Did Dawn Brancheau Make A Mistake, Or Was SeaWorld Taking Risks With Tilikum?
One of the key questions that I wasn’t able to resolve in Killer In The Pool was: given the fact that Tilikum had been involved in two previous deaths, and had been deemed unsuitable for waterwork and desensitization training, why was Dawn Brancheau lying down so close to him on a slideout following the Dine With Shamu show?
This is clearly a vulnerable position, and she was a very experienced trainer who presumably knew how to take care around Tilikum. So it seems puzzling.
SeaWorld repeatedly said that it had very specific protocols when it came to working with Tilikum, but declined to detail what the exact protocols were (beyond that fact that no one was allowed to get in the water with him; being on a slideout apparently was not defined as in the water). SeaWorld also declined to say whether Dawn Brancheau had violated any of those protocols by lying down with Tilikum in that manner.
Without knowing the details it was not possible to determine whether Dawn Brancheau was violating SeaWorld’s protocols for working with Tilikum and had made a mistake, or whether she WAS NOT violating protocols and in fact was in fact doing something which she and other trainers had done before with Tilikum.
My gut leaned toward the latter: that the position Dawn took with Tilikum on the day he killed her was similar to positions she (and maybe other trainers) had taken with him before, for two reasons: 1) Everyone who knew Dawn that I spoke with, said she was very committed to her job and known for following the rules; and 2) SeaWorld runs a pretty tight ship, and it seemed unlikely to me that Dawn would suddenly be doing something that she and others had never done before (and if she had, how come the other trainers acting as her spotters didn’t flag it?).
Still, Thad Lacinak, who was part of the killer whale management team at SeaWorld Orlando until 2008 and often seems to act as a surrogate spokesperson for SeaWorld, told me (and other journalists) that Dawn had made a mistake and that she never should have put herself in such a vulnerable position with Tilikum. Here is how the AP reported his view right after Dawn died:
Thad Lacinak, who helped train Dawn Brancheau, said she was very good but made a mistake by lying down on a watery shelf next to the 12,000-pound animal and letting her long hair get in front of the 22-foot orca named Tilikum – the largest killer whale in captivity…
Lacinak said he’d been told how the attack happened by other trainers who were at the scene Wednesday, when Tilikum dragged Brancheau into the water as she gave him pats and other rewards after a midday show. Based on their description, he said the rules for handling the giant orca that were in place during his tenure had either been broken or changed.
He said the same thing to me, and added: “Staying on your feet and avoiding proximity around the mouth is better.”
SeaWorld–Dawn’s employer for 16 years–has said nothing to dispute his judgment. Thus, the prevailing outside view of what happened was that–experienced as she was—Dawn Brancheau made a mistake that got her killed.
Now, thanks to a remarkable set of Tilikum photos, taken by a photographer who is clearly dedicated to documenting SeaWorld’s killer whales, we can start to divine the real truth regarding whether Dawn Brancheau made a mistake, or whether she was simply doing something with Tilikum that she and other trainers had done before (something that SeaWorld management knew had been done before, and presumably authorized or tolerated).
The photos are in an album devoted to Tilikum, and were shot over the past few years. You can peruse the whole thing here. But I have selected a series of photos that appear to make clear that SeaWorld trainers had been getting very close to Tilikum on slideouts well before the day Tilikum grabbed Dawn, pulled her into the pool, and killed her (one caveat: I am trusting the photographer correctly identified Tilikum and placed only pictures of Tilikum in this album).
Here is one photo, which is a haunting reminder of the position Dawn was in when she was grabbed. It was taken in July 2008:
In this photo, the same trainer is engaged in something called “tongue tactile” (which is SeaWorld-speak for a kiss), which I had been told was a practice that had been banned at SeaWorld (especially with Tilikum, one would think).
There are a bunch of other photos of trainers in close proximity to Tilikum, in what in retrospect appear to be pretty vulnerable positions. I’ve put them all in to a slideshow:
Whether or not the positions of the trainers these photos are technical violations of SeaWorld protocols related to Tilikum, it is clear that the position Dawn took with Tilikum on the day she died was not an aberration. Lying down with him, getting so close to him, did turn out to be a tragic “mistake.” But getting into vulnerable positions with Tilikum appears to be something that had been going on at SeaWorld for a number of years, presumably with management’s blessing or tolerance (if not, and trainers were sanctioned for the practices these photos reveal, then SeaWorld should say so).
So now it seems likely that SeaWorld was allowing, or tolerating, the practice of getting close enough to Tilikum that he could (if he chose) do what he did to Dawn Brancheau. Given Dawn’s brutal and tragic fate, the new key question is: Why?
Thad Lacinak also told me that management always warned trainers never to get too comfortable with any animal. How is it, then, that SeaWorld management itself got comfortable enough with Tilikum to allow or tolerate the apparent practices seen in the photos?
I don’t know the answer to that question yet. But I do know that there seems to have been a dramatic change in the caution with which SeaWorld treated Tilikum, a change that took place sometime between when he arrived and the time these photos were taken.
And the reason I know this is that I recently got in touch with Samantha Berg, who was a trainer at SeaWorld from 1990 to 1993, and was there when Tilikum arrived in 1992, after being involved in the death of Keltie Byrne at Sealand Of The Pacific. She has some fascinating things to say about what management conveyed to the trainers regarding what happened at Sealand, and how they wanted to handle Tilikum.
First, Samantha learned from Killer In The Pool (and subsequently reading some of the news accounts from the time): 1) that either Tilikum, or one of the two females he was with (Nootka and Haida), pulled Keltie Byrne into the pool after she slipped halfway in; 2) that the three killer whales actively blocked Keltie from swimming to the pool sides and a life ring thrown to her; and 3) that Steve Huxter, who was there at the time, is clear that in Sealand’s dark seawater pool it was impossible to know which whale was doing what at any given time. Ultimately, it took Huxter and others hours to retrieve Byrne’s dead body.
Samantha says that was not how the incident was presented to trainers at SeaWorld, and that Tilikum was generally portrayed as playing a relatively passive role in Keltie Byrne’s death, mainly hanging on to her body after she died (when I interviewed Huxter, he told me that some people speculated that this might have been the case given Tilikum’s subordination to the two females, but that it wasn’t something that was observed; see point 3 above):
The way I heard it in 1992 at Shamu stadium was that Tilikum wouldn’t give her DEAD body back for hours because he was in possession of the “toy” and it was rare for the females to part with a toy and let him play with it. I was never told that they wouldn’t let her out of the water while she was alive.
Maybe some of the senior trainers knew this, but those of us lower on the totem pole did not. To me, it’s a very different scenario thinking of her passing out quickly from hypothermia and drowning and Tilikum carrying her around like a souvenir vs. them actively and aggressively trying to keep her in the water – whether they knew they were killing her or not. Again, I’m just sharing how it was described to me – the drama was played down quite a bit from what you described.
The implication was that Tilikum was a victim of circumstance and wouldn’t have acted the way he did if his social structure (note: he was abused by Nootka and Haida) had been different. But clearly, nobody really knew what he did and didn’t do while Keltie was still alive. I never knew that part.
John Jett, who was also