Image: Dawn Brancheau with a whale
Julie Fletcher  /  AP
Dawn Brancheau, the whale trainer who was killed on Wednesday, is seen performing on Dec. 30, 2005.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/25/2010 9:26:48 PM ET 2010-02-26T02:26:48

Despite calls to free or destroy the animal, SeaWorld said Thursday it will keep the killer whale that drowned its trainer, but will suspend all orca shows while it decides whether to change the way handlers work with the behemoths.

Also, VIP visitors who occasionally were invited to pet the killer whales will no longer be allowed to do so.

"We're going to make any changes we have to to make sure this doesn't happen again," Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld parks, said a day after a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged a trainer into its pool and thrashed the woman to death as audience members watched in horror.

Talk-radio callers, bloggers and animal activists said Tilikum — which was involved in the deaths of two other people over the past two decades — should be released into the ocean or put to death like a dangerous dog.

Tompkins said that Tilikum would not survive in the wild because it has been captive for so long, and that destroying the animal is not an option either, because it is an important part of the breeding program at SeaWorld and a companion to the seven other whales there.

Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer who adored whales, was rubbing Tilikum from a poolside platform when the 22-foot creature grabbed the woman's ponytail in its jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy.

"He kept pushing her and poking her with his nose," said Paula Gillespie of Delaware, who saw the attack from an underwater observation point. "It looked like she was just totally caught off guard and looked like she was struggling."

She added: "I just felt horrible because she's someone's daughter, mother. I couldn't stop crying."

The killer whale shows have been put on hold at SeaWorld's three parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Tompkins said they will not resume until trainers understand what happened to Brancheau. He also said trainers will review safety procedures and change them as needed.

He would not give details on what might be changed, but he said he does not expect visitors to the theme park to see much difference in the killer whale shows, in which trainers swim with the animals, ride on their backs and jump off of them.

Close encounters
There is virtually no contact between visitors and the orcas at SeaWorld shows, said Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for the SeaWorld parks. But in the past, VIP guests occasionally were allowed to come down to the edge of the pool and touch the whales. That will no longer be permitted, Jacobs said.

Because of Tilikum's size and history of aggressive behavior, visitors were not allowed to get close to the whale, and trainers were not permitted to climb into the water with the animal. They were only allowed to work with him from a partially submerged deck.

Video: Attack stirs controversy Tompkins defended SeaWorld's use a whale that had already been blamed in the deaths of two other people.

"We didn't ignore those incidents," Tompkins said. "We work with him very, very carefully. We did not get in the water with this animal like we do with other killer whales because we recognized his potential."

Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer would not have wanted anything done to the whale. "She loved the whales like her children. She loved all of them," said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. "They all had personalities, good days and bad days."

In a profile in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006, Brancheau acknowledged the dangers, saying: "You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you."

One of SeaWorld's most popular shows — about a child who wants to grow up to be a killer whale trainer — could have been inspired by Brancheau herself.

A trip to SeaWorld at age 9 instilled a desire in her to work with marine animals. She attended the University of South Carolina and majored in psychology, but got a job at a New Jersey park after graduation, working with dolphins and sea lions. She was hired at SeaWorld in Orlando in 1994.

Previous deaths
Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell into a pool at a Sealand theme park near Victoria, British Columbia.

In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing and apparently fell into the whale tank. An autopsy found he died of hypothermia. Officials also said it appeared Tilikum bit the man.

A few months after the 1991 death in Canada, SeaWorld asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to "import and temporarily house" Tilikum in Orlando, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

In a 1992 letter, the federal agency said SeaWorld wanted to move Tilikum to Orlando "for the purpose of providing medical treatment and care that is otherwise unavailable in Canada at this time."

The letter did not mention the whale's role in the deadly attack. But the agency criticized the theme parks, saying "prudent and precautionary steps necessary for the health and welfare of Tilikum were not taken by Sealand or SeaWorld."

Periodic inspections
Animals parks are inspected at least once a year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure the animals are being treated humanely and getting proper nutrition and veterinary care. Online records for the three SeaWorld parks going back to 2007 show only minor violations, such as paper feeding trays accidentally dropped into an exhibit.

None of the violations had anything to do with the park's whales.

"For the most part, they run a top-notch facility, and they take very good care of their animals," USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said.

Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Washington-based nonprofit Orca Network, has studied killer whales for nearly 30 years and said the creatures are not considered dangerous to humans, even though they are highly efficient predators in the wild.

"In their natural habitat, there is no record of any harm to a human anywhere," Garrett said.

He said Tilikum was probably agitated before Wednesday's attack, possibly from some kind of clash with the other whales.

Gary Wilson, a professor at Moorpark College's exotic animal training program, said it can be difficult to detect when an animal is about to turn on its trainer.

"One of the challenges working with any animal is learning to read its body language and getting a feel for what's going on in its mind," he said.

NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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