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SeaWorld Orlando's attack killer whale Tilikum is valuable, dangerous

Killer whales swim in tanks Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, where one of the animals killed a trainer during a show. The shows are on hold while the park studies what went wrong.

Orlando Sentinel

Killer whales swim in tanks Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, where one of the animals killed a trainer during a show. The shows are on hold while the park studies what went wrong.

What to do with a 12,000-pound killer whale that is famous for being the world's most potent captive orca stud and infamous for the deaths of three people?

The fate of Tilikum has been debated since Wednesday, when he attacked Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old SeaWorld Orlando trainer who spent 14 years working with killer whales. As spectators watched, Tilikum grabbed her by her ponytail in knee-deep water, pulled her into his tank and drowned her.

SeaWorld suspended orca shows Thursday in Orlando and San Diego but indicated that Tilikum will resume most of his usual activities. It did not say he would take part in shows, but said Tilikum will remain with the park's other orcas — several of which he sired — and continue to work with trainers.

A Humane Society expert said a return to "business as usual" is "terribly disappointing"

"It will happen again," said Naomi Rose, a senior marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society who knew Tilikum when he killed a trainer in British Columbia in 1991.

"It's not a question of if. It's a question of when. This is his normal behavior. It's what he does when someone falls in the water."

She advocates moving Tilikum to a sea pen similar to the one built in Iceland for Keiko, the killer whale that inspired the 1993 movie Free Willy.

She was writing her dissertation in 1991 in British Columbia when Tilikum drowned a trainer nearly the same way at a park in Victoria. That was eight years after his capture near Iceland when he was 2. He was the first captive killer whale to ever kill a trainer.

After the drowning, the 22-foot orca was moved to SeaWorld Orlando. There in 1999, a trespasser who sneaked past park security after hours was found dead in Tilikum's tank. He had cuts and bruises, indicating he had been bitten.

At SeaWorld, Tilikum gained fame for siring up to 17 calves, including most of the juvenile whales in the park. He's the world's No. 1 captive orca stud. His virility makes him worth millions.

Tilikum's sperm is used for artificial inseminations and in vitro procedures, said Nancy Blake, who runs the Monterey Bay Whale Watch in California. "They're surely not going to put down an animal as valuable as he is."

Because of his prowess, Tilikum is often confined to a small breeding tank, where it's difficult for him even to turn around, Rose said. Trainers have always been forbidden to get in the water with him because of the deaths. Isolation among marine mammals is highly stressful, which leads to abnormal behavior.

That could have motivated the attack. Or, Blake said, he could have just had a bad day, or thought humans are toys. Orcas have personalities. He could be pathological. Or he simply could be a grump.

But Rose said three strikes is enough.

"SeaWorld should consider retirement."

Release into the wild usually poses a death sentence for animals long held in captivity, but the Free Willy orca Keiko was provided a giant sea pen in Iceland with humans kept at a distance. He was allowed supervised swims in the ocean. He ran away once and almost made it to Norway, 900 miles away. He died in 2003.

Tilikum isn't leaving Florida, for now.

Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld Orlando's head trainer, told CBS News that the whale is important to the pod's social structure. He said training will continue, though some procedures will change after a review of the accident.

"This is not Tilikum's fault," Rose said. "The fault lies on how he is forced to react in a way that seems natural to him."

Keeping Tilikum near people "is like leaving drugs on the table for an addict."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

SeaWorld Orlando's attack killer whale Tilikum is valuable, dangerous 02/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 11:03pm]
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