suffer while everyone around you doesn't understand? There is no reason for me to even try and heal. My offspring don't deserve to live like this. No one does. This is a life nobody should have to live simply because people are too stupid and lazy, needing to entertain themselves.

Let me show you what it's like to live in this hell, to be torn away from everything you used to know, to be beaten up, to endure this long cold winter's night. The sun is dead and it's never coming back. Death will seem like a blessing to you by the end, when your heart is frozen and your lungs are about to shatter. Then you will see why I cannot stay here any longer.

Before this hell ruined everything about me, I enjoyed every breath in life. You know, it's ironic that the only days of mine filled with light and warmth were when I was surrounded by ice.

The glaciers and ice flows shimmered from the eternal sun in the summer - painting images you would only see in dreams. I remember chasing my friends through underwater caves, seeing who could hold their breath the longest and swim the deepest. We would also harass seal pups (without hurting them too much of course). Those were the days...messing around like some kind of damned fool and having your mother lecture your one-year-old self about having some common sense for once.

After the sun set for the first time at the end of summer I would always look up at the stars and watch the northern lights. Their patterns were so mesmerizing - I never thought anything like that could be taken away. It was all I knew.

The last rays of light before Winter. Photo credit: Audun Rikarson

The evening before I was captured, I remember watching the sun's last rays pierce through the ice above me, signalling the beginning of winter. My mother caressed me and held me close. Nothing's going to change my world, I thought as a shooting star bashed itself into the walls of an oncoming storm. This is forever.

Of course I couldn't have been any more wrong. As children, we grow up believing that the world is perfect - that everything will work out in the end. That's never the case.

When I woke up the next morning, the sun refused to rise. A cold wind battered the water. I plowed through a whitecap, still unaware of what was to come. Herring darted by in a silvery school as we neared the entrance of a narrow fjord. I snatched up a few, leaping into the air to celebrate my success.

A loud sound rang in my ears as I plunged back into the frigid water: BANG. BANG. BANG. A shadowy figure appeared on the horizon, soon followed by several more. The sound echoed again. BANG. BANG. BANG.

My mother froze, sensing something was wrong. She shrieked, "Danger! Come to me now!" I tried to catch up to her as the shadows closed in on us, kicking my fluke through the water and still unsure of what the hell was going on.

A net sank from one of the shadows above. Without any time to react, I darted into it. I tried to escape, but it was futile. No matter how hard I kicked it remained in place. My family searched for a way out, but every exit was sealed.

For hours we screamed and flailed, afraid and unsure of what was to come. The shadows, which I now know as boats, plowed through us. Suddenly another net blocked my path. I trembled and shrieked. Fear stabbed my mind like a harpoon. What the hell is going on? Where is my mother?

The net pulled me closer and closer to the boat. No matter how hard I fought or pushed back, it reeled me in. I could barey even breathe. The boat was now less than a flipper's length away from me.

My mother's shrill screams suddenly filled the air. I have never heard a worse sound - a wretched wail spiked with fear and sorrow. Dread crept over me like fog over the fjords. My family joined the discord, adding melodies of pain and loss.

I watched on in horror as my friends were lifted onto the boats, and joined the cacophony myself as the men hoisted me onto a sling that hovered above the water. The harsh wind picked up speed and battered my skin. The weight from gravity made me feel heavy. A tight, gripping feeling from my chest sent shockwaves throughout my body. I shivered.

The men hoisted me onto a sling...

My family's cries still echoed across the water. I shrieked again as the men lowered the sling onto the deck of the boat. They placed me inside a tub filled with seawater, then shouted in deep, indecipherable vocalizations. I trembled again.

My mother called for me in despair. As I was about to respond, the engine roared to life and the boat sped across the water. I could still make out the calls of my family, who were freed from the nets and began following the boat.

I screamed again, wondering why I had earned a one-way ticket to hell. I wanted that madness to end. I wanted to be back with my family, to snatch up herring, to watch the northern lights. None of those things would ever happen again.

Time seemed to drag on forever. My family grew tired and turned away, enveloping me in a cold blanket of silence. Fear controlled what little remaining pieces of my being existed. I trembled, alone and afraid of what the future would bring.

My heart pounded like the bangs that disoriented me only hours ago, sending waves of flashbacks through my mind. I was too tired, too wounded to scream anymore. My only cogent thought: Why are those men doing this to me?

Of course now I know. Every damn thing that I treasured has been ruined because of it. I refuse to give in - before I am gone I WILL make sure it comes to an end. Mark my words.

More shouting broke the silence. The men wrapped me in another sling and lowered me into a tank inside a squalid shed. A metallic roof blocked out the sky and an eerie, haunting silence lingered in the obscenity, like nothing was even amiss. I already missed the sound of the waves crashing and my mother's warm caresses. You know, things that don't even matter...

