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Colleagues, family remember SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau

February 26, 2010 |  5:29 pm

SeaWorld's head of animal training, Chuck Tompkins, recently spoke on video about trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed Wednesday during an interaction with an orca named Tilikum.

Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, described her as someone who "loved the whales like her children," and Tompkins echoed those sentiments in his video statement. Brancheau was apparently interacting with Tilikum on a poolside platform Wednesday when he grabbed her hair and pulled her into the water. An autopsy found that she "most likely died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning," according to a news release from the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff's Office.

A former head trainer at SeaWorld, Thad Lacinak, told Florida news station WFTV that he believed an error on Brancheau's part led to her death. During his time at the park, Lacinak said, "[the] protocol was not to be around Tilikum's mouth while you're laying down" on the water-covered platform called the slide-out.

Lying down "is a very vulnerable position to be in with an animal like Tilikum," Lacinak continued. "And apparently her ponytail drifted into the water, he just opened his mouth, sucked it in and pulled her in the water." But Lacinak was quick to describe Brancheau as an excellent trainer, despite the apparent mistake.

Brancheau had apparently been working since childhood toward her dream of training marine mammals. In a 2006 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, she recalled a trip to SeaWorld at age 9 as being pivotal in her decision to become a trainer. "I remember walking down the aisle (of Shamu Stadium) and telling my mom, 'This is what I want to do,' " she told the Sentinel.

A memorial fund has been established for Brancheau, with donations to be used "to support the children's charities she was so passionate about," SeaWorld announced Friday.

Although SeaWorld's president and chief executive, Jim Atchison, has said that "[all] of our standard operating procedures will come under review as part of the investigation" into Brancheau's death, the Orlando park will resume its public orca shows this weekend.

In light of Wednesday's tragedy, SeaWorld has suspended the Twitter account it had maintained to give voice to its Shamu orca character. (Shamu is not the name of any of SeaWorld's current orcas, but is rather a stage name used by any number of the orcas performing at SeaWorld. The original Shamu died more than 30 years ago.)

"At this difficult time, @Shamu will not be active on Twitter, as users who follow @Shamu have come to expect posts that are light-hearted and perhaps a bit quirky," a spokesperson wrote on SeaWorld's blog. The company continues to post updates to its primary Twitter account, @SeaWorld_Parks.

SeaWorld faces public relations challenge in wake of trainer's orca death

-- Lindsay Barnett

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