Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?
Now that “Killer In The Pool” is on news stands and online, thanks to Outside, I want to take some time to start digging a little deeper into some of the questions surrounding the tragedy of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau. I met and interviewed some incredible trainers and scientists, and there is so much more that I would have loved to fit into the Outside piece. Getting into those issues, and posting additional news about orcas and killer whale entertainment will become one of the missions of this website, and I hope you will become part of the conversation.
The first question it makes sense to address, to the extent that it is even possible, is Tilikum’s state of mind on the day he killed Dawn Brancheau. Killer In The Pool has some relevant details about Tilkum’s life at SeaWorld: the abuse he receives from some of the female killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, his physical health, his relative isolation (which has only increased since Taima, one of his most frequent companions, recently died in childbirth).
But the question of what triggered Tilikum to pull Dawn Brancheau into the pool, on that day as opposed to any other day over the years of close interaction with Dawn and many other trainers, is a key question which bears close analysis. It could have been a spur of the moment response to specific stimuli present while Dawn lay close to him on the slide-out. But it is also important to try and understand whether there might have been anything going on with Tilikum that day that might have made him MORE LIKELY to grab her, and then thrash her violently once she was in the pool with him.
So: was anything in particular going on with Tilikum and the other seven killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando that day? Anything that might have impacted his behavior and state of mind, beyond his general experience at SeaWorld and the specific way in which Dawn interacted with him?
This was a hot question immediately after Dawn Brancheau’s death because there were reports that the orcas in the mid-day Believe show–which takes place in the big Shamu Stadium show pool–had been misbehaving and acting aggressively toward one another. (The Believe show takes place in Pool A in the layout scheme below (click for full-size image), which is from the Orange County Sheriff’s investigative report; the “Dine With Shamu Show” with Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau took place in Pool G in the upper right ).
Then I learned that the Orange County Sheriff’s investigation had received a detailed e-mail about the behavior of the orcas in the show, from a spectator called John. This is what John had to say (click for full-size image):
(Note: both the pool layout schematic, and the e-mail were contained in an addendum to the Orange County Sheriffs investigative report, which I have put online in a collection of primary documents about the Dawn Brancheau tragedy; I’ll be adding more as I go along).
Since one of Tilikum’s primary roles in the Believe show was to splash the crowd, I naturally wondered whether he was involved in the aggressive behavior John described. If he was, that might indicate a disturbed state of mind going into the Dine With Shamu show that followed.
So I asked SeaWorld, and got this response: “There was no aggression in the show and Tilikum wasn’t involved in any case. He was in a different pool.”
I thought it was odd for SeaWorld to flatly deny any aggression (perhaps they were using a VERY limited definition), though it is obviously not in SeaWorld’s interest for audience members or the public to think that there is anything but sweetness and light between the orcas at SeaWorld (John’s impression that SeaWorld was not eager to forward his witness report also gives you a sense of how corporate and protective SeaWorld can be about the image of its killer whale shows). But they did put to rest the question of whether Tilikum himself had been involved in the Believe fracas which abruptly ended the show.
Even so, I was left with a few questions, to which I have no answer: Killer whales are highly intelligent, social, and communicative.
- If there was agro between a few of SeaWorld’s eight killer whales in one pool, how does that affect the other killer whales throughout the connected pool system?
- Is it possible that the unusual behavior in the Believe show was a manifestation of some broader social clash ongoing between SeaWorld’s orcas, possibly involving Tilikum?
- Was there anything problematic in the social dynamic between the orcas the night before, which might have caused deviant behavior the day of the troubled Believe show, and affected Tilikum’s work with Dawn Brancheau?
- How did Tilikum spend the previous night? What pool was he in, and were any other orcas with him?
I don’t think SeaWorld is likely to volunteer these questions, but I’d like to know these facts, if only to gain further insight into Tilikum’s state of mind that day or rule out the possibility that the social dynamic in the killer whale pools in the previous 24 hours affected Tilikum’s state of mind and behavior on the day of Dawn Brancheau’s death. Maybe OSHA, which is investigating the death of Dawn Brancheau, will address them if SeaWorld does not reach some sort of pre-emptive settlement, which could minimize the facts that come to light.
In my next post, I’ll get into the Dine With Shamu show, and how Tilikum really performed. Stay tuned…