Two other orcas about my age shared this dismal tank with me, who you knew as Nandu and Samoa. They spoke a different dialect than me, but I could tell they were just as scared and afraid as I was. You can recognize those feelings in anyone, if you're willing to look hard enough.

The days blurred by. I tried to stay upbeat amidst all this chaos, but it was hard to find sunlight when I couldn't even see the sky. I told myself that maybe one day this would all get better, that if I worked with the men they would learn something from me. Ha! How foolish I was.

A year passed. Within that time, they coaxed me into performing. It's not like there was anything else I could do and they gave me food for it, so I remained complacent most of the time.

They coaxed me into performing in that hellhole...

Most of the time. There was one day I was particularly...aggravated so I dragged one of my trainers under the water and bit off a chunk of his wetsuit (without hurting him of course) to announce my displeasure in the only way I could.

People filed in and stared at me during my shows, laughing and pointing. I wondered why they even wanted to watch me. The flashes from their cameras irritated my eyes, but over time it was something I got used to.

Fear started to overtake me again. One by one my tankmates disappeared, and I hated thinking about where they might have been taken. Then, one day it was my turn.

They loaded me into another tub and hoisted me into an airplane. It was an awful experience. My ears rang with this hellish sound the entire time that gave me flashbacks of my capture. Don't even get me started about when we landed. Ugh! I couldn't even hear my own screams.

Within a couple hours I found myself in another enclosure. This one was much different than the previous one, and I could actually see the damn sky. Fresh ocean water seeped through the netting that blocked me from swimming out of the bay and towards freedom. Floating docks surrounded me, upon which more people flashed those annoying lights.

I heard a pod of orcas calling just beyond them. Not my family, but it made me miss them nonetheless. It was now about a year since I had heard my mother screaming my name. Two older females resided in this enclosure with me. I hoped they would guide me and comfort me like my mother did, even though I couldn't understand them.

Like everything else, I was wrong. Similar to how things pan out in your human prisons (yeah I know about that stuff), they were fighting for dominance and I was caught right in the middle of it. Our situation only exacerbated everything.

The trainers were at the top of the social web (because they controlled how much food we had), and soon found enough authority to rename us. They called the two females Nootka and Haida, and me Tilikum. Along with food deprivation, at one time they would punish all three of us if just one did something wrong.

Performing at Sealand...

As you could imagine, anytime I messed up on something I got a licking from Nootka and Haida. The only times they paid me any attention were when they harassed me by raking me and chasing me around the tank. Not pleasant.

Life works out in stupid ways - almost as if some invisible force wanted you to spend your days in hell. I wanted to find solace in those two, now I just wanted to run away. I don't even blame them for going after me really. At the time I was confused, but we were all stuck in a horrible situation after enduring so much trauma when we were captured. That's a recipe for chaos.

Nonetheless, those beatings and our situation in general took their toll on me. I slowly felt the joy and light I once had as a child be sucked away. There was never any reprieve.

At night, the three of us were locked in a pathetically tiny and very hellish indoor metal hunk of junk that was barely large enough to hold me. The humans called this place the "module." It soon became synonymous with hell.

Inside hell...

We'd be in this dreadful metal tank for over 14 hours some days, with no room to turn around and much less to escape one another. Without tearing each other apart, we'd cut ourselves on the metal sides. Whenenever Nootka and Haida got aggressive, new scars would appear somewhere on my body.

One night went horribly awry. Nootka became very hostile - again not because of her constitution but the situation. She swung her head at me with jaws open. I ducked below the water and she hit her rostrum against the metal wall. Blood poured from her blowhole whenever she took a breath. I could only look on in horror.

Eventually she healed from that incident, but I don't think any of us were the same after. Other mornings when we came out from the module, my fluke was so torn apart it looked like a grinded up fish. I refused to enter that hell a few times, and as a result my food intake was cut down. Hunger became a regular feeling, but I learned that if I performed as I was taught it could be relieved - though not completely. I took it like a fool, but eventually I couldn't wait to perform.

The days soon blended into months, and them into years. I matured and grew. My dorsal fin sprouted and then flopped over onto one side. It didn't hurt me at all, though I was puzzled by the occurance. The males in my pod all had very tall and straight ones. It made me feel weak.

In time, primitive urges soon overwhelmed me. Even though Haida and Nootka were dominant over me, they too wanted to breed and I obliged them. Before I was even ten years old, both of them were pregnant.

