Death at SeaWorld: Where Is Tilikum, the Whale Who Killed His Trainer?

Dawn Brancheau

Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld performer who died last February, had not crossed my mind in months.

But last night I saw some year-end stories on 2010 newsmakers and what they were doing with their 16th minute of fame. One wasIsaiah Mustafa, who found fame and fortune on a Super Bowl commercial for Old Spice. Another was Antoine Dodson, who scared away a would-be rapist from his sister’s bedroom and whose comments to a news crew led to the “Bed Intruder Song.”

Tilikum, the killer whale, became a household name on Feb. 24, after he turned on his trainer Dawn Brancheau. When I first saw her picture, I realized that years ago I’d seen Brancheau perform, and even talked to her after the show. To me, she seemed like the happiest woman on earth.

She died doing what she loved. But how do things look now?

The final autopsy report, released a month after Brancheau’s death, revealed this attack was no playful nudge gone wrong. Brancheau had horrific injuries, according to “blunt force injuries, broken ribs, broken sternum, dislocated elbow/knee, abrasions and contusions. Parts of the autopsy report are extremely graphic, saying that Brancheau’s arm had been ripped from her body, her scalp torn from her skull and her spinal cord severed.”

Amateur footage of a killer whale attack makes clear why you can’t just swim away from a six-ton mammal that has other plans for you. (Be forewarned: The video is not gory, but it is hard to watch.)

Four minutes after the attack on Brancheau began, it was over. To her coworkers, she appeared lifeless. In addition to her injuries, she had drowned.

Tilikum had been involved in two previous deaths in other parks, and because of that, SeaWorld trainers were not allowed in the water with him. On the day of the attack, Brancheau was laying on her stomach on a slab in three inches of water when her ponytail drifted into Tilikum’s mouth. He took off with her.

After Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld suspended all in-water interaction with trainers. No small thing, since it’s those moments that bring the crowds. In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined SeaWorld $75,000 for three safety violations, including one that was “willful.”

SeaWorld has announced that in 2011, a new program will replace Tilikum’s show, “Believe.” No word yet on whether trainers will again perform in the water with the whales. “Until we can satisfy ourselves that we’ve created an environment that’s as safe as we can make it for our trainers, we’re not going to resume in-water interaction,” said spokesman Fred Jacobs.

As for Tilikum, he lives. Brancheau’s family asked that he not be killed.

The controversy of orcas in captivity continues. Killer whales swim as far as 100 miles a day. Any pool, no matter how big, is to them a bathtub. Captive killer whales survive only half as long as whales in the wild; in captivity they die of disease. In 1989 a whale at SeaWorld San Diego rammed the wall so hard she ruptured an artery and died in less than an hour. TMZ recently reported that even Tommy Lee of Motley Crue has written to SeaWorld requesting Tilikum’s release.

SeaWorld claims its killer whale shows raise awareness and ultimately protect orcas in the wild. That may have been true in the 1960s, when SeaWorld got its start. But today we have other ways to raise awareness. We have whale-watching cruises. We have high-definition video. We have a cable channel devoted to animals. We have the Internet.

And because of the Internet, we have memories that don’t fade. We’ll remember Dawn Brancheau, who decided at the age of 9 that her mission in life was to swim with Shamu. Can you imagine how many little girls go to Sea World and tell their parents they want to grow up to be a whale trainer? This girl actually did it. She loved whales that much.

As a society, we should think about the best way to honor her memory.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]


About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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