More Death and Controversy at SeaWorld

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(A moment from SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale “Believe” show; Credit: Michael Lowin)

It’s been less than 5 months since SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was fatally injured by Tilikum, a 6-ton male killer whale, but new deaths and controversies now plague the SeaWorld Orlando park.

A few weeks ago, a 20-year-old female killer whale there named Taima died while giving birth. Officials are awaiting the results of a necropsy to provide a definitive cause of death. Tilikum had mated with Taima, resulting in the pregnancy.

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Killer “whales,” also called orcas, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family.

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“We are very saddened by this loss,” said Chris Dold, vice president of veterinary services for SeaWorld Parks

& Entertainment, in a statement about Taima posted to the SeaWorld Orlando blog. “Although we understand that complications with

pregnancy can occur here, just as they do in the wild, the loss of any

animal affects all of us at SeaWorld.”

The park made Florida headlines for yet another reason this week, as the Orlando Sentinel reported that SeaWorld hopes to negotiate a settlement with federal authorities concerning Brancheau’s death even before the ordered safety probe at the park is complete. Such pre-citation settlements are extremely rare.

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If allowed, this early settlement would, according to the report, “effectively blunt any fallout from the closely watched probe by ensuring

that it ends as quickly as possible —- and by avoiding the kind of

scathing indictment that investigators issued three years ago after a

separate incident at a SeaWorld in San Diego, when they declared it was ‘only a matter of time’ before a killer whale killed a trainer.”

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been

investigating SeaWorld’s safety practices since Feb. 24, the day Brancheau died. 

Details about that fateful day are presented in a new Outside Magazine feature story, which questions whether or not killer whales should exist anywhere other than in the ocean. That debate has been going on for some time. Just after Brancheau’s death, for example, an American Cetacean Society spokesman told me the society does not believe killer whales should be kept in captivity. 

Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society, agrees.

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In a videotaped statement, Cousteau said, “Maybe we

as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous,

complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their

behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological,” he said.

“Maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive.”