About 12:30 p.m. EST today in Orlando, Florida, a female whale trainer at SeaWorld died mid-performance after a fatal incident involving a killer whale. Evidently, the 40-year-old senior trainer, identified as Dawn Brancheau, had just finished show introductions when the 30-year-old, 12,300-pound bull orca named "Telly" struck her.
"It is with great sadness that I report one of our most experienced trainers has drowned in an incident with one of our whales this afternoon. We have never in the history of our parks experienced an incident like this and all of our standard operating procedures will be under review."
--Dan Brown, SeaWorld Orlando park manager
An audience member reported that the whale come up out of the water, grabbed the trainer around the waist and "thrash(ed) her all around" causing her shoe to come off.
Local authorities are investigating the incident and Shamu Stadium, where the orcas usually perform for packed audiences, will be closed for the time being. The male orca usually does not have a trainer in its tank because the mammal is simply too large.
"They are very intelligent creatures. They have emotions, and feelings. Maybe it was unhappy in the situation, maybe it was bored."
--Nancy Black, Killer whale expert
As tragic as this is, it is not the first incident of its kind. In 2006, trainer Kenneth Peters was bitten and held underwater several times by a 7,000-pound killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park. Peters got off easy, only a broken foot. The 17-foot-long orca who attacked him was the dominant female of SeaWorld San Diego's seven killer whales and had attacked Peters on two prior occasions.
Evidently, this is also not the first incident involving Tilikum, nicknamed "Telly", more like the third. Telly also caused the death of a part-time trainer in Canada in 1991.
Then in 1999, a 27-year-old South Carolina man somehow entered the whale tank at SeaWorld Orlando after park hours and drowned. Autopsy reports revealed that Telly had bitten the intruder below the waist.
Reactions online have varied from "Kill it!" to "Set Telly free!" and everything in between. My favorite:
"No orca in the wild has ever harmed a person. Prison changes not just people."
--Lisa, on Miami's New Times Blog
In the end, it is a sad, tragic situation for everyone, including the whale who doesn't belong in show business in the first place. My posts of late are building into one central theme: Why do we keep messing with wild animals?
(Editor's Note: The family of the deceased trainer, Dawn Brancheau, has released a statement on the SeaWorld website.)
Lisa (quoted above) expands in her thoughts about Telly on her blog, Out of the Blue:
"Tilly has done this before, yet they still use him as a sperm bank, among other things. It was bound to happen again….Quit being so stupid and let him live out the rest of his days in the wild. Whales have no place in amusement parks."
Mr. Barky, over at Critter News, concurs:
"Hopefully they won't take this out on the killer whale for acting like a killer whale. And I don't mean that in a snarky way. It's a tragedy, but these are wild animals."
Miss FixIt states the obvious over at This Is How Hard I Work:
"I bet you’ll think twice before bringing your little ones to a killer whale show next time."
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
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