Killer Whale Show to Go On; Tilikum Is 'An Important Part of Our Team'

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Jim Atchison, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, led a press conference today concerning the death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau. He spoke in front of a see-through tank wall, so inquisitive killer whales viewed the proceedings as well. Tilikum, the 12,000-pound male that fatally injured Brancheau, was noticeably absent from the tank, as one reporter commented.

Atchison shared the following:

  • SeaWorld parks will resume their killer whale shows tomorrow, but trainers will not be in the water with the whales.
  • SeaWorld is collaborating with at least five other marine mammal experts in a review of its procedures.
  • It would be "a shame" to retire Tilikum, he said, adding that the training and human interaction are important to his "overall health and husbandry."
  • The park admitted to having separate handling procedures for Tilikum because he is "an extraordinary animal, a very large animal."
  • Tilikum "is an important part of our team," Atchison added.
  • He stated that the male orca is not separated from the other whales and is a part of a "social network" at the park. (Later, a reporter remarked that Tilikum was absent from the tank.)
  • The park is proud of its work in educating others about marine life and allowing the public to have a more direct connection with the animals. "For that we will make no apologies."
  • Tilikum grabbed Brancheau's ponytail, and not her waist, he said. Nets were used to try to pull the whale away from her during the attempted rescue. 
  • A reporter asked if there were rules against having long hair and interacting with the whale in the manner that Brancheau did on Wednesday, but Atchison refused to discuss the park's existing rules, saying that was not the purpose of this press conference.
  • No trainer has indicated that he or she will not work with Tilikum again in future.
  • A video tribute to Brancheau will be included in the forthcoming performances.
  • A Dawn Brancheau Memorial Charitable Foundation has been established.
  • As to why Tilikum grabbed Brancheau, Atchison said: "I wouldn't begin to speculate what he was thinking."
  • Atchison admits that Tilikum has been involved in other incidents, "but the events surrounding those other incidents varied…they were separate events not relevant to this particular altercation."
  • Tilikum does receive "tactile reinforcement" as part of his regular care. It remains unclear how trainers and staff will interact with him now and in future.
  • "The reputation of our organization is still highly regarded." "We will move forward."
  • "Attendance has been just fine" after the incident. 
  • Surveillance videotape "has been shared" with authorities.

The killer whale show will therefore go on at SeaWorld, but changes to the show, and behind the scenes handling, care and feeding of the whales, remain in question. The park also refuses at present to mention whether or not Brancheau went against normal interaction protocol during the incident. It does, however, appear that Tilikum will not be killed, released into the wild, or released into a seaside sanctuary, as PETA and some other organizations have called for.

Yesterday I spoke with biologist and whale expert Carrie Newell, who conducts research on the marine mammals and runs Whale Research EcoExcursions in Oregon. Newell is well known for developing intense bonds with the whales she studies, seeing the same ones year after year and knowing specific individuals all by sight and their unique personalities.

Newell told me she thinks Tilikum changed when he was at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, prior to his being acquired by SeaWorld. "At night he was placed into a box-sized tank that would not even allow him to turn around," she said. "At that point, I think he just snapped."

She suggested that the whale displays aggressive behavior not often seen in other captive orcas. For example, she said that "when a pelican landed in his tank, he just shredded it to pieces."

Orcas are called killer whales, but they are actually the world's largest dolphins. As such, they are thought to be the world's second-smartest animals, second only to humans. (And, of course, humans created that smart chart, so it's human-centric to begin with.) You can read about dolphin intelligence in this recent Discovery News story.

Newell suggested that killer whales can therefore suffer from mental disorders comparable to those experienced by humans. "They are so intelligent and yes, they can suffer from psychological trauma." The nature of his earlier captivity, she feels, may have permanently affected Tilikum.