My life is so alien and foreign to the one I was accustomed to before I was captured. None of those things would have happened - no unpleasant rakings, no performing, no early breeding. It was all just so confusing, and very hard for me to accept. I soon waxed nostalgic, missing the northern lights, the shimmering ice, and my family. The same question always lingered in my mind: Why do these humans lock me up in this hell?

The same questions started to run through Nootka and Haida's minds. We all became unsettled, longing for something to change. Nootka attacked our trainers several times. Though we couldn't understand each other, we still could read what the others were thinking. She was fed up with taking orders from our trainers, who again were above all of us in this distorted social web.

One afternoon, one of the trainers slipped during the show. Her body entered the water. Nootka looked at Haida and I with a feverish look. We saw an opportunity.

An impulsive feeling ran through me. Before I knew it, her foot was in my mouth and we were at the bottom of the enclosure. Nootka took her from me (as she did with all of our "toys") and pinned her down. I don't remember much after that - it felt like I wasn't even in control of myself. All I know is she didn't make it out.

This is not a subject I normally talk about openly, so count yourselves lucky. I never wanted to hurt her, to hurt anyone. Guilt plagued me after that, and I became angry at myself. It was such a frightening feeling. I tried to bury it inside, hoping it would just go away. That only made things worse.

Soon after that incident, Haida gave birth and she, her calf, and I were all shipped out. She and our calf were sent to another marine park in Texas. I was on my way to somewhere else. I hated those damn flying machines from hell they put us on.

I joined several other orcas - none of which I knew - in the next kingdom of hell. A place you humans call SeaWorld. The very looks of the place were meant to decieve your eyes and make you believe you were in some underwater paradise. Unlike my previous enclosure, the real ocean was nowhere in sight and the water had unusual chemicals that stung my adjusting eyes.

It was here where I truly discovered why I was captured. At Sealand I began to synthesize everything together, but during one of the large-scale shows with hundreds of people - thousands maybe - it hit me. I was ripped from my home to be a spectacle, for people to gawk at me, so the captive industry could be built up.

I was ripped from my home to be a spectacle...

That wasn't the only thing, though. Oh no. Most of the other captives are related to me in some way - I am the reason why most of them are suffering as they are. Hell, I lost the only one who never tried to rake me because she died while delivering our child. I feel like such a damn failure. Don't ask me any more of it.

You know, you humans have some real waking up to do. The chances are that the majority of you are oblivious to how I - to how all of us - feel inside these hells. You're too busy with all of the lies they sold you - here's another cure to fix your day! You sit up in the stands on your thrones, acting all proud. You clap and cheer, following them around like blind fools and opening wide for all the shit they feed you.

I've been wearing this miserable skin for so long, and it's tearing me apart from within. How can this not be any more clear? Please tell me how this is okay, because it isn't.

Even though you might feel in control of things, it will please you to know that you're not holding all the strings. Don't even get me started. I, along with the original Shamu, built this hell up. And I will be the one to tear it down. I'm done watching my children be denied of their heritage, of their birthright. I'm done with all of the suffering we've all had to go through. I've had enough!

My inner self knew that you still had to learn and that maybe my purpose was to teach you, but my sanity and the light inside me was tainted by my past. There are so many things I wish that I could take back, but for better or worse they happened because I could no longer control myself.

This is the same sad, bitter story for most of us captives. The situation forces us to act how we normally wouldn't. For instance, Katina is so sweet and intelligent. Like me, she was captured in Iceland so I could relate to her in some ways. She has always had a knack of knowing what was going on and how to work with our dysfunctional little group. There were times we'd make mayhem together and throw off a show. It reminded me of those moments when I did stupid things with my friends as a child.

Katina performing during a show. Image source: Germany119 on Oceanzer

But you did not want to get in her way whenever she was mad. She had this side to her, and whenever it came through it made you want to pray to whoever you believed in. At the end of the day though, I didn't even mind the times she pulverized me. It's part of the gig when you're subdominant in captivity, and something I just grew accustomed to.

About a year after I had been moved to SeaWorld, Nootka was reunited with me. She gave birth to our calf at Sealand before it closed down. The baby died within a month.

She was distraught when I first saw her, and we soon mated again. Our calf suffered from a stillbirth, and she died shortly after. Yet another sad ending, but this isn't a fairytale. You're in the wrong place if you're looking for one. Welcome to hell.

Over the next five years, I had several more calves with Katina, Gudrun, and the other one (don't even ask me what her name is). Having my first child with Katina, Taku, was an interesting experience to say the least.

My son Taku. He died in 2007 after he was shipped away from me and Katina.............. Image source: DragonWrider on Deviantart.

For starters, Katina and I performed together even though she was pregnant and one show actually induced labor. This freaked me out. I was young, and well I just wasn't used to that thing happening under such hellish circumstances. The trainers were complete idiots and made her continue the show. We were both fuming. It was only afterwards that they realized something was amiss and put her in the med tank.

