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

4 years ago
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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 was Isaiah 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.

Follow Donna Trussell on Twitter.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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The video you posted was filmed in 2004 at Sea World San Antonio. The trainer in the video was not injured, and is a man. This attack took place in the show pool, not the Dine With Shamu pool where the February incident took place. Also, if you watch the end of the video you'll see that the trainers are wearing different wetsuits than the ones they were wearing on February 24th. The only recorded footage of the February 24th attack was recorded by security cameras at Sea World Orlando and was NOT released. You can find all of the relevant info in the police report, which is available online if you google it.

December 22 2010 at 4:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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

What right would her family have to ask that he be killed if they chose that instead? I think that killing a wild animal that kills or injures a human is irrational and would smack of the way we held animals responsible like they are some sort of sub-human, held by our own morals.

However, I think that you are right in saying that the time of "performing whale shows" is way past being useful or poignant. We should know enough by now to realise that orcas or dolphins in tanks no more exhibit "normal behaviour" than prisoners locked away in jail.

December 22 2010 at 12:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That link to the footage you posted isn't of the attack on Dawn.
1. It's a man in that clip
2. It happened at Dine with Shamu, and that video is in the Shamu Stadium

December 22 2010 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is appalling that these animals are kept in such limited captivity. I know the claim has been made that we are learning from them, but how can we? They are in unnatural settings doing unnatural things. Whatever little is learned is not about conservation, and not well applied to orcas in the wild. But, releasing them now would be a massive and not necessarily wide undertaking. Jean Michel Cousteau blogged about this after Dawn's death:

We definitely need end the practice of forcing any cetacean into captivity, and breeding more into it, especially animals the size of orcas, needs to be stopped.

Thanks, Donna, for helping to make sure that we do not lost sight of these issues!

December 21 2010 at 1:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The whales and dolphins in captivity at Sea World are treated well and do not know another way of life at this point. If you were to release them into the wild they would likely die because they do not know how to feed for themselves...It has payed out so many times when they release these animals into the wild and they cannot survive. Many of the animals are born into this environment and know of nothing else they adapt to this environment. The ones that they have the problem with are the ones that were rescued and then placed into captivity. It is my opinion that if they are rescued and can be returned to the wild once healed they should absolutely be. Sea world also rescues tons of sea turtle's and manatees....If Sea World didn't exist what might happen to these animals...Conservation is important and believe me...Sea World is an important part of that.

December 20 2010 at 11:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Courtney's comment

I'm pretty sure if SeaWorld was about conservation, they wouldn't be using Tilikum to sire all the calves there; they already have inbreeding occurring there and it's going to get worse, now that most of the calves are reaching or at maturity will be mating with their mothers or siblings. A REAL ZOOLOGICAL FACILITY, like a respected zoo, would not allow this to happen. But eh, I guess money is what it comes down to - considering most of the orcas in captivity are dying faster than they're being born.

December 20 2010 at 2:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply


if the guy who owned Seaworld had his daughter killed - wonder how fast the whale would be tuna salad
It took 3 deaths for these clowns to wake up
If a bear eats a person in Yellowstone they kill the bear
This whale should have been put to death the first tiem
and i agree with your reader - ive been to sea world a numer of times and until they rectify this i am not going back

December 20 2010 at 11:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to roberto541's comment

"In 1989 a whale at SeaWorld San Diego rammed the wall so hard she ruptured an artery and died in less than an hour."

Please get your facts straight. The 1989 death of Kandu was not caused by "ramming her head into the wall" as you put it. This accident happened when Corky and Orky were brought to San Diego. Kandu was the matriarch, or dominant female. Orca pods are not led by the bulls, but the cows. Kandu saw Corky as a threat to her position as dominant female of the "pod" and would not accept her presence. Ever since they had first met, Kandu did everything she could to assert her dominance. Kandu charged Corky and rammed into her, not the wall. Corky was almost 2,000 pounds bigger than Kandu. The collision caused minor bruising to Corky, but fractured Kandu's upper jaw that resulted in fatal hemorrhaging into the nasal passages.

Kandu did not go crazy. It was a natural establishing of the pecking order much like your dogs will do during feeding time. Horses and lions, along with almost every other mammal do it as well. Please do not falsely use facts to your advantage. Tel the whole story or none of it.

February 04 2011 at 9:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Steveis world

ok, fisrt of all, was it necessary to include graphic autopsy reports in your article here? Second, The video is not of Dawns attack but a vid on a trainer in San Diego who the animal didnt kill and who was clearly playing with him as you would see on other clips of the same event on youtube. Thats just how an animal that size plays with a 170lb person when unscripted.

December 20 2010 at 10:45 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Today, Tilikum and the other whales, orcas, dolphins "live" if that is what you want to call it, in an unatural, confining small space at Sea World-
better off that they would not even live- they are frustrated, depressed, suffering animals, who should live in wide spaces, and not in a cement cube- which is unatural for their living and swimming. These big animals need undulating, wavy body of waters, and not flat cubes of cement!
That is how they are kept captive, please, anyone with intelligence and a heart,
boycott all of these Theme Parks!

December 20 2010 at 8:41 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

I just rented the Oscar-winning film "The Cove" and highly recommend it. I will never go to Sea World or any place that uses dolphins and whales for our entertainment. They need to be in the wild AND they need to be protected.

December 20 2010 at 8:10 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

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