Tragedy at Sea World Orlando highlights need to realize orcas belong in the wild
On February 24, shortly before 2 p.m. EST, the 12,000-pound killer whale Tilikum reportedly grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, by the ponytail and dragged her to her drowning death in the 7 million-gallon tank that houses the whales of Sea World Orlando.
This was not the first time a killer whale — actually an orca, a member of the dolphin family, not the whale family — has attacked or killed a human being.
Tilikum himself has claimed the lives of two other individuals: 20-year-old trainer Keltie Byrene at Sea Land Marine Park in British Columbia, Canada, in February 1991; and Daniel Dukes, a would-be showoff who stayed in the park after closing time to get a swim with the mammals and ended up the victim of their rough-housing in a 2004 incident. He was found nude on the back of the whale the following morning, having suffered from hypothermia. His parents sought to sue the park, but later changed their mind.
After the death of the trainer in Canada, the park sold Tilikum to Sea World Orlando for an undisclosed amount. The orca is thought to be valued at $1.5 million.
At 30 years old, 22 feet long and weighing in at 6 tons, Tili is the oldest and the largest killer whale in captivity.
Witnesses said the animal seemed agitated before the show and was aggressive with the handlers before the attack. Brancheau was giving him his rubdown when he grabbed her by the hair, pulled her under the water and took off with her. Although the autopsy has not yet been completed, police believe that, despite Brancheau’s bruises and abrasions, her death was due to drowning.
Park officials believe releasing Tilikum into the wild after having been in captivity for so long would be cruel, and they plan to keep the animal, although they are unsure of what his future role will be.
Tili is not the only orca to have attacked a human trainer in captivity. In November 2006, Kenneth Peters of Sea World San Diego was attacked and bitten by the dominant female orca, who held him underwater. Another orca is said to have drowned a trainer in a Spanish zoo as well.
The parks are looking into the problem to see if there are any corrections to procedure that can be made to better protect the trainers and secure the animals.