SeaWorld set to resume whale shows after attack

By Mitch Stacy
Associated Press / February 27, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. - SeaWorld officials said they would restart killer whale shows today after Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, dragged a trainer to her death at the Orlando park.

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment president Jim Atchison said yesterday trainers will not get in the water with the killer whales until officials finish reviewing what happened to veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40.

“We will make improvements and changes and we will move forward,’’ Atchison said at a news conference at the Florida park, one of three SeaWorld locations. The others are in San Antonio and San Diego.

The trainer was dragged into the water Wednesday by Tilikum. The medical examiner says she probably died of traumatic injuries and drowning.

Atchison said Tilikum will remain an “active, contributing member of the team’’ at SeaWorld.

Tilikum is the only killer whale in the SeaWorld chain for which the park has special handling rules, Atchison said. The 22-foot, 12,000-pound male was involved in two earlier deaths at SeaWorld and a park in British Columbia.

Atchison would not discuss whether protocols had been violated, saying it’s too soon to come to conclusions.

“We are evaluating every policy, every procedure we have,’’ he said.

The issue of protocols was raised by the former head of animal training at SeaWorld, Thad Lacinak, who said earlier yesterday that the rules in place when he left the park in 2008 would not have allowed Brancheau to lie down on a submerged shelf next to the whale, where the animal was able to grab her ponytail.

Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 at a theme park near Victoria, British Columbia. In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing, apparently fell into the whale tank, and died of hypothermia but was also bitten by Tilikum.

Lacinak said Brancheau’s ponytail was merely a “novelty item’’ to the whale, who was not trained to be in the water with people.

“He grabbed hold of it, not necessarily in an aggressive way,’’ he said.