Whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, with male orca, Tilikum (also spelled as “Tillikum”), at SeaWorld Orlando.
Yesterday afternoon, experienced whale trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by 30-year-old male orca, Tilikum (also spelled as “Tillikum”), during the afternoon show at SeaWorld, in Orlando, Florida. The 12,300 pound male orca, Orcinus orca, apparently grabbed his trainer and thrashed her to death in front of the horrified audience, including patrons of the popular “Dine with Shamu” show. This animal has killed two other humans during his lifetime.
By the time she was eleven years old, Dawn Brancheau knew she wanted to train whales. Ms Brancheau earned degrees in psychology and animal behavior from the University of South Carolina before being hired by SeaWorld Orlando in the mid-1990s. She began her career as an animal trainer by working with the sea lions before “graduating” to training orcas and other dolphins in Shamu Stadium, which seats 5,500 spectators. Ms Brancheau, who was the youngest of six children, is survived by her husband, parents, five siblings, and her two pet dogs.
Two news reports with the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff’s Department reveals the homicide department is conducting a “death investigation”. The attack appeared to be an accident, not due to foul play. Dan Brown, general manager for SeaWorld Adventure Park in Orlando, explained that SeaWorld is also are conducting an investigation. “We have never in the history of our parks experienced an incident like this and all of our standard operating procedures will come under review.”
This is a more complete news report:
A witness to this tragic event, Eldon Skaggs, tells a different story from that stated by SeaWorld officials, saying that the “trainer was massaging the whale on his belly, then the whale took off really fast, came around, right up to the glass, popped up and started thrashing, grabbed the trainer by the waist, started thrashing, and her shoe came off. The sirens went off.”
Visitors who attended the noon show said the SeaWorld orcas were apparently agitated and misbehaved during that show. The noon show was eventually ended early, according to the reports I read. Despite this, the early afternoon show went on as scheduled, despite the orcas’ earlier unruly behavior. Were these orcas already capable of aggressive behavior? “It’s impossible to tell if an orca is in an aggressive mood,” says cetacean expert, Janet Mann of Georgetown University:
Here is a 2007 video by “Rose” (who also goes by the YouTube handle, “TillikmTrainer“) that tells her version of Tillikum’s life story:
According to “Rose,” Tilikum, nicknamed “Tilly” by his handlers, was captured near Iceland and removed from the wild when he was roughly two years old. Tilikum was sent to SeaLand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada, where he and two female orcas drowned trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991. Keltie Byrne, 20, was a University of Victoria marine biology student, champion swimmer and part-time trainer. On 20 February 1991, after she had just finished a show, Ms Byrne reportedly slipped and fell into the orca pool. She was pulled underwater and drowned by Tilikum along with two female orcas, in front of horrified spectators. It was several hours before her body could be recovered.
Tilikum was later bought by SeaWorld for breeding purposes and moved to Orlando, Florida. Despite general manager Dan Brown’s assurances that SeaWorld has “never in the history of our parks experienced an incident like this,” Tilikum was associated with the death of a park visitor in July 1999. This man had hidden in the park and after hours, sneaked into the SeaWorld tank to swim with the whales. The following morning, his nude body was found draped across Tilikum’s back.
These are tragic events, but they are not really not surprising in view of the fact that orcas are large and powerful animals that weigh several tons each — they can easily hurt or kill humans without really “knowing” what they are doing. With their bold black-and-white color patterns, orcas are the pandas of the seas, and so they are a huge crowd pleaser for SeaWorld and other marine parks, so I wonder if anything will really change as a result of this? My guess is that SeaWorld will “investigate”, will blame the trainer for her own death, will ban Tilikum from performing publicly and keep him in some behind-the-scenes tank until he expires, but continue their current practices unchanged. After all, it’s really all about the money, isn’t it?