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SeaWorld Orlando to keep killer whale that drowned trainer

A SeaWorld Orlando animal trainer died Wednesday from “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning” after a killer whale pulled her underwater by her long ponytail near the theme park’s Shamu Stadium, authorities said Thursday.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, was “interacting” with the killer whale in knee-deep water “when the animal grabbed her by the hair, said to be in a long ponytail, and pulled her underwater,” according to a statement from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

“Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance” to Brancheau because of the orca’s “aggressive nature.”

Meanwhile, an official at SeaWorld Orlando said that the killer whale, named Tilikum, is being evaluated, but that the theme park will keep the 12,000-pound dominant male.

Tilikum pulled Brancheau into his tank about 2 p.m. Wednesday. The attack -- the third human death linked to the killer whale since 1991 -- made international news.

Investigators said SeaWorld staffers recovered Brancheau after Tilikum “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.

Investigators said rescue workers initially thought Brancheau had slipped or fallen 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.

Chuck Tompkins, the corporate curator in charge of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said he expects SeaWorld to continue caring for the orca. He said he didn’t 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 are mourning Brancheau, their longtime co-worker and friend.

“This has been extremely difficult for us. . . . Every animal loved working with Dawn,” Tompkins said.

Although federal and state wildlife statutes cover the care and handling of captive animals, Florida fish and wildlife laws do not require an owner to euthanize a captive animal after a fatal attack. Owners generally make that decision.

Representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals maintain that SeaWorld should provide a “coastal refuge” for Tilikum, where the killer whale could live as close as possible to its natural habitat.

As tourists entered the park Thursday morning, a sign informed guests that the Shamu Show would remain closed. SeaWorld also made an announcement over its public-address system apologizing for the closure. Nothing was said about the death.

“It’s scary,” SeaWorld Orlando visitor April D’Agostino said. “But they know what’s at risk when they get in the tank with those whales.”

Brancheau’s death is the third linked to Tilikum.

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.

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 now-defunct aquarium in British Columbia, Canada.

SeaWorld San Diego, a sister park to SeaWorld Orlando, also canceled its Shamu show Thursday for the second day in response to the death. Park officials had not yet determined whether Friday’s show would be canceled.

apalm@

orlandosentinal.com

wpacheco@

orlandosentinal.com

Sentinel staff writer Bianca Prieto contributed to this report.


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