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SeaWorld to restart killer whale shows; trainers will stay out of water

ORLANDO — SeaWorld will restart its killer whale shows today after Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, dragged a trainer to her death in the water at the Orlando park.

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment president Jim Atchison said Friday that trainers won't get into the water with the killer whales until officials finish reviewing what happened to veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40.

"We will make improvements and changes, and we will move forward," Atchison said as killer whales swam in a tank behind him during a news conference.

The trainer was dragged into the water Wednesday by Tilikum. A medical examiner said she probably died of traumatic injuries and drowning.

Atchison said Tilikum will remain an "active, contributing member of the team" at SeaWorld. He said he's not sure how long it will be before trainers are allowed to get back into the water with the animals.

Tilikum is the only killer whale in the SeaWorld chain for which park employees must follow special handling rules, Atchison said. The 22-foot, 12,000-pound male was involved in earlier deaths at SeaWorld and a park in British Columbia.

Atchison wouldn't speak about specific protocols or whether any had been violated.

The issue of protocols was raised by the former head of animal training at SeaWorld, Thad Lacinak, who said earlier Friday that the rules in place when he left the park in 2008 would not have allowed Brancheau to lie down on a submerged shelf next to the whale, where the animal was able to grab her ponytail.

"She laid completely down, which is a very vulnerable position to be in with an animal like Tilikum. And apparently her ponytail drifted into the water, he just opened his mouth, sucked it in and pulled her in the water," said Lacinak, who left SeaWorld in 2008 after a long career to start a consultancy.

Lacinak said he had been told how the attack happened by other trainers who were at the scene. Based on their description, he said, the rules for handling Tilikum that were in place during his tenure had either been broken or changed.

Tilikum was one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 at a theme park near Victoria, British Columbia. In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing and apparently fell into the whale tank. He died of hypothermia but was also bitten by Tilikum, officials said.

SeaWorld has three locations. The others are in San Diego and San Antonio, Texas.

SeaWorld to restart killer whale shows; trainers will stay out of water 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 11:20pm]
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