Dawn Brancheau, SeaWorld, Tilly the orca, Tilikum
orca whales
Phelan M. Ebenhack, Pool/AP Photo
SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged to her death by a killer whale at the park
three days earlier, is shown as part of a slide show tribute during the first killer whale show at
SeaWorld since her death, in Orlando, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010.

As Shamu Show Goes On, Many Wonder Whether It’s Curtain Time

March 03, 2010 06:14 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Despite the tragic death of a trainer and protests from animal rights activists, Sea World has resumed its famous Shamu show.

Tragedy Prompts Criticism of SeaWorld

On February 27, SeaWorld Orlando reopened the Believe program, which stars Orca whales, mere days after a trainer was killed by an Orca named Tilly. Nonetheless, “fans poured into the Believe Stadium to see the Shamu show,” reported Melissa DiPane of Fox 35 News in Orlando.

Jordan Anderson, a student at Van Meter High School in Iowa, said "It's hard to believe.  I was just there last year.  They showed us a whole film about the killer whales.  They said they were dangerous animals, but I never thought they'd hurt one of the trainers."

Sea World has changed some aspects of the show since the incident, including trainers’ interaction with the Orcas. But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) protestors were stationed outside the park throughout the afternoon, and “[m]any drivers honked” in support, DiPane reported. Peta is calling for SeaWorld to end its Shamu show and free its captive marine animals. 

The Humane Society of the United States has not condemned SeaWorld, but has suggested that the park’s conditions are not suitable for an animal as massive as Tilly (full name Tilikum). According to the Los Angeles Times, Humane Society marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose claims Tilly’s 12,000-pound frame is too large for SeaWorld tanks. 

Other experts suggest that keeping marine animals in captivity or solitary confinement leads to “crazy” behavior. However, Tilly is not considered “releasable” at this point, partly because he has no more teeth, according to former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre.

Background: Brancheau’s Death and other orca attacks

Trainer Dawn Brancheau was a “veteran” professional, according to the Orlando Sentinel. She was pulled into the whale tank “by her long ponytail” and drowned, a tragedy that was witnessed by SeaWorld visitors waiting for the Shamu show to begin. Brancheau’s death “has prompted fresh scrutiny of SeaWorld’s safety practices, including its hair-length policy.”

Brancheau is far from the first trainer to be harmed by an orca whale. In November 2006, “a female orca named Kasatka” grabbed her trainer, Ken Peters, holding him under water and breaking his foot, MSNBC reported. Hundreds of spectators witnessed the incident, but the show continued the following day.

This YouTube video depicts a mistimed stunt featuring orcas at SeaWorld in 2007. The trainer involved in the show is nearly crushed when an orca lands on him instead of jumping over him. 

One of the earliest orca attacks, involving trainer Anne Godsey, was captured on film in 1971, according to UK newspaper The Sun.  Godsey was held by Shamu and pulled around the tank, but managed to survive, needing 200 stitches to repair the wound in her leg. 

Orcas in captivity and in the wild

PBS Frontline’s “A Whale of a Business” discusses the future of marine mammal captivity. The program Web site features debate over whether captive dolphins and whales should be freed, and takes an inside look at SeaWorld, and a list and accounting of all 133 orcas ever captured from the wild is provided. Japan’s methods of capturing and slaughtering killer whales are also touched on.

The program also provides details of “The Tilikum Transaction,” explaining how the orca was acquired by SeaWorld, and his involvement in the death of another trainer, Keltie Byrne. 

National Geographic Kids has an Animals Creature Feature with a slew of informational resources on orcas (killer whales). Facts about orcas, National Geographic photos and video footage of orcas in the wild, and a map of where orcas live are provided.

Opinion and Analysis: Orca captivity like prison

Jean-Michel Cousteau, who works with Santa Barbara’s Ocean Futures Society and was closely involved in the effort to free the killer whale Keiko, discussed Brancheau’s death with the Santa Barbara Independent. Cousteau likens orca captivity to prison, and indicates how difficult it is to “properly rehabilitate” orcas and release them into the wild once they’ve been in captivity.

“My point is that we’ve learned enough with captive animals today that we need to leave them in their environment,” Cousteau said. He suggests investment in whale watching instead, which is more educational and can still be profitable. Cousteau denies being overly emotional, calling his concern “about us” rather than solely about orcas. “What are we passing on to the young people?” he asks. “Are we deforming reality?”

Related Topic: Whalers’ manipulation of orcas in Australia

PBS program Nature delved into the world of a “mysterious partnership between killer whales and whalers” for production of Killers in Eden. Eden is a town on Australia’s southeast coast, which was for a time the epicenter of the country’s prolific whaling industry. Whalers there would employ orcas to lead “larger migrating whales into the bay” and attack them “to the point of exhaustion.” Whalers would then move in “for the final kill,” sharing the whale meat with the orcas. 

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