A killer whale at the SeaWorld amusement park in central Florida killed a trainer on Wednesday, a sheriff’s spokesperson said.
“She apparently slipped and fell into the tank and was fatally injured by one of the whales,” Orange County Sheriff’s spokesperson Jim Solomons said.
Solomons said 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, a trainer with 16 years experience at SeaWorld, was dead when rescue officials arrived.
Media reports said the orca at the park’s Shamu Stadium grabbed the woman by the waist, thrashed her about and took her underwater.
The trainer was killed just before the start of a public performance and the stadium was immediately evacuated.
Dan Brown, president of SeaWorld Orlando, said the victim was one of the park’s most experienced animal trainers, and that she drowned.
There were conflicting reports about how the incident occurred. The Orlando Sentinel quoted a spectator as saying the whale came up from the water and grabbed the trainer by her waist. The sheriff’s official said preliminary accounts indicated she slipped and fell in, but that was still under investigation.
The Florida park is owned by the Blackstone Group, a private equity company that also owns part of the Universal Orlando theme park.
A spokeseprson for SeaWorld in San Diego said killer whale shows have been suspended following the death in Orlando.
According to the Orlando Sentinel the orca involved in Wednesday’s incident, named Tillikum but popularly known as “Tilly,” has a controversial past.
Criticism from Peta
The whale was blamed for the drowning of one of his trainers in 1991 while he was performing at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, the newspaper said.
Sold to SeaWorld as a stud in 1992, the whale was involved in a second incident when authorities discovered the body of a naked man lying across his back in July 1999.
Authorities said the man, who had either snuck into SeaWorld after hours or hidden in the park until it closed, most likely drowned after suffering hypothermia in the 13° water.
A former contractor with SeaWorld told the Sentinel that Tillikum is typically kept isolated from SeaWorld’s other killer whales and that trainers were not allowed to get in the water with him because of his violent history.
Animal rights advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals slammed the death as “a tragedy that didn’t have to happen”.
“For years, Peta has been calling on SeaWorld to stop confining oceangoing mammals to an area that to them is like the size of a bathtub,” the group said in a statement.
“It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out.” – Reuters