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SeaWorld Orlando trainer dies in orca incident

An incident involving an orca left a SeaWorld Orlando marine mammal trainer dead Wednesday. The identity of the victim has not been released, although SeaWorld president Dan Brown confirmed during a news conference that it was a senior female trainer at the park.

A witness, Victoria Biniak, told Florida news source WKMG that the trainer was grabbed by an orca shortly after delivering a speech to an audience gathered for a public whale show. But a spokesperson for the Orlando County Sheriff's Office, Jim Solomons, said that it appeared the trainer had slipped or fallen into the tank, apparently contradicting Biniak's description. "This appears to be an accidental death, a tragic death," Solomons said. 

The trainer was already dead when emergency personnel arrived, Orange County Fire Rescue spokesperson John Mulhall told WKMG. An investigation into her death is underway, and Brown said that "all of [SeaWorld's] standard operating procedures will be under review" in light of the incident.

The whale, identified by WKMG as a very large adult male named Tilikum, "took off really fast in the tank, and then he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing around, and one of her shoes flew off," Biniak told the station.

Another witness, David Dalton, told the WFTV news station that "out of nowhere, two of the bigger whales just kind of flipped out, going as fast as they could in the water." After the incident, SeaWorld Orlando staff "cut off the show ... quickly," Dalton said. Although park guests were evacuated from the Shamu Stadium area where the incident occurred and the whale show was canceled, SeaWorld Orlando has not been fully evacuated, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

SeaWorld in San Diego canceled its Shamu show, at least for Wednesday, after the fatal Florida incident.

Tilikum is apparently a wild-captured, rather than captive-bred, orca who also had some degree of involvement in the earlier deaths of two other humans.

In 1991, when he occupied a Canadian park called Sealand of the Pacific, a young female trainer named Keltie Byrne apparently slipped and fell into the orca tank in which Tilikum and other whales were swimming. Another trainer, Karen McGee, recalled later that she tried to help Byrne out of the tank, but the whales made her rescue impossible. McGee said she thought the whales believed the incident "was a play session, and she was in the water."

Later, in a move apparently unrelated to the Sealand incident, Tilikum was sent to SeaWorld Orlando. (He went on to father numerous offspring.) But at the Florida park, another bizarre incident ended with a man's death in 1999. The man, later identified as 27-year-old David Dukes of South Carolina, was found dead in Tilikum's tank. From the Orlando Sentinel:

Authorities later concluded the man, who had either snuck into SeaWorld after hours or hidden in the park until it closed, most likely drowned after suffering hypothermia in the 55-degree water.

But they also said it appeared Tillikum had bit the man and tore off his swimming trunks, likely believing he was a toy to play with.

The Sentinel reported that the park remained crowded after Wednesday's tragic incident, in part because of a private event being held there. The Shamu Stadium area has been cordoned off, and park staff are explaining to visitors that that section of the park has been closed for the remainder of the day.

In an interview with the Sentinel, former dolphin trainer Russ Rector said he believes the act of confining animals like orcas makes them dangerous. "Captivity is abusive to these animals. And the abuse mounts up. And when these animals snap -- just for a minute -- they're so big and can be so dangerous that it's like a shotgun," Rector said.

Another marine mammal expert, Nancy Black, hypothesized in an interview with WKMG that Tilikum might have been playing rather than trying to hurt the trainer. "They are very intelligent creatures. They have emotions, and feelings," Black told the station. "Maybe it was unhappy in the situation, maybe it was bored."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: Tilikum in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2007. Credit: Savie4lf

Comments () | Archives (18)

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ENOUGH!!! How many more "accidents" must happen before we stop supporting senseless animal exploitation? THIS is entertainment?

it is really scary to no that at a park open to the public can do such a thing poor trainer

This is indeed a sad story, and my sympathies to the family, but as someone who works with marine mammals I would encourage everyone who reads this article to do so with an open mind. A protective environment is NOT abusive to animals. They receive the utmost care physically, mentally, and emotionally, including enrichment activities for mental stimulation, weekly vet visits, vitamins, minerals, weight management, exercise, these animals are treated better than 99% of America's pets. Killer whales are the top predator of the sea and behavior including beaching themselves for prey capture, as well as tossing their food in play before eating it is a highly documented. Wild caught animals can be more aggressive than those born in a protected environment but it is important to realize that these behaviors are natural for a powerful carnivore and most trainers go into this field knowing of the dangers. No matter how cute or exciting an animal might seem, it is never wise to forget that they are always going to be wild in nature.

Reading what others have to say, I believe that no matter how you train a wild animal they can always turn on you. Knowing the dangers in this career field is a very high risk, but if you love what you do they will take it to their death. I don't think it was the trainers fault at least. Looking at it is just seeing that things can happen no matter how well you know a animal in general. It has happend in the past with the same whale they knew it could happen again. Anyways Sea World is still a fantastic place to go people just need to understand that there are dangers in the jobs that are performed there and should thank the people who risk their lifes just to give them a good time for their kids and families!

Keeping wild animals in captivity and making them perform silly tricks is just so sad. These are magnificent, intelligent, wild, unpredictable and dangerous animals. They have their own purposes here on this earth which we know nothing about. How would we feel about it if mentally superior beings came to earth from somewhere else in the universe, captured human "specimens" and put us on display in tiny glass-walled enclosures in their world, making us do stupid tricks for food? I think we would not like it! We would probably go crazy after a while and take any opportunity to strike back at them. Sound familiar?

This is a very sad story, I was just at sea world last summer and I said I would never go back. I didn't like the small tanks the poor whales were kept in and I didn't like how their fins are flopped down. I've always heard that's a sign of them being unhappy? Correct me if I'm wrong. It's horrible that she died, but the poor whale should not suffer for being taken out of the ocean...I feel bad for the whale and the trainer.

