Marine Science Today Interview: Part 2

This is part two of MST contributing writer Michael Bear’s interview with bestselling author David Kirby about the captive orca industry, and Kirby’s book, ‘Death at SeaWorld’. Read part one here.

David Kirby's Death at SeaWorldQ: As you recounted in your book, on February 24, 2010, the killer whale named Tilikum killed one of SeaWorld’s most experienced trainers, Dawn Brancheau. Witness accounts differ as to exactly what happened first. Some say the version which says he grabbed her by her long ponytail was an attempt by SeaWorld to lay blame on her for the fatal event. Other witness accounts say that he pulled her in by her left arm. Was it ever determined which version was correct?

A: This remains a contentious point. SeaWorld first let the Orange County Sheriff’s Office declare that Dawn Brancheau fell into the pool. When this was debunked by eyewitnesses, the company trotted out the so-called “ponytail defense,” claiming that Brancheau’s long hair drifted into Tilikum’s mouth, and he found it a novel toy. This scenario was established by one of the trainers on scene at the time, though he later said he did not see the exact moment when Tilikum grabbed Brancheau. Other witnesses, including a security guard, said Tilikum grabbed Brancheau by her left arm and took her down that way. Both witnesses testified in court to their own recollections. The judge wrote that the ponytail theory, “was not established as a fact at the hearing, and it is in dispute”. We will probably never know, unless, perhaps, the underwater video of the attack is released to the public, which is unlikely.

Q: In your book (p.305), you refer to something that SeaWorld made mandatory reading for all new trainers, called the ‘Tilikum Safety Protocol.’ Part of that procedure included giving them what was casually referred to as the ‘Tilly talk.’ The talk was short and simple: If you get in the water with Tilikum, you will likely not survive. It seems pretty clear from this that SeaWorld was not only aware of Tilikum’s violent past, but that it had devised special procedures for dealing with him that they did not apply to other whales. Do you consider this prima fascia evidence that SeaWorld knew Tilikum was a danger to trainers, since he had killed two people before he killed Dawn Brancheau?

A: Of course they knew. How could they not? Before he was moved to Orlando, Tilikum lived at a former park in British Columbia called SeaLand, which wanted to get rid of all three of its killer whales after trainer Keltie Byrne was killed there in 1991. SeaWorld knew full well what the reason was, but they desperately needed a new breeding male – and fresh DNA. Management knew Tilikum was truly a killer, but they did not let the rank and file know this for many years. And when they allowed trainers like Brancheau to be up close with him in shallow water, they committed an act of “willful” negligence, according to OSHA. The judge in the case reduced the violation to “serious,” but that is still a significant abuse of worker protection laws.

Read more:

Interviewer’s Note: I would like to thank Dr. Naomi Rose, Dr. Lori Marino and Dr. Jeff Ventre for their assistance.

If you missed part one, here it is.

About David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of 'Evidence of Harm,' which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and 'Animal Factory,' an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work 'The Jungle.' His latest book, 'Death at SeaWorld,' was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”
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