SeaWorld: The Show Must Go On

Jim Atchison, right, President & CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, speaks during a news conference at the killer whale underwater viewing area of SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., Friday, Feb. 26, 2010. AP

SeaWorld won't punish the killer whale responsible for the death of a veteran trainer and it plans to resume its Shamu Believe show with killer whales this weekend, the company's president said Friday.

Trainers won't be allowed to enter the water with the whales pending a review of the park's safety practices.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, was killed Wednesday at the close of the lunchtime show by the killer whale Tilikum in front of a horrified audience.

WKMG: Watch Trainer with Tilikum Before Attack

SeaWorld plans to keep Tilikum and not euthanize him, SeaWorld president Jim Atchison said Friday.

Atchison said Tilikum will remain an "active, contributing member of the team" during a press conference in Orlando that was framed in front of the park's killer whale tank. Tilikum wasn't among the whales swimming behind the podium.

Atchison said whale shows will resume Saturday. He said he's not sure how long it will be before trainers are allowed to get back in the water with the animals.

The company stumbled during its first post-attack press conference. Orlando SeaWorld President Dan Brown did not immediately correct a sheriff's spokesman who said Brancheau accidentally fell into the water, and Brown himself said only that she "drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales."

SeaWorld acknowledged two hours later that Tilikum had grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail and yanked her into the water. Brancheau was rubbing Tilikum after the "Dine With Shamu" show when the 22-foot, 12,000-pound creature pulled her off a poolside platform.

Related stories on Tilikum:

Whale, Trainer Play on Film Before Attack
SeaWorld Defends Serial Killer Whale
Ex-SeaWorld Official: Trainer Made Mistake
Dawn Brancheau's Last Moments Alive
SeaWorld Trainer Embraced Risks of Job
SeaWorld Dives into Damage Control
Trainer Has "No Fear" of Killer Whales
Tilikum Trainer Had to be Pulled From Jaws
Does Killer Whale Need a Lawyer?
SeaWorld Staff Saw Tilikum as Dangerous
What Caused Killer Whale to Attack?

Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy. Authorities said that trainers trying to help her could not get into the water because Tilikum was so aggressive. They had to coax him into a smaller pool and raise him out of the water on a platform before they could free her.

She likely died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning, the Orange County medical examiner's office said Thursday.

Thad Lacinak, the former head of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando who trained Brancheau, said Tilikum was just curious about her ponytail and dragged her into the water to investigate a new toy.

Lacinak said Brancheau was very good but made a mistake by lying down on a watery shelf next to animal and letting her long hair get in front of orca - the largest killer whale in captivity.

"She was an excellent trainer, one of the best I've seen in my life ... But allowing her ponytail to drift into the water like that in front of the animal turned out to be a fatal mistake," Lacinak, who left SeaWorld in 2008 after a long career to start a consultancy, told The Associated Press.

Atchison said it was "far too early" to assess whether Brancheau made any errors in handling Tilikum.

Tilikum has a history of violence. He was also one of three orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 after the woman lost her balance and fell into a pool at a Sealand theme park near Victoria, British Columbia.

In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing and apparently fell into the whale tank. An autopsy found he died of hypothermia. Officials also said it appeared Tilikum bit the man.

Because of Tilikum's size and history of aggressive behavior, visitors were not allowed to get close to the whale, and trainers were not permitted to climb into the water with the animal. They were only allowed to work with him from a partially submerged deck.

Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, in Louisville, Ky., defended SeaWorld's response.

"They've not overreacted. They've not gone into a stall. They're not ducking the media," he said. And, he said, they had the advantage that the attack occurred the same day the head of Toyota testified before Congress about his own company's public relations crisis and broke down crying.

(AP/American Cetacean Society)
Smith said the attack could actually drive up attendance of at least one demographic - teens and young adults.

"It's not going to draw families necessarily or older people who would typically visit there, but there is an age group that gets excited about the risks and the potential for drama and it may attract some of those folks," he said.

Peter Yesawich, chairman of Ypartnership, an Orlando marketing firm that specializes in travel and entertainment, said SeaWorld enjoys a reputation as a family friendly and animal friendly company, which should help it recover from the crisis. In Florida, its veterinarians have been known to respond to cases of injured marine animals in the wild.

Yesawich said SeaWorld also showed responsibility by shutting down its killer whale shows until it can assess what happened. And fatal accidents at other theme parks - such as last summer's Disney World monorail crash that killed the ride's operator - don't stop the public from attending.

"It's one of these tragic, unpredictable instances that I personally don't think is going to do any long-term damage to the SeaWorld brand," he said.

Denise DeVore, 36, a photographer from Beacon, N.Y., visited the park with her 3-year-old daughter Wednesday and said she felt it was safe for the public. DeVore said she thinks SeaWorld plays an important role in educating people about marine life.

But will she return?

She echoed several other parents who were torn, though not because of the attack.

"The question is should we have whales in captivity? These are wild animals," DeVore said, adding, "But my daughter loves those dolphins."
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