- Special Sections
- Public Notices
The issue: Tilikum returns to SeaWorld
Our view: Questionable decision
The return of the killer whale Tilikum to SeaWorld’s signature show “Believe” is a questionable decision by the Orlando, Fla., marine theme park. Until last Wednesday, the 22-foot, 12,000-pound bull orca hadn’t been in a public performance since the tragic drowning death of one of its handlers, Dawn Brancheau, during a show on Feb. 24, 2010.
During that performance in front of only about 20 spectators, Brancheau was poolside and rubbing Tilikum’s skin. When her ponytail floated into the massive animal’s mouth, he grabbed it, dragging her into the water and to the bottom of the pool. Investigators say Brancheau initially was able to free herself, but the orca struck again. The medical examiner’s report stated the veteran trainer died as a result of traumatic injuries and drowning.
Brancheau’s tragic death wasn’t the first attributed to Tilikum. He was the largest of a trio of orcas blamed for a 1991 killing of a trainer who slipped and fell into their pool at Sealand of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia. He’s also blamed for the 1999 drowning of a trespasser who sneaked past security officers at SeaWorld. Park employees found Tilikum with the man’s body draped over him during that incident.
Why would SeaWorld decide to put an animal with this track record back into an active show? Perhaps that track record is the very reason for their decision.
Captured almost 30 years ago off the coast of Iceland, Tilikum represents a key investment in the theme park’s franchise killer whale show. SeaWorld owns more killer whales than any other park, zoo or other such facility in the world and the bull orca is the alpha male stud of the group.
In fact, as the largest orca in captivity, Tilikum’s value to the company as a breeding bull is nearly impossible to calculate now that capturing live orca’s is internationally banned.
Add Tilikum’s notorious reputation as a killer and his return to SeaWorld’s public performances drives the return on their investment skyward as spectator attendance and ticket sales increase. More than 2,000 park visitors were in attendance when the killer whale show resumed on Feb. 27, 2010, following Brancheau’s death. But when Tilikum returned to the performance last Wednesday the crowd overflowed the 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium complex at the marine attraction.
Although it is fighting a $75,000 OSHA fine and other citations for worker safety violations, SeaWorld has taken measures to improve the safety of its trainers. At least for the time being, handlers aren’t allowed in the pool with the orcas. Platforms with special safety bars to prevent the killer whales from snatching trainers into the water are being used. And, park owners say they plan to spend millions of dollars in the development and construction of other safety upgrades. They should, especially considering SeaWorld’s stated intention of getting trainers back into the water with the orcas.
Speaking publicly about the company’s decision to return Tilikum to the show, SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Flaherty Clark said, “Participating in shows is just a part of Tilikum’s day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment.” That may be so. But we see SeaWorld’s decision being more about the enrichment of their bottom line than about the enrichment of Tilikum’s experience in captivity.
This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.