Also, notice his dorsal fin bent over which is well documented that this only happens in captivity.

How many more times are we going to take these animals out THEIR home for our entertainment?

Would you want to live in a cage? If your main source of sensory was echo location, would you go mad in a small tank? If you were put under enough stress for enough years, would you kill your tormentors?

We see this kind of revenge behavior over and over in "animal amusement" parks, whether it be tigers, elephants, or whales. When are we going to realize that confinement is absolute abuse?

Wild animals are wild animals. Just because humans confine themselves does NOT mean that other species are fine doing so. Time to learn this fact.

What happened to this trainer is tragic. There can be no debate on that, but as anyone who works with animals can tell you, there's always the risk of injury or death. Every time a keeper or trainer goes to work, they know they risk death or injury. If they don't, they have no business doing what they do. It's why there are numerous protocols to working with animals and why these events are so few. Remember that even your own cute, furry little dog has the ability to take a chunk out of a part of you.

As for this being “senseless animal exploitation” allow me to point out that if we didn't have zoos and places like Sea World where the animals are entertainment as well as instruments for allowing the general public to actually see such magnificent creatures up close and make the choice to support efforts to stop killing them all off for a number of reasons, mostly financial, a very high number of those “senselessly exploited” creatures who perform for our pleasure would now be extinct. Either hunted into oblivion for things like exotic skins, tusks for jewelry or the latest sushi. If not that, because humans have destroyed their homes with mining, farming or development. The reality is that humans kill more humans in a year than animals kill humans in decades.

It is time to stop this nonsense! release the whales and kill the show before more lives are lost. Exploiting animals and endnagering humans for profit is a crime!

I've always felt that zoos and marine parks were prisons for animals who didn't commit a crime. I know SeaWorld takes very great care of their animals, but it's nothing compared to being free in the wild. I would rather live a short free life than a long one inside of a prison cell.

A killer whale is a top predator and natural instincts tell them to hunt for food in the wild, not perform circus tricks for humans in order to eat. SeaWorld has made millions off this poor creature. It's time to repay the favor and set him free.

I feel sympathy for this poor trainer. Her death is very sad indeed.

ok. how does everybody know that this trainer did not antagonize this whale. perhaps it wasn't the trainer but someone in the audience. this is not the whales fault. some zoos and aquariums are not the best thing for wild animals. especially animals that were captured from their natural environment. just becuase they are said to be trained doesn't mean that they lost all memories of the wild where they belong. zoos and aquariums make animals that belong in the wild somewhat unhappy. not all animals, but some. I believe that the whale has no fault in this. yes, it was a unfortunate accident. and all of my sympathies to the family and everyone who knew this beautiful girl, but this whale should stop being blamed. maybe something just made him very unhappy.

this is just sad... the trainer didn't deserve to die...

A ponytail looks a lot like a fish being dangled for reward. She was in the process of rewarding him for a show well done. Could it be possible that the whale simply mistook her ponytail for a fish? Once in the water, the damage would probably already be done.

I'm thinking this was a horrible, tragic accident on all parts.

Sure, being in a "small" MILLION gallon 40 FT. deep tank (Which Is Only 1/3 of the tank) and being fed, and taken care of is such cruel and unusual punishment. People, your over-reacting to this way to much. Freak accidents happen, and I'm sure there is a good explanation behind why Tilikum killed the trainer. I'm sure it was just a form of play or maybe he misunderstood what it was. We hear of Animals in captivity saving peoples lives, so is it really fair to say that animals should not be captive? What places like Sea World do, how they bring people and animals together is simply, AMAZING! As an owner of Piranhas, Sting Rays, Jellyfish, Octopus, and Squid I realize the dangers of having these creatures but I still play with them and try to stimulate them so they definitely do not mind their living conditions. I myself am using my animal behavior experience and articles read off Sea Worlds website to train my Ray, and it's working damn near flawlessly. Please, rethink what your saying.

I noticed that a lot of posts say that the dolphins only get food by performing. THIS IS NOT TRUE! I'm sorry to burst your bubbles, you "animal-lovers", but they are fed PLENTY of food, whether they performed or not.
Keeping those dolphins in those tanks is not animal abuse! Im SICK and TIRED of hearing people say that. Why can't you people just get it through your head ?! These animals survive longer in captivity than in the wild! They are better taken care of.
And they ARE NOT lonely! The have their friends and families with them. Tilikum was only in a tank by himself simply because of his size. I admit that the tanks can be a little small, and it wouldn't hurt to expand them, BUT. These dolphins enjoy their lives in captivity and the only reason they would snap is simply because someone/something has made them angry, sad, etc.
The trainers at Seaworld know what they're doing and it is NEVER their fault if the animals snap. Nor is it the fault of the people who own Seaworld. Nor is it the fault of the people who captures the dolphins.
Stop saying "these whales are being abused!" First of all, they are NOT whales. They are DOLPHINS. Second of all, read what I just wrote, and realize that you only THINK they are being abused because of what you can ONLY see. If you actually bother to do research, you'd understand that these dolphins are in tip-top shape and that they are not being abused. They are happy and healthy. They just have bad days sometimes.

It is a sad thing that happened- very, very sad. But it is a risk of this job. I have seen this show and have enjoyed it. They are meant to educate people about what the whales can do and to appreciate this relatively rare form of life and show them to people who would never see whales in real life. These animals would likely live longer than if they werein the wild.

Okay now what happened to the trainer is tragic, and we all know it. But She died doing something she loved. And honestly I believe that these amazing creatures should not be help captive in tanks that small. They should just not be held captive period! I know it is very fascinating to see orca's up close like that but is it worth is? is it worth dying over making a helpless animal do stupid tricks? IS IT?! It just makes me so angry!


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