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SeaWorld reviewing procedures after whale kills trainer

By MIKE SCHNEIDER
Associated Press Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Trainers will continue to work with a
killer whale that grabbed one of their colleagues and dragged her
underwater, killing her, but SeaWorld said Thursday it is reviewing
its procedures.
People lined up to get into the Orlando park a day after the
whale named Tilikum killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau as a
horrified audience watched. Tilikum had been involved in two
previous deaths, including a Canadian trainer dragged under water
by him and two others whales in 1991.
Killer whale shows are suspended indefinitely in Orlando and at
the park's San Diego location.
"Many people are asking about the future care of Tilikum, the
whale involved in the incident," the blog post said. "We have
every intention of continuing to interact with this animal, though
the procedures for working with him will change."
Chuck Tompkins, who is in charge of training at all SeaWorld
parks, said Thursday that Tilikum will not be isolated from Orlando
location's seven other whales. He fathered some of them and will
continue to mate with others.
"We want him to continue to be part of that social group," he
said.
Trainers will review safety procedures and change them as
needed, but Tompkins says he doesn't expect much about the killer
whale shows to change.
Brancheau, 40, was rubbing Tilikum from a poolside platform when
the 12,000-pound creature reached up, grabbed her long braid in its
mouth and dragged her underwater.
The Orange County Sheriff's Office said Thursday that trainers
trying to help her could not get into the water because Tilikum was
so aggressive. They had to coax him into a smaller pool and raise
him out of the water on a platform before they could free her.
She likely died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning,
the medical examiner's office said.
Horrified visitors who had stuck around after a noontime show
watched Tilikum charge through the pool with Brancheau in his jaws.
Tompkins said the whale was lying in front of Brancheau when her
braid swung in front of him and he apparently grabbed onto it.
"We like to think we know 99.9 percent of the time what an
animal is doing," he told The Associated Press on Thursday. "But
this is one of those times we just don't know."
Kelly Vickery, 24, of Tallahassee was at the noon show Wednesday
and said the whales seemed to be acting odd, swimming around the
tank rapidly. Trainers said the whales "were having an off day,
that they were being ornery," she said.
Tompkins disputed that, saying nothing seemed abnormal with any
of the whales.
Vickery returned Thursday with her sons, ages 1 and 5, so they
could see the areas of the park they had missed a day earlier,
though she acknowledged being there felt "weird" a day after the
tragedy.
"But it's an animal, and it's an accident," she said.
Audience member Eldon Skaggs, who saw the attack, said
Brancheau's interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and
informal at first. But then, the whale "pulled her under and
started swimming around with her."
Another audience member, Victoria Biniak, told WKMG-TV the whale
"took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up
in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing
around, and one of her shoes flew off."
Because of his size and the previous deaths, trainers were not
supposed to get into the water with Tilikum, and only about a dozen
of the park's 29 trainers worked with him. Brancheau had more
experience with the 30-year-old whale than most.
A SeaWorld spokesman said Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed
for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and
fell in the pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British
Columbia.
Steve Huxter, head of Sealand's animal care and training
department then, said Wednesday he's surprised it happened again.
He says Tilikum was a well-behaved, balanced animal.
Tilikum was also involved in a 1999 death, when the body of a
man who had sneaked by SeaWorld security was found draped over him.
The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and
died of hypothermia, though he was also bruised and scratched by
Tilikum.
Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer wouldn't
want anything done to the whale. Brancheau was married and didn't
have children.
"She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of
them," said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. "They all had
personalities, good days and bad days."
Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna said he has known Brancheau
professionally for the last 10 years and also believes she would
not want anything to happen to Tilikum.
"Dawn was just a beautiful person and probably the best at what
she did," he said.
Brancheau was the youngest of six children who grew up near
Cedar Lake, Indiana. Her passion for marine life began at the age
of nine, Gross said, on a family trip to Sea World.
According to a profile of her in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006,
she was one of SeaWorld Orlando's leading trainers. She also
addressed the dangers of the job.
"You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and
they trust you," Brancheau said.
Billy Hurley, chief animal officer at the Georgia Aquarium - the
world's largest - said there are inherent dangers to working with
orcas, just as there are with driving race cars or piloting jets.
"In the case of a killer whale, if they want your attention or
if they're frustrated by something or if they're confused by
something, there's only a few ways of handling that," he said.
"If you're right near pool's edge and they decide they want a
closer interaction during this, certainly they can grab you."
And, he added: "At 12,000 pounds there's not a lot of resisting
you're going to do."
Mike Wald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration office in Atlanta, said his agency had dispatched an
investigator from Tampa.
Wednesday's death was not the first attack on whale trainers at
SeaWorld parks.
In November 2006, a trainer was bitten and held underwater
several times by a killer whale during a show at SeaWorld's San
Diego park.
The trainer, Kenneth Peters, escaped with a broken foot. The
17-foot orca that attacked him was the dominant female of SeaWorld
San Diego's seven killer whales. She had attacked Peters two other
times, in 1993 and 1999.
In 2004, another whale at the company's San Antonio park tried
to hit one of the trainers and attempted to bite him. He also
escaped.
Wednesday's attack was the second time in two months that an
orca trainer was killed at a marine park. On Dec. 24, 29-year-old
Alexis Martinez Hernandez fell from a whale and crushed his ribcage
at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Park
communications director Patricia Delponti said the whale, a
14-year-old named Keto, came from SeaWorld but is not a son of
Tilikum.
---
Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Orlando, Lisa Orkin
Emmanuel, Laura Wides-Munoz and David Fischer in Miami, Dorie
Turner in Atlanta and Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver, British
Columbia, contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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