Just thirteen months after SeaWorld's star attraction, Tilikum, killed his trainer, the bull orca returned to his watery stage in Orlando last week and was greeted warmly by audiences. In February of 2010, Tilikum had snatched 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and drowned the veteran trainer before horrified crowds. Since then, Sea World has apparently spent "millions" inputting safety precautions and for good measure, all the female trainers now wear their hair in a bun.
Performing in the park's show "Believe," the whale's return to showbiz reflected SeaWorld's concern for the mammal, saying it was, "an important part of Tilikum's physical, social and mental enrichment to be back in the water." Nevertheless, changes have been made to avoid a future calamity.
SeaWorld trainers no longer work alongside Tilikum in the water. Staff use high pressure hoses to direct the whales while pool-side guardrails and safety nets have also been installed. The park also has plans to install emergency false-bottom floors that could lift trainers and/or whales out of the pool in less than a minute.
Otherwise, the water theme park is gradually putting their trainers back into the water (with other whales) despite last summer's notable findings by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that SeaWorld carries a "reckless attitude toward the safety of its trainer staff." OSHA fined SeaWorld $75,000 for three safety violations, two directly related to Brancheau's death; SeaWorld issued a statement that called OSHA's findings "unfounded."
At 22.5 feet long and weighing in at 12,500 pounds, Tilikum is the world's largest whale in captivity, which makes for an awesome sight. Captured in Iceland at about two years of age, Tilikum is now about 30 -- a full stage veteran. He's also proved an incredibly virile, active guy -- siring 13 offspring, 10 of whom are still alive. (PETA and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee sent an accusatory letter to SeaWorld, accusing them of making Tilikum their "Chief Sperm Bank.") It would seem Tilikum is kind of the Charlie Sheen of captive orcas, which only adds to his celebrity.
Much as has been made about Tilikum's "killer" past but it seems a bit overblown. The first incident involved Tilikum and two other female whales (both pregnant at the time, though no nobody knew that) when a female trainer accidentally fell into a pool with them. (This happened at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada.) The whales -- who had never before been in a tank with a human -- took turns with the trainer, taking her into their mouths, and tossing her in the air. Witness say they appeared to be playing with their 'new toy' but the trainer died a horrifying death.
The second incident is just plain bizarre. In 1999, a 27-year-old homeless guy named Daniel Dukes visited SeaWorld (where Tilkum now lived), stayed and hid after hours, then breached security to enter Tilikum's tank. There, he actually bit the whale (WTF?) and was found floating naked in Tilikum’s pool the next morning. Hypothermia was listed as the main cause of death, not drowning.
The third incident is the one that ended with Ms. Brancheau's tragic death. Her husband, Scott Brancheau, has reportedly hired Chicago law firm, O'Connor & Nakos (specializing in wrongful-death litigation), to explore his options. In other words, this whale story isn't over.
Still, I remain shocked when humans are shocked by deaths caused by large wild animals. No amount of training or human cuddling will change the fact that they are very different from us. Good v. Evil does not exist in Nature -- there is only With and Without -- food, shelter, a mate and so on.
I can't help but recall a Bizarro cartoon depicting an old animal trainer -- missing fingers and hand, wearing an eye patch and sporting a leg cast -- sharing his insight with a talk show host: "In my 41 years in the circus, one thing I learned is that wild animals do NOT aspire to careers in show business."
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
Photo Credit: Creative Commons Attribution license.
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