Video: Whale shook trainer violently, witness says

  1. Closed captioning of: Whale shook trainer violently, witness says

    >> attention, we should mention.

    >>> first, we want to begin with wednesday's tragedy at orlando 's seaworld . a veteran trainer pulled from a poolside platform and killed by a killer whale as park guests watched on. we're going to talk to one of those guests in a moment , but first, nbc 's kerry sanders is at seaworld with the latest. kerry, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: well, good morning, matt. it's unclear what went wrong here, and animal experts say they may never clearly understand why this killer whale named tilikum attacked his trainer. tilikum , known as tilly, is the largest killer whale in captivity, more than 12,000 pounds . the orca wednesday killed 40-year-old trainer dawn brancheau.

    >> i'm very high- energy behaviors with the animal.

    >> reporter: that's dawn from an interview two years ago with the nbc station in orlando , described as highly experienced, dedicated, at the top of her profession. the head of animal training at all seaworld parks says the whale suddenly yanked dawn into the pool after a noontime show.

    >> she was rubbing his head, and what we know is that this animal grabbed her and then pulled her into the water , and unfortunately, she drowned.

    >> reporter: some visitors say the trainer mentioned tilly seemed agitated right before the attack.

    >> at the end of the show , she said, "oh, i'm sorry, but they're wild animals , so they need to do what they feel right to do."

    >> reporter: tilly has an aggressive history with humans. in 1991 , the bull orca was blamed for the death of a trainer in british columbia . after the whale attraction there was closed, tilly was sold to seaworld and eventually wound up in orlando . steve huxter was one of tilly's trainers in british columbia .

    >> so it was my understanding at the time that the orcas were not going to be display or performance animals.

    >> reporter: eight years later, another death, a 27-year-old tourist found dead in the tank with tilly. the whale was captured in the wild off the coast of iceland. the u.s. no longer allows the importation of captured orcas. the grandson of famed oceanographer jacques cousteau says this now reopens the debate on whether it's correct to hold whales.

    >> in some cases, there is educational value, and in some cases, you know, facilities make a lot of money off these animals.

    >> reporter: seaworld has an extensive security video system here, but they won't comment on whether this attack was captured on camera or whether any tourists there with home video cameras captured this attack. all of that would be important to investigators as they try to piece together what went wrong so it never happens again. matt?

    >> all right, kerry sanders in florida for us this morning. kerry, thank you very much . victoria biniak witnessed the attack. victoria , good morning to you.

    >> good morning.

    >> i had heard reports that this killer whale actually grabbed dawn by her ponytail and dragged her into the pool. what exactly did you see?

    >> i did not witness that. i just witnessed his behavior before that and him kind of going out of the water and grabbed a human and was shaking her violently.

    >> were you -- was it immediately clear that dawn was in trouble in the water , that there's no way that she had any control of the situation?

    >> you know, with the way that he was thrashing around, and a shoe actually fell off, no, and the sirens immediately went off and people started running everywhere.

    >> was there panic in the stands or just people standing and watching on horrified?

    >> this did not happen in shamu's stadium. this happened in an underwater viewing area, so we were just --

    >> no, yeah, i know.

    >> so, we were just standing around and were immediately ushered away.

    >> was it clear -- was anybody able to get close to her in terms of other trainers to try to help her?

    >> when we were ushered away up the ramp, i could see above the underwater viewing area, and there was a male trainer running back and forth with an oar in his hand and then nets, black nets started dropping into his tank.

    >> all right, victoria biniak. victoria , thank you very much . i appreciate your time. i want to bring in julie scardina , a killer whale trainer and spokesperson for seaworld . julie , good morning to you.

    >> good morning, matt.

    >> you know, this whale , this tilikum , had a violent history, was implicated in at least one death of a human in the past, the death of a trainer here in british columbia , by the way, in 1991 , suspected of having something to do with another death in 1999 . so, you know, were enough precautions being taken to keep this whale away from trainers, or at least keep the trainers at a safe distance?

    >> well, obviously, we're reviewing that now. we certainly had a lot of protocols in place, and we actually did not get the water with this whale because of his past history, although both of those incidents, interestingly, are very different. you know, each one has its own specific story. and in this case, dawn's session, according to the other trainers who were working with her, was going very, very well. it wasn't like there was a level of frustration or anything on the part of the whale , and dawn is one of our most experienced trainers. i mean, she just had a passion for what she did. i mean, she knew tilikum so, so well that we'll never probably know what tilikum was thinking, obviously, but it's just certainly a tragedy and all of our thoughts and prayers are going out to her family .

