New report: Killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando pulled trainer by ponytail; rescuers delayed by aggressive orca
By By Walter Pacheco and Anika Myers PalmOrlando Sentinel
Feb 25, 2010 | 12:46 PM
Investigators said today in a new report that SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau died from "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning" after a killer whale pulled her underwater by her long pony tail near the theme park's Shamu Stadium.
Brancheau, 40, on Wednesday was "interacting with the attraction's largest male whale in knee deep water when the animal grabbed her by the hair, said to be in a long pony tail, and pulled her underwater,'' the Orange County Sheriff's Office said a statement.
"Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance to the Brancheau due Tilikum's "aggressive nature.
The orca that killed veteran trainer Brancheau on Wednesday has been linked to two previous deaths since 1991.
Investigators said SeaWorld staffers recovered her after Tilikum's "was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large scale/platform that lay on the bottom of the smaller tank,'' the statement said.
"While this incident remains the subject of an ongoing death investigation there are no signs of foul play. All evidence and witness statements indicate that the death was a tragic accident,'' the statement added.
Investigators said rescue workers originally thought Brancheau had "slipped or fell into the orca's pool but, after witness statements were taken and reviewed by homicide investigators, it became apparent that the whale had, in fact, pulled Brancheau into the pool and was the cause of her fatal injuries,'' the statement said.
The statement was released shortly after an official at SeaWorld Orlando said that Tilikum is being evaluated and will be kept.
Chuck Tompkins, the corporate curator in charge of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said that he expects SeaWorld to be taking care of the orca for a long time.
He added that he does not think the animal could survive in the wild.
"I think it's unfair to do that to an animal," he said, adding that SeaWorld employees also continue to mourn Brancheau, their longtime coworker and friend.
"This has been extremely difficult for us ... Every animal loved working with Dawn," said Tompkins.
The fatal killer whale attack of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau continued to make international news this morning.
Much of the debate on morning news shows centered on what to do with Tilikum.
Earlier today, Jack Hanna, a well-known animal expert with ties to Central Florida, spoke on national television about the tragedy, saying animal experts such as Brancheau are aware of the risks, as well as the benefits, of working with live animals.
"The only thing I can compare it to is when the astronauts went to the space station and that tragic thing happened coming back," Hanna said, referring to the 2003 disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle that killed seven astronauts. "Why did we do that? We did that to learn more about space and how that will help us."
This morning, as tourists returned to the park, an announcement was made on the speaker system, apologizing that The Shamu Show would be closed today. Nothing was said about the death.
"It's scary," SeaWorld Orlando visitor April D'Agostino said this morning. "But they know what's at risk when they get in the tank with those whales."
D'Agostino heard the news about the trainer's death on television, as did the Malkins from Asheville, N.C.
"I'm sensing that the mood today is a little more somber," Heidi Malkin said while visiting the park.
Although Malkin and her husband, Dave, heard about Wednesday's accident on television, it didn't preventing them from visiting SeaWorld Orlando.
"We wondered how the park would be different today," Dave Malkin added.
About six television news trucks, most representing local stations, were outside the park before its 9 a.m. opening, but there was otherwise little evidence that anything at the park had changed.
Tourist Dennis Diego of Sao Paolo, Brazil, said he wasn't immediately aware about what happened, even though he was at the park Wednesday and saw helicopters flying overhead.
He found out about the attack after he and his wife, Vanessa, returned to their hotel.
The Diegos had seen the same show where the accident happened earlier in the day, but it had not been the best performance.
"Not everything went right," said Dennis Diego. "The girl said the whales were not in the mood for it."
As the park opened today, cars streamed into the parking lot. At the entrance to SeaWorld, a sign informed guests that The Shamu Show would remain closed.
In his television appearance, Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, said that holding animals in captivity not only conserves the creatures, but it also helps educate people.
"Why do we have whales, as well as elephants and other animals? We have it to educate folks," he said. "It's the last chance we have to save these animals."
SeaWorld said that 12,000-pound Tilikum pulled Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran animal trainer, into the orca's tank about 2 p.m.
"Dawn was a beautiful person," Hanna said on CNN. "I did several shows with her…with Tilly even in the background — that type of thing.'' he said. "I could tell you now she would want her work to continue."
Hanna said the previous death linked to Tilikum was a different situation.
In 1999, park officials found the naked body of Daniel Dukes lying across Tilikum's back at SeaWorld Orlando.
Dukes apparently had sneaked into SeaWorld after hours to swim with the animals.
"That's like going over the fence at the NASCAR race," Hanna said. "You can't blame SeaWorld for that."
SeaWorld acquired Tilikum after another fatal incident.
In 1991, Tilikum and two female killer whales dragged trainer Keltie Byrne underwater, drowning her in front of spectators at Sealand of the Pacific, a defunct aquarium in Victoria, British Columbia.
According to federal documents, Sealand of the Pacific put the three whales up for sale about seven months later, in part because two pregnant females in his social pod began acting aggressively toward Tilikum.
A National Marine Fisheries Service official chastised both SeaWorld Orlando and Sealand of the Pacific for failing to provide adequate space for Tilikum in advance of the transfer, but ultimately said it was in the whale's best interest to be moved to the Orlando park.
SeaWorld Orlando had asked to receive Tilikum because the park said its staff could provide veterinary care the whale would not be able to receive in Canada.
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