Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, was killed today by a killer whale at the beginning of a performance. Eyewitness accounts differ, but she was reportedly dragged into the water, shaken violently and kept underwater until she drowned. The whale, Tilikum, is the largest in captivity and has been involved in two fatal incidents prior to this one. In 1999, a park visitor hid at SeaWorld until closing and jumped into the pool with the whale. The man was found dead in the pool the next morning and had suffered hypothermia and scrapes from being dragged along the pool's bottom. Eight years earlier, Tilikum was one of three whales who drowned Keltie Byrne, a 21-year-old trainer, at Sealand of the Pacific, after she slipped and fell into the pool.

The PBS series Frontline did an story on the issue of killer whale trainer safety in 1995, A Whale of a Business. The web site for the story includes a chapter from the 1992 book The Performing Orca: Why the Show Must Stop by Erich Hoyt.

The chapter makes interesting reading in light of today's events, since it focuses strongly on Byrne's death. Hoyt accuses SeaWorld of covering up training injuries and disregarding evidence that killer whales don't like to be ridden:

... it was all too late for Keltie Byrne. Her parents have decided so far not to sue Sealand, preferring to put the tragedy behind them. The jury at the public inquest was unable to agree on the real cause of Byrne's death, beyond drowning. Why did orcas, which had never killed a trainer in marine parks or in the wild despite thousands of encounters, suddenly kill a human? Was it "an accident waiting to happen," if not at Sealand, then at Sea World or almost any park, especially one where basic safety procedures are overlooked? ...

In September 1991, Sealand owner Bob Wright put the three orcas up for sale. But what marine park wants to take three orcas that killed their trainer? Even before Sealand announced the whales were for sale, Sea World was preparing an application to NMFS to import them.

Hoyt has a web site and remains active on the issue of using killer whales in performances. I asked him a few questions and here's what he told me in email:

I think that this is an awful tragedy for the trainer and her family. But that it is avoidable: orcas do not belong in captivity. What I worry about is that things will be focussed on Tilikum, that he is an older male, and his history of having been involved in the death of two other people. Sea World or others may try to say that it is this one older male whale's fault. There are quite a number of other accidents that could well have been fatal that were caused by other captive orcas, females and males, although they do tend to be animals that have been in the parks for awhile. As I reported in The Performing Orca and also in some detail in Orca: The Whale Called Killer, trainers have noted that orcas start to get bored and go a bit crazy after a few years in captivity. You must imagine a highly intelligent social mammal and a big predator normally travelling 100 kms or more a day, then taken from its family, stripped of its ability to socialize normally, to hunt and to travel. What it has left is its relationship to the trainer, but how long can that really keep them interested? It is not surprising that an animal starved of company and stimulation will pull a trainer into the water, or try to keep them in the pool...even to the point of drowning them. Very sad, but again, we know how to correct this situation. Orcas are too big, too social, too wild to be kept in captivity.

The picture of Dawn Brancheau ran Dec. 30, 2005, in the Orlando Sentinel.

-- Rogers Cadenhead

Comments

I think this is one very sad sad tragic scene, especially one for those who were there and wen to go enjoy seeing a whale perform and then they have to see a person get killed before there very eyes................. SORRY TO HER PARENTS!!!!!


 

It is a KILLER whale.... KILLER whale, it is not surpose to be lock in. as a trainer, you must know what you are working with, and that is the risk. Still it is sad that it has happend, but its not the whale that there is something wrong with, it is the people...


 

No killer whale or dolphin should ever be kept in captivity. These are very intelligent, social animals, which travel many kilometers with their families. These animals are not there to do silly tricks for us, they have the right to be free!!!


 

Just imagine how frustrated a human being would be when kept in a small space for entertainment. The funny thing is I don't think it was a blatant attack, I think he was just playing. But we are obviously so much more fragile. It's sad, but the lesson is simple, leave them in the wild and keep the world in such a state that we and our children can go and watch them there.


 

I saw an 'expert' indicating that this was an intentional act since these animals are 'very' intelligent. I was not sure if this person would like to become a slave for life and not snap!

It is morally and ethically wrong to use animals of such potential as toys to show our Power. Obviously, since the owners are making millions on these animals and 'trainers' ...in the long run...it does not matter.

I have voted to see them in the wild and not give in to canned franchises.

I hope the do the right thing and release the orca.


