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Family of Killer Whale Victim Breaks Their Silence

Dawn Brancheau’s family trusts SeaWorld to do what’s best

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By Michael Mountain

As Tilikum the killer whale goes back on show at SeaWorld, the family of Dawn Brancheau, the trainer whom he killed violently and shockingly last year during a performance, has broken a year of public silence. This morning, they appeared on several TV shows to comment on her death and on Tilikum’s future.

The grief of the family was evident, and it’s hard not to feel their pain. But the shows underscored the dilemma of the family, SeaWorld, and anyone who cares about protecting animals.

On the Today show, the family emphasized how much Brancheau had loved Tilikum. “She loved caring for those whales,” said her sister, Darlyne Klages. “She did the best she could to make them happy.”

But as Today show reporter Kerry Sanders pointed out, it’s not love driving SeaWorld’s motivation to put Tilikum back in the spotlight; it’s the bottom line. “He’s SeaWorld’s most prolific breeder,” Sanders said, “responsible for more than a dozen captive births of orcas.”

While SeaWorld and its personnel did the best they could to help Brancheau, it wasn’t enough. And it may never be enough. Several former trainers have stepped forward since her death to say that it’s really not possible for these huge animals to be happy in captivity, and that it’s never going to be safe for the trainers.

“How many deaths are enough?” asked Russ Rector, a former trainer at SeaWorld. “If he kills four people, are they then going to react and do the right thing?”

And what would be “the right thing?” for SeaWorld? Is being around killer whales ever really safe for the trainers? And what about the animals? Is it right to keep them penned up in tiny pools for their entire lives?

“We know that [Dawn] would want whatever’s best for Tilly,” Klages said. “We don’t know what’s best for Tilly, so we’re going to leave that up to SeaWorld.”

But as the Today show noted, how can SeaWorld do what’s best for Tilikum when Tilikum is inextricably tied to its financial success?

Ask any killer whale expert who’s not on the payroll of one of the marine circuses, and they’ll tell you that the best thing for these animals would be for them to be taken out of captivity. SeaWorld would argue that’s not possible. And it’s certainly true that orcas can’t just be put back in the open ocean, where, without having been raised with their mothers and families, they would be unable to care for themselves. But it does mean they could be placed in marine sanctuaries and given something much closer to a natural lifestyle.

What do you say? What’s the right thing to do for Tilikum and the other captive whales? And what should be done to ensure the safety of the trainers who are charged with keeping the show going? Please comment below or go to our Facebook page and let us know what you’re thinking.

What can you do? There are myriad groups you could join, from The Orca Project to Save the Orcas to Save the Whales Again to Save the Whales to Save Orca Whales to signing a petition to save orcas or this petition to ensure open hearings in SeaWorld’s hearing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.