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Trainer dies in killer whale incident at SeaWorld Orlando

A trainer was killed yesterday in a tragic incident involving a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando, resulting in the temporary closure of shows involving the whales at SeaWorld's U.S. parks.

The park has named the trainer as 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, a 12-year veteran at SeaWorld. Conflicting details of the incident are being reported online, although it is known that at some stage Brancheau fell or was pulled into the whale's tank and subsequently died. An investigation is underway into the cause of incident, and SeaWorld has revealed no details on when this will be completed or when shows are likely to resume.

The established facts around the incident are outlined below:

  • The trainer died after entering the water with the whale. Conflicting reports suggest that she was pulled into the water from a standing position, was dragged in while petting the whale, or fell. SeaWorld Orlando's official statement states that the trainer drowned in the incident.
  • Shows involving killer whales have been suspended at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando as a result of the attack.
  • The incident occurred after the Dine with Shamu show, and in the region of 20 guests were watching from above the tank and from an underwater viewing area.
  • The whale involved was a 30-year-old, 12,300-pound male named Tilikum. Reports have linked the whale with two previous deaths, although it is not clear that in either case the whale was solely to blame. The first incident took place at Sealand in British Columbia, when a 20-year-old marine biology student fell into the pool and was drowned by Tilikum and two other whales. The second occurred when a homeless man broke into SeaWorld Orlando and was found draped over the whale. It is believed that he died of hypothermia having fallen into the tank.
  • SeaWorld is yet to decide the fate of the killer whale. However, whales involved in past incidents have not been "put down", and Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross has stated that the trainer would not have wanted any harm to come to the animal.
  • Update: Update: SeaWorld has provided an update on Tilikum, saying "We have every intention of continuing to interact with this animal, though the procedures for working with him will change. We are still reviewing this incident and will evaluate the situation and make a decision accordingly."

The full statement from SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's CEO Jim Atchison reads:

"It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon, February 24, 2010 at our SeaWorld Orlando park.

We have initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred. There are no other details to share at this point, but we will make our findings known in due course.

I must emphasize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld parks, and our team members.

Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard operating procedures will come under review as part of the investigation.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.

We appreciate everyone’s understanding and will share more information as it becomes known and available."

Editor's note: The death of Dawn Brancheau has predictably sparked a wave of debate online and in the press around the rights and wrongs of holding large marine mammals, and particularly killer whales, in captivity. It has also led to a large amount of sensational, and in many cases speculative, coverage around the circumstances and causes of the incident. This has even led to video footage of the moments leading up to the trainer's death being posted on YouTube, and an array of "jokes" being directed at SeaWorld's @Shamu Twitter account.

We do not intend to get involved in this debate, and believe it can wait until after Dawn Brancheau's family have had time to mourn the tragic death of their loved one. We will therefore only report future news on this incident which affects the reopening or closure of attractions at SeaWorld and other theme parks.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the family, friends of colleagues of Dawn Brancheau at this difficult time.


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