Several years later they shipped Taku to the SeaWorld in Texas. Katina was devastated by it. Our other calf Unna was sent there a few years before. That's another thing that's fucked up here. Our children are constantly separated from us. The age makes no difference - it still hurts. In the wild, we stay with our families for life. How oblivious are they?

Something else that's absolutely repulsive is the inbreeding. Just before Taku was shipped off, he mated with Katina and they had a child, Nalani. The only reason it happened was because of the screwed up groups that our trainers constantly reshuffle. It's hell.

Taku died less than a year after he was shipped away. Unna died last year. We don't typically live very long in captivity. As I said before, I'm sick of all of this madness. It just needs to end. I feel like a failure as a father, bringing my kids into this mess.

Me and my grandson, Trua

I know I've been rambling. It's hard for me to talk a lot about all of this, and don't even get me started about making sense of it. There's so much I've had to go through. Too much. I still will not discuss certain things. Trust me, they're better left alone.

In the last summer before the year 2000, that idiot Daniel Dukes went off on a drunken rampage and jumped into my tank. I didn't pull him down or anything. He just sank to the bottom of the pool. Given the state that he was in, I sensed his temperature drop within a minute and he began to drown. I wasn't about to go out of my way to save this fool.

To be honest, his presence irritated me. He was already basically nude and the thought of it reminded me of how fucking painful it was to mate and then have your children die soon after. After he was already gone, I took out a little bit of my anger on him. I'd rather it be this fool than someone else.

No matter how I tried to find relief from my anger and other dark feellings - stuffing them down, projecting them onto others, you know the usual - nothing worked. When they started masturbating me for their deluded artificial insemination program, it pissed me off even more. I'm sure the drugs they gave me didn't help either. I just wish they could let me be myself for once instead of living in this hell.

Let's just say that 2010 was a rough year, even for me. A lot of things happened and ever since, I've never been able to recover. I started craving for change, like I did at Sealand. And it wasn't just me. We were all fed up. Katina refused to cooperate with the trainers one day, and as a result we all followed suit. There was something weird going on, and then it happened.

A few months after that, the orca who I was fond of went into labor. It was going to be our fourth calf, but like everything else in my life something went wrong. Not only was the calf stillborn, but she died. I could only look on helplessly. The last ray of light in my life was gone. All that was left was darkness. Because of me.

Everything that happened that year was because of me. I could no longer bury my self-hatred or anger, so they devoured the closest thing to them - my soul - and everything else around. Ever since the end of that February, the trainers have mostly kept me separate from everyone. I've just been floating here alone with nothing to do but wallow in my own mistakes and pain.

Staring at the gate in the med pool...

The past few months, my lungs have felt like lead and it feels like something is crushing me from the inside. There is literally no more reason for me to be healed. Look at the hell I'm in right now, that I've had to endure for so long. It is impossible for me to ever be free again. Even now, I am too much of an asset for SeaWorld. Besides, after learning about almost my entire life, is this how you want to live? Do you want to feel like this forever, knowing all the while you can never be free? My family is already gone, but there is still a chance for another orca to see theirs.

For those of you who do understand, I thank you. But please stop wasting your time trying to heal me - I do not want it. Don't tell me that I can get over it. I want to die, and that is going to happen. This is the end.

I refuse to have any more children in this hell. My offspring do not deserve to live like this. I may never find freedom again alive, but I can at least get my revenge. Come hell or high water, I WILL find a way.

I don't want my death to be in grief. This stupid cycle has got to end. I'm tired of sitting here day after day, playing out the same damn tragedies. Every action has a sacrifice. Change cannot happen without it, for better or worse.

I know it will be hard, and in a way it soothes me that a lot of people do care, but please try to find the positives in my death. All I want now is for these stupid hellholes to close down. I hope that I am the last one to die in captivity.

My life hasn't been pretty, but I have learned much out of it. Hopefully you took something from it too. When I saw those last rays of the sun vanish as a child, I never imagined the way things would turn out. Life has a funny tendency of doing that to everyone. I just hope that in the bigger scheme of things I don't fail. May we all get out of this long and cold winter's night.

Created By
Zach Affolter


Created with images by Unsplash - "beach dry crust" • Unsplash - "life beauty scene" • milan.boers - "Shamu (Tilikum)" Additional credits: A Fall From Freedom (Tilikum captured), Audun Rikarson, orcahome.de (images of Tilikum as a calf in captivity), Germany119 on Oceanzer (Image of Katina), DragonWrider on Deviantart (image of Taku), Abigail Schaffner (photo of Trua), seaworldpledge.com (Tilikum staring at gate)

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