 

The only way to stop whales and dolphins being confined and forced to do tricks is to STOP GOING TO SEE THE SHOWS. Simple. See the film 'The Cove' if you disagree...


 

This is very sad stuff but I am sorry to say this event is 25 years in the making. The orca was snacthed away from his mother in the wild and brought to an alien world to perform tricks for food. Sooner or later this enourmos creature was bound to "wake up on the wrong side of the pool!" and take a shot at someone.


 

It is a shame that humans will use captive animals for entertainment purposes. I feel sorry for the victim who died this week, but I feel even more sorry for this orca who has been forced to spend most of his entire life stuck in a pool and made to do tricks while people sit and eat snacks. To me, keeping a 12,000 lb killer whale in a small concrete pool nearly his entire life is equivalent to keeping a human in a bathtub his/her whole life.


 

Release the poor orca!!!


 

As a small child I remember going to Florida to see these great and magnificent creatures and being in aaawwhhhh, but as I got older the aaaaawwhhh wore off and I felt sorry for the Killer whale. what right do we as humans have in keeping these wild beasts in a concrete cage? I say none! They should all be set free after they have been conditioned to hunt on there own again. How would we feel if someone took our freedom from us and locked us up to perform 3-4 times a day in front of a crowd? Now the real question is what will happen to this Killer Whale? He will be DESTROYED more than likely,"WHY?" Is it his fault that we caged him? I say "NO" he should bee released and let him live his life the way that he was meant to live not the life that we wanted him to live. Set them all free they all deserve to be free not caged. These are GOD'S creatures NOT OURS let GOD deal with him the way that he see's fit not us.


 

pleeeeeeeeease free all the orcas ,manatees and dolphins they have the right to be free like us


 

i feel so sorry for the lady. I am so sad. They should release that killer whale NOW. Let her be free!!!!!!!!!!!!Before she KILLS someone elso.


 

I couldn't agree more with the comments submitted here! It makes me so sad to think that those poor whales were hunted down and kidnapped from their families just to provide "entertainment" for us humans because we were not motivated enough to go and see them in their natural habitat where they were obviously meant to be! I think that since this accident, for which I do not blame the poor whale, people the world over should take a stand and boycott Sea World until these idiot CEO's feel the money crunch and will be forced to do the right thing which is to release these whales back to their home and freedom again on the high seas. They can teach them to learn to hunt for food, or I am sure with their intelligence they will pick hunting up again! As my husband said, as soon as they get hungry they will figure it out for themselves in no time at all!! That is the most respectful thing to do in light of everything and everyone involved, and if they have a shred of decency at all they will see that this is the only action that they can take that makes any sense! But first we have to send them a message and BOYCOTT SEA WORLD!! After they understand how outraged we are over the way they are handling this, then the whales will have a fighting chance to live free again. Let's show them how much we really love them by setting them free!! They are missing their life in the wild much more than we can ever hope to understand and they need to go back home now!!!


 

There must be a _Twilight Zone_ or similar TV show about a zoo owner who is alien-abducted and wakes up in a cage, being exhibited by aliens. It's a cliche SF story.


 

Free all the animals in the zoo, and free your dogs at home every time they bark at the door and want to get out and whom you make to fetch the ball and yell at when he doesn't bring it to your hand, whom you make roll over, and not to pee on whatever it feels is its property and who likes to chew on anything you don't want it to. Either free all animals, or just be a hypocrite and just free orcas. Hamsters, rabbits, snakes and tarantulas and birds all know every square cm of their cages...and dogs and cats know your cramped apartments and homes yet they bring us enjoyment and we take care of them. Ps, the Orca would die if you let it go, just like your dog would die if you dropped it off in Yellowstone. Keep the orca in its cage and let it dance for our pleasure and it's near effortless food. At least it won't be thrashing poor sea lions to bits.


 

I believe that this was a very sad inccident. Yes of course I'm not blaming this on the Killer Whale because it is a wild animal and anything could happen. But I also feel very sorry for the trainers that have been killed. This is a dangerous job so heres my advice. Have another job. Don't become a whale trainer ESPECIALLY after someone has just died before you. I do think that it is best to leave the Orcas in their natural habitat because you don't know how they might react. Thank you.


 

humans playing God again.
i guess death and dollars are twins,you get both when intellectual fools have power.
tragic case for the parents.hope they are being comforted.


 

Great Article it its really informative and innovative keep us posted with new updates. its was really valuable. thanks a lot. Joseph Hayon


 

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