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:
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.