Killer whale to be spared as ponytail blamed for death
Published 26/02/2010 | 05:00
A killer whale that drowned its trainer will be spared after colleagues said her ponytail was to blame for the tragedy.
Witnesses described seeing the 30-year-old, 5.5 tonne bull orca, named Tilikum, grabbing Dawn Brancheau's long hair in its mouth before dragging her underwater at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida.
Chuck Tompkins, the head of animal training at all SeaWorld parks, said: "Dawn had just finished up a very good session with this animal. She was interacting with him, petting him on the nose.
"Dawn had very long hair in a ponytail. That ponytail had swung in front of him. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her under water."
Mr Tompkins also rejected calls to free the killer whale -- saying that Tilikum would not survive in the wild.
"Tilikum has been raised in a zoological environment. Putting him in the wild would be signing his death certificate," he said.
Witnesses at an earlier show said that the whale had behaving like a bad-tempered child -- but Mr Tompkins dismissed the reports and said he was a "good animal".
The killing of the trainer Dawn Brancheau (40) at SeaWorld on Wednesday was the third human death involving Tilikum, who was captured off Iceland in 1983. Spectators said the whale pulled Ms Brancheau underwater and reappeared on the other side of the tank holding her. "He wouldn't let her come up. The force by which the woman was pulled into the water ... her shoes were pulled off, it was terrible," Gary Biniak told a local television station.
In 1991 Keltie Lee Byrne, a trainer at Canada's Sealand, died after falling into a tank that contained Tilikum and two other whales, which prevented her from climbing out.
In 1999 the naked body of Daniel Dukes was found draped across Tilikum's back at SeaWorld after he apparently slipped past security to go swimming with the whales. A post-mortem showed that Ms Brancheau died from drowning and multiple traumatic injuries. Police said that rescuers had been unable to get to her because of the whale's aggressive nature. Her body was recovered only after the whale was coaxed into a smaller pool.
Friends and relatives of Ms Brancheau, who was married but had no children, said that she had dreamed of working with whales all her life.
Tilikum is the largest of the 42 orcas held in captivity in aquaria around the world. Animal rights groups have long condemned the practice.
SeaWorld was closed yesterday as officials re-evaluated their safety procedures.