Trainer: Tilikum past darker than SeaWorld said

Trainer: Tiiikum past darker than SeaWorld said

CBS NEWS March 31, 2011

Former trainer: “I was told whale had limited involvement in deaths, but he played bigger role than we were led to think.”

Erica Hill speaks with former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg about whether it is safe for Tilikum the killer whale to begin performing again a year after the death of a trainer.

(CBS News)  One year after a trainer was savagely killed by a whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., the whale responsible for her death has made a controversial return to performing, though trainers will no longer be allowed in the water.

On Wednesday, more than 5,000 fans packed SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium, as Tilikum, the killer whale, made his first public appearance in more than a year, Mike Deforest, of CBS News affiliate WKMG Orlando, reported on “The Early Show.”

But the fanfare could do little to mask what happened there in February 2010, when the six-ton orca dragged 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau to her death, in front of a group of horrified onlookers.

Since Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld trainers have been subject to a new set of rules. Trainers are no longer allowed in the water during live shows, long hair must now be tied back, and new safety bars have been put into place.

Tilikum has been kept virtually isolated until now. In a statement, SeaWorld said Tilikum is being returned to the stage because, “It is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment.”

SeaWorld visitor Melissa Ferguson said, “You take the risk by being a trainer, you take your life into your own hand. You never know what could happen.”

But Brancheau isn’t the first person Tilikum has killed, Deforest reported. In 1991, 20-year-old trainer Keltie Byrne died while working with the whale, and in 1999, 27-year-old homeless man Daniel Dukes was killed after jumping into the whale pool unsupervised. Critics say it’s only a matter of time before another tragedy occurs.

Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg echoed Wilson’s words in an “Early Show” interview Thursday morning. She said having the whale back in the show may be good for the animal’s overall health, but could possibly lead, again, to tragedy.

“Tilikum has been involved in the deaths of three people over the past 20 years. So when you put him back into the show, of course, he’s going to have more interaction with trainers, and you’re risking that another tragedy could happen,” she said. “You know, it might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but somebody could make a mistake and there could be a fourth death. I really don’t think it’s in SeaWorld’s best interests to take that risk.”

Co-anchor Erica Hill asked Berg how much she knew about Tilikum’s past when she worked at SeaWorld.

Berg recalled, “I was at Shamu Stadium in ’92 when Tilikum arrived. And my understanding about Tilikum’s involvement with Keltie Byrne’s death was that she slipped and fell in the pool, and then the other whales actually were involved in her death, and all Tilikum did was carry Keltie’s dead body around on his back and it took two hours to retrieve Keltie. My understanding was actually she died of hypothermia relatively quickly. Of course ’92, was pre-Internet days. Now I’ve done a lot of research. What I learned was Keltie’s death was very similar to Dawn’s death in that she fell in. One of the whales grabbed her, kept her from getting back out, and then Tilikum and the … other two whales at Sealand in the Pacific all were involved in preventing Keltie from getting out of the water. They actively prevented her from getting out of the water. So Tilikum was involved in her death than a larger way than I knew about when I was working at the stadium.”

Berg said the trainers are not given enough information by SeaWorld.

“My understanding of the animal’s past was very limited,” she said. “In fact, there had been 30 incidents between killer whales, and trainers prior to my being hired at the park. And I didn’t know about any of them until after I left SeaWorld. So I think that’s a serious mistake on SeaWorld’s part that they weren’t letting people know the history of all the animals.”

She added the animals’ state in captivity is another issue.

“These animals are severely stressed because of their diet and because of their lack of socialization,” she said. “And so no matter how much information the trainers are given, there’s still always that potential that something tragic could happen.”

As for Tilikum, she said being part of the show will help his physical and mental state.

“He’s been out of shows for about 13 months, so he’s really completely out of condition,” she said. “He’s also been extremely stressed, because he’s got broken teeth and he’s been on antibiotics on and off. We know he’s chronically dehydrated because he’s eating about 10 gallons of gelatin a day, which is about 80 pounds of gelatin just to keep him hydrated because he’s eating dead fish. And he’s also just been really isolated. So of course, putting him back in the shows would be a good thing for him. It would get him back in condition and it would be socially stimulating for him. So from that standpoint, SeaWorld does have a point.”

The park still intends to get staff back in the water on a limited-basis for training sessions with the whales at some point, Deforest of CBS’ Orlando affiliate added.

Additional safety measures are planned, including rising floors to lift trainers and whales out of the water, portable oxygen for trainers, and underwater vehicles that would distract whales during an emergency.


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About Ric O'Barry

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Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Project Founder & Director has worked on both sides of the captive dolphin issue, making him an invaluable asset in the efforts to end exploitation. He worked for 10 years within the dolphin captivity industry, and has spent the past 40 working against it.

In the 1960s, O’Barry was employed by the Miami Seaquarium, where he captured and trained dolphins, including the five dolphins who played the role of Flipper in the popular American TV-series of the same name. He also trained Hugo, the first orca kept in captivity east of the Mississippi. When Kathy, the dolphin who played Flipper most of the time, died in his arms, O’Barry realized that capturing dolphins and training them to perform silly tricks is simply wrong.

From that moment on, O’Barry knew what he must do with his life. On the first Earth Day, 1970, he launched a searing campaign against the multi-billion dollar dolphin captivity industry and has been going at it ever since.

Over the past 40 years, Ric O’Barry has rescued and rehabilitated dolphins in many countries around the world, including Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Bahamas Islands and the United States. He is a leading voice in the fight to end brutal dolphin hunts in Japan, the Solomon Islands, the Faroe Islands, and wherever else they occur.

O’Barry has been recognized by many national and international entities for his dedicated efforts, such as being voted Huffington Post’s 2010 Most Influential Green Game Changer, and being listed on O Magazine’s 2010 Power List – Men We Admire for his “Power of Passion.” O’Barry received an Environmental Achievement Award, presented by the United States Committee for the United Nations Environmental Program. He has done countless interviews with such prestigious news programs as Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, the Mike Huckabee Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

His book Behind the Dolphin Smile was published in 1989; a second book, To Free A Dolphin was published in September 2000. Both of them are about his work and dedication. He is the star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove and the Animal Planet television series Blood Dolphin$.

Author: Ric O'Barry


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