Florida Whale Shows To Resume After Deadly Attack

27 Feb

ORLANDO, Florida : SeaWorld plans to resume killer whale shows at its facilities Saturday, just days after an orca it described as “an important part of our team” killed a trainer in front of horrified onlookers.

“He will remain part of our team,” SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment president Jim Atchison said of the whale that killed trainer Dawn Brancheu.

“Tilikum is an extraordinary animal,” he added. “He is a very special animal that requires very special handling.”

Trainers will not be allowed into the water with the Florida marine park’s killer whales until a thorough safety review has been completed and its recommendations implemented, he said.

Tilikum — a five-tonne orca already linked to two other human deaths since 1991 — grabbed Brancheau, 40, by her ponytail on Wednesday and dragged her into the water at the end of a show at SeaWorld Orlando.

Atchison addressed reporters Friday at a sometimes tense press conference that took place in front of an underwater observation tank, where seven of the park’s orcas swam peacefully. Tilikum was not present.

He told reporters, who were escorted one at a time into the park to the observation tank, that Tilikum would not face punishment or isolation.

“It’s important that I again stress that we provide the highest standard of care and no animal is ever subject to punishment in any form. Tilikum is no exception.”

Colleagues from other marine parks in Miami, Georgia and Niagara Falls as well as the United States Navy are assisting in the park’s internal investigation, as preparations are made for funeral services for Brancheau in Chicago on Sunday and Monday.

SeaWorld has scrambled to prevent the gruesome attack from becoming a public relations disaster that could hit its lucrative marine show business, and Atchison rejected comparisons between Wednesday’s incident and two prior human deaths involving Tilikum.

“Those incidents and (the) nature of them had nothing to do with the nature of this event… and are not relevant to his particular altercation,” he said.

He acknowledged that Wednesday’s event was videotaped, but said the footage is part of the ongoing investigation.

He also defended the shows and exhibits as educational and an “extraordinary way for people to make connections with marine animals.”

Witness Sue Nichols, 67, said the crowd had no warning that anything was brewing as the show was already ending with most of the 50-strong audience having left their seats.

The trainer would “pet him, and she would get very close to him. She’d throw fish in his mouth and throw buckets of water in his mouth, which he seemed to enjoy. There was nothing aggravating or anything about it,” Nichols told AFP.

“She was petting the whale and talking to him, and then all of a sudden he just reached up. He got her in the water, and he took her underwater, and he had her under for quite a while,” she said.”He came up out of the water, and he had her in his mouth.”

Despite the apparently harrowing nature of the attack and wide media coverage, park officials said attendance numbers had not dropped off.

Casey Morgan, 36, visited the park Friday with her husband.

“It’s going to have to go on. Life goes on,” said Morgan, visiting from Alberta, Canada. “We can’t just stop and live inside a bubble.”

The park’s chief zoological officer, Brad Andrews, said employees were saddened by Brancheau’s death but looking forward to resuming the shows.

“They also have a close relationship with the animals that they work with,” he said. “We’re going to do what we do well.”

-AFP/ha

Channel News Asia

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