    >> obviously, it's going to renew the questions, julie , about the fact that these are wild animals . we don't call them killer whales for nothing. and should they be kept in captivity and should they be, other whales, for example, used for the purpose of entertainment?

    >> well, you know, matt, prior to people being able to see the amazing capabilities of these animals, and certainly from a trainer's perspective, you know, i used to be a killer whale trainer. our main goal, dawn's passion was all about sharing these magnificent animals with people. and prior to people being able to witness and experience that, killer whales were shot out in the wild. they were considered competition for fishermen's catch and they weren't understood at all. so, it's kind of very ironic that because of the love and caring that we're now seeing from the public is due much in part to people being able to see these animals in oceanariums like seaworld .

    >> julie , real, real quickly, what happens to tilikum now? i mean, is it possible to release him back to the wild? i mean, you can't put this animal down for doing what comes naturally. what happens?

    >> well, we're reviewing our protocols. we're going to make it even more safe, obviously, to work around him. every killer whale 's an individual. we look at that certainly separately in every case. like i said, we already weren't getting in the water with that animal, but he will be taken care of, you know, from that perspective, and we'll make sure that this never happens again. it's the only time that it's ever happened in our history. so, we'll definitely be reviewing our protocols there.

    >> all right, julie , thank you very much . i appreciate your time.

updated 2/25/2010 10:55:20 AM ET 2010-02-25T15:55:20

The death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Adventure Park in Orlando, Florida at the hands of Tilikum, one of the largest killer whales in captivity, was a shocking, terrible tragedy. There are no words for her family and loved ones, whose loss is beyond measure.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that captive Orcas are regularly involved in the deaths of trainers. Tilikum himself, a 12,000 pound bull, killed his trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991. The body of a homeless man was found draped across his back at SeaWorld in 1999.

Brancheau's death is the second in just a couple of months. Alexis Mertinez, a trainer at Loro Parque in Tenerife died in late December after having his chest severely compressed by a different whale "not considered completely predictable" who was known to "play rough."

The list goes on, tallying up near two dozen attacks — most non-fatal — since the 1970's. Together with today's sad, unpredictable incident, such tragedies raise a few important questions about training and keeping killer whales in captivity.

Were Tilikum a lion, a wolf, or a grizzly bear, would the death of a trainer be so surprising to us? We have a special fascination with whales, and killer whales in particular. We know they are immensely powerful but also incredibly intelligent, social, and emotional animals. Images of trainers hugging them and playfully tossing them fish are the first things that pop to mind.

But perhaps because of their status in our culture, we forget that they are multi-ton apex predators. In the wild they ruthlessly hunt down and eat seals, sea lions, and just about anything else they want.

More broadly, what provokes an attack like this, and why do they keep happening?

"Whether you call it boredom, aggression, stir-crazy, or it just being a wild animal, these accidents occur, and shouldn't be taken for granted," Courtney Vail of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) told Discovery News (a call made to SeaWorld was not immediately returned). She went on to suggest that it's the venue in which we view these animals — a brightly lit SeaWorld tank, with music, applause, and sensational tricks — that makes us think these animals are happy go-lucky animals content with life in captivity.

We can't see into the mind of an animal, of course. But according to Vail, 136 Orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961. Of those, 123 have died, with an average lifespan of four years once captured. For a species that averages 35 years in the wild, that's a pretty poor public health record.

The bottom line is that these animals are very lucrative, as are the relationships trainers establish with them for shows. A 2004 investigative report by Sally Kestin of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel revealed that SeaWorld paid $875,000 for an Orca in the mid-1990s. Though WDCS hasn't been able to find any current numbers, Vail speculated that the whales likely now sell for "millions of dollars."

Being a campaigns director for WDCS, Vail's stance is that no whales should be kept in captivity. Of the 41 Orcas currently alive in captivity around the world, only 13 are wild. Still, captive breeding programs need new blood from wild populations to maintain genetic viability. Animals will continue to be harvested from the wild, simply because they are money makers.

And for the same reason, the position of SeaWorld trainer to a killer whale isn't llikely to disappear any time soon, no matter how dangerous a job it is.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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