SeaWorld Orlando plans to put the killer whale Tilikum back into public performances beginning today, for the first time since the 6-ton whale killed a trainer at the marine park more than one year ago.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President Jim Atchison signed off on the decision this week, and Tilikum is expected to appear in an 11:30 a.m. performance of "Believe," the company's main killer-whale show.
Tilikum has not appeared in any shows since Feb. 24, 2010, the day the animal battered and drowned 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau, who grew up in Cedar Lake, Ind. Her death made headlines worldwide, forced sweeping safety changes within SeaWorld, and sparked government investigations and private lawsuits that have yet to be resolved.
SeaWorld said Tuesday that including Tilikum in shows is important for the animal's health and husbandry.
"Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum's day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment," Kelly Flaherty Clark, SeaWorld Orlando's animal training curator, said in a prepared statement.
Company officials said repeatedly in the aftermath of Brancheau's death that they intended to put Tilikum back into shows eventually.
The move comes at a sensitive time for SeaWorld, which is challenging a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation issued last summer. The federal agency accused SeaWorld of willfully exposing its killer-whale trainers to danger without adequate protection, and it recommended that trainers never again be exposed to Tilikum.
Tilikum, an adult male who has sired more than a dozen calves through the years, is by far the largest of the roughly two-dozen killer whales in SeaWorld's corporate collection. He had been involved in two human deaths before Brancheau's, including a trainer at a British Columbia aquarium in 1991 and a homeless man who sneaked into SeaWorld Orlando's killer-whale complex after hours in 1999.
Hearings before a federal administrative-law judge are scheduled to begin April 25.
SeaWorld declined to discuss its decision in detail Tuesday. But in the written statement, Flaherty Clark said SeaWorld "will be using the same methods in caring for Tilikum that have been in place for more than a year."
Those changes include requiring trainers to stay farther away from Tilikum when working with him — massaging him, for instance, with high-pressure hoses instead of rubbing him by hand.
SeaWorld says it also has made many safety upgrades to the killer-whale facilities in its parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio. Among them: guardrails around pool ledges, and devices that can more quickly deploy safety nets in case of an emergency.
The company says it will make more substantial changes in coming months, including the installation of fast-rising false-bottom floors in its killer-whale pools. The floors will be capable of lifting multiple whales and trainers out of the water, potentially in less than a minute.
Still, SeaWorld's critics say the company is risking its trainers' lives by continuing to work with Tilikum.
"If you had a friend that had a dog that had mauled three people, would you go play with that dog?" said Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale who now opposes keeping marine mammals in captivity. "These people only care about the show. They never learn."
Even as it puts Tilikum back into its shows, SeaWorld is also moving ahead with plans to put its trainers back in the water with the animals.
Company officials said last month that trainers in its three U.S. marine parks would soon begin limited "water work" with killer whales, with the interactions initially restricted to small medical pools already equipped with lifts in the floors. The company says it still has not decided whether its trainers will again begin performing with the whales during shows.
No trainers, however, will be allowed in the water with Tilikum. SeaWorld had prohibited water work with the animal even before Brancheau's death because of his size and dangerous history, though the company had begun some limited "water-desensitization training" — during which a whale is taught to ignore a human in the water — before the tragedy.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times