In full view of a group of horrified visitors, a killer whale at the Sea World park in Orlando, Fla., grabbed its trainer and dragged her into the pool and thrashed her to death under the water. It was the third death the animal was involved in.
According to the LA Times:
“Dawn Brancheau, 40, was finishing a session with Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male killer whale, after a midday show at the Orlando theme park.
“Witnesses said the killer whale grabbed her by the upper arm, disappeared underwater with her and swam to the other side of the tank, flailing her around. At least two dozen tourists looked on from above the killer whale tank and from an underwater viewing area.”
An alarm was sounded, the viewing area cleared of visitors, and staff members attempted to restrain the Orca, named Tilikum, without success.
The same killer whale was involved in an incident in 1991 when a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia fell into the water and drowned. In 1999 the body of a naked man was found on the Orca’s back. It was presumed that the man snuck into the park or hid until it was closed and tried to swim with the killer whale. He likely died of hypothermia in the chilly water of the pool, though the killer whale had bitten the man, tearing off his swimming trunks.
In 2006, an Orca at Sea World in San Diego grabbed and dragged its trainer into the pool, but the trainer survived by calming and stroking the animal until it released him.
Live shows featuring killer whales have been suspended at all of the Sea World parks pending an investigation into the death and an assessment of how such shows are conducted.
It is unknown why the killer whale killed its trainer. Killer whales or Orcas, like dolphins, are considered intelligent. The nature of the intelligence of an ocean dwelling mammal, as opposed to a primate such as a human, is a matter of debate among marine biologists. According to National Geographic, killer whales are about to communicate through sound, an aid for hunting in the wild.
Animal rights advocates, such as PETA, maintain that it is cruel to confine an animal such as a killer whale to a small, swimming tank and force it to perform for audiences. Such advocates, such as Michael Yaki, speculate that Orcas become angry at being confined to what is for them small pools filled with fresh water. They advocate ending performance shows and freeing captive Orcas back into the wild.
Sources: Animal trainer killed at SeaWorld, Jason Garcia and Susan Jacobson, LA Times, February 25th, 2010
Killer Whales (Orca), National Geographic
Killer Whale Attack? Time to Free the Orca, Michael Yaki, San Francisco Chronicle, February 24th, 2010