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SeaWorld to keep killer whale that drowned its trainer

Review pending of procedures for handlers

Tilikum, shown at SeaWorld last year, grabbed the trainer’s ponytail and pulled her into the water. Tilikum, shown at SeaWorld last year, grabbed the trainer’s ponytail and pulled her into the water. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters/File)
By Mike Schneider and Tamara Lush
Associated Press / February 26, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Despite calls to free or destroy the animal, SeaWorld said yesterday that it will keep the killer whale that drowned its trainer, but will suspend all orca shows while it decides whether to change the way handlers work with the behemoths.

Also, VIP visitors who occasionally were invited to pet the killer whales will no longer be allowed to do so.

“We’re going to make any changes we have to, to make sure this doesn’t happen again,’’ Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld parks, said a day after a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged a trainer into its pool and thrashed the woman as audience members watched in horror.

Talk-radio callers, bloggers, and animal activists said Tilikum, which was involved in the deaths of two other people over the past two decades, should be released into the ocean or put to death like a dangerous dog.

Tompkins said that Tilikum would not survive in the wild because it has been captive for so long and that destroying the animal is not an option either, because it is an important part of the breeding program at SeaWorld and a companion to the seven other whales there.

Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer, was rubbing Tilikum from a poolside platform when the 22-foot creature grabbed the woman’s ponytail in its jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy.

“He kept pushing her and poking her with his nose,’’ said Paula Gillespie of Delaware, who saw the attack from an underwater observation point. “It looked like she was just totally caught off guard and looked like she was struggling.’’

She added: “I just felt horrible because she’s someone’s daughter, mother. I couldn’t stop crying.’’

The killer whale shows have been put on hold at SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego. Tompkins said they will not resume until trainers understand what happened to Brancheau.

Tompkins would not give details on what might be changed, but he said he does not expect visitors to the theme park to see much of a difference in the killer whale shows, in which trainers swim with the animals, ride on their backs, and jump off them.

There is virtually no contact between visitors and the orcas at SeaWorld shows, said Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for the SeaWorld parks. But in the past, VIP guests occasionally were allowed to come down to the edge of the pool and touch the whales. That will no longer be permitted, Jacobs said.

Because of Tilikum’s size and history of aggressive behavior, visitors were not allowed to get close to the whale, and trainers were not permitted to climb into the water with the animal. They were allowed only to work with him from a partially submerged deck. Tompkins defended SeaWorld’s use of a whale that had already been blamed in the deaths of two other people.

“We didn’t ignore those incidents,’’ Tompkins said. “We work with him very, very carefully. We did not get in the water with this animal like we do with other killer whales because we recognized his potential.’’

Brancheau’s sister said the trainer would not have wanted anything done to the whale.

“She loved the whales like her children. She loved all of them,’’ said Diane Gross of Schererville, Ind.