At her March 1 funeral in Chicago, veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was remembered as a woman who loved the animals she worked with “like they were her own children,” said sister Diane Gross. “She just couldn’t deal with people or animals suffering,” says pal Marlene Garrett. So what would Brancheau, 40, have done with the 12,000-lb. orca Tilikum, who killed her during a performance five days earlier by dragging her underwater by her ponytail? SeaWorld Orlando officials, who reinstated the killer-whale show in Shamu stadium (but without Tilikum or trainers getting in the water with any of the orcas) three days after Brancheau’s death, maintain that the park’s oldest and largest orca, Tilikum, 30, “will continue to be an active, contributing member of our team,” according to SeaWorld President and CEO Jim Atchison. “Dawn would not have wanted him to be punished.”
But what exactly is punishment for a wild animal who has spent most of his life entertaining human beings? Brancheau’s death has ignited fiery debate about whether animals like Tilikum would be better served by being reintroduced to their natural habitats. Those who work with such animals feel that removing a 22-ft. orca from a familiar environment that has been his home since age 2 would be not only cruel but threatening to his survival. Animal rights activists counter that such animals do not forget their colonies and can be eased back into wild life. “When these animals are taken into captivity,” says Howard Garrett, director of the nonprofit Orca Network, “they can become very hostile, depressed and even suicidal.”
Indeed, the life expectancy for captive whales is about half that of their free-ranging kin. “Orcas live in communities that parallel human nomadic tribes,” says Garrett. “They don’t survive very well when they’re separated.” They also don’t attack humans in the wild. “The only incidents of them hurting humans have always been in captivity,” Garrett says. Since 1987 there have been at least eight such attacks, three of them involving Tilikum. “We have no business capturing these animals for our own amusement,” Garrett stresses.
People who work with killer whales see themselves as conservators, not entertainers. Tilikum “is in the best place he can possibly be,” says former SeaWorld trainer Shawna Karrasch. In addition to propagating (Tilikum has sired 14 calves, a park record), the controlled environment provides animals with “a really good quality of life,” she says. “They don’t have to worry about so many elements. They are so well taken care of.”
Would Brancheau have agreed? “She had been here for nearly 17 years,” says Chuck Tompkins, who heads SeaWorld’s animal training. “She wouldn’t have stayed so long if she didn’t deeply believe in what we were doing.”