Feb 25, 2010

SeaWorld Trauma: Killer Whale Attack

SeaWorld is mourning the loss of trainer Dawn Brancheau who died in a killer whale attack yesterday. Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale, thrashed his trainer around underwater as dozens of horrified tourists watched. Brancheau, 40, was finishing a session with the whale after a midday show when it grabbed her, disappeared underwater with her and swam to the other side of the tank, flailing her around.

Brancheau died at the fins of the mammal she loved. Her mother laments that Brancheau fell in love with killer whales at age nine and dreamed of being a trainer.

This horrifying incident has caused people to once again question the ethics of holding mammals in captivity. As wild animals, killer whales are known as gentle creatures who only attack if provoked. While yesterday's incident marks Tilikum's third attack, can we really blame him for being aggressive? The whale has been cooped up in a pool for the past 28 years, after being captured off the coast of Iceland at age two. Being kept in such a confing space has obviously irritated the young whale.

This violent attack is forcing SeaWorld to quickly determine how to handle the whale. While a spokesperson told MSNBC that precautions had previously been in place to limit whale-trainer interaction, new measures must now be taken. Naomi Rose, a senior scientist at the Humane Society of the United States suggested Tikilum be retired to a sea pen in Iceland, like Keiko (Free Willy). SeaWorld has yet to make a statement regarding the care of Tikilum, although it has cancelled all aquatic shows.

This incident reminded me of my visit to Miami Seaquarium this past January. The park's lead attraction, Lolita the Killer Whale, was unavailable to the public until showtime. The process was quite controlled, as security ushered spectators in and out of the stadium immediately prior to and following the performance.

I spoke with a trainer about the reason for the rule. She informed me that it was a safety precaution aimed to calm the agitated whale. Miami Seaquarium's trainers had noticed that the whale was irritable when surrounded by people. The whale would not listen to instructions when she was in a "mood." To prevent an attack, they chose to limit the number of people in Lolita's tank. Note, this information is not available on their website. With a massive killer whale known to be anxious and unresponsive, I hope the park takes the proper precautions and releases Lolita into the wild.

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Julie Fletcher)


  1. I think anyone in our class would have predicted her line at the end about oceanariums educating the public about orcas. What else can they say?

    I just think it's important to mention that no one loves these whales more than their trainers. I don't think you get into that line of work think you're exploiting them. I 100% agree with you, but it is an interesting dynamic. Heartbreaking story.

  2. It was predictable for us, but it was smart of them to give her the proper points to address during media training. With all the focus on the evils of captivity, the educational value and the trainer-whale bond needs to be advocated. Regardless of the communications strategy, nothing can replace the loss and given that it is his third violent episode, I think Tilikum should be released.


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