Saturday 24 March 2018

Killer whale was treated differently, handler admits

Martin Evans

The captive killer whale, Tilikum, responsible for the death of one of its trainers had to be treated differently from other animals because of the danger it posed, the park's boss has admitted.

Chuck Tompkins, chief animal trainer for SeaWorld Orlando in Florida, said the 12,300 pound orca's sheer size and history of previous attacks meant handlers had to take special precautions.

Tilikum was one of three killer whales blamed for the drowning of a previous trainer in Canada in 1991. Eight years later a late night park intruder was found dead in his pool.

The latest tragedy struck when the 30-year-old animal grabbed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau's ponytail and dragged her under the water drowning her.

Mr Tomkins, who spent five years training Tilikum, described him as a "good animal" but admitted there were different rules when handling him compared to other killer whales at the attraction.

He said: "We treated Tilikum differently. We knew because of his size and because of previous incidents, we did not get into the water with him. We had very specific rules of how we interacted with him. He's large, male – huge – and we respected his size."

He added: "We're working with wild animals, they're not tame. If there's sexual activity in the pool, or maybe they're socially interacting with each other, we're very sensitive to those things.

"You don't pet your dog in the middle of a dog fight. We train our staff to observe these things. We're trained for those situations. We can predict 99.9 per cent of the time what they're going to do.

"We know what to do with these animals. We know how to interact with them. If something doesn't feel right, we get out of the water. We know when to step back and let them be animals. We've had millions of positive interactions."

Despite the tragedy SeaWorld have said they will not be destroying Tilikum and have also rejected calls to release him into the wild.

Brancheau's older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer, who was married with no children, would not want anything to happen to the whale and the family regarded her death as a tragic accident.

"Dawn loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them," her sister said. "They all had personalities, good days and bad days."

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