ORLANDO — SeaWorld Orlando plans to put the killer whale Tilikum back into public performances beginning today.
Tilikum has not appeared in any shows since Feb. 24, 2010, the day the animal battered and drowned 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau. The death forced sweeping safety changes within SeaWorld, and sparked government investigations and private lawsuits that have yet to be resolved.
The move comes at a sensitive time for SeaWorld, which is challenging a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration citation issued last summer. The agency accused SeaWorld of exposing trainers to danger without adequate protection and recommended trainers never again be exposed to Tilikum.
Tilikum, an adult male who has sired more than a dozen calves, is by far the largest of the roughly two-dozen killer whales in SeaWorld's corporate collection. He had been involved in two deaths before Brancheau's, including a trainer at a British Columbia aquarium in 1991 and a homeless man who snuck into SeaWorld Orlando's killer-whale complex after hours in 1999.
SeaWorld now requires trainers to stay farther away from Tilikum when working with him and has made many safety upgrades to killer-whale facilities in its Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio parks. Among them: guardrails around pool ledges and devices that more quickly deploy safety nets in case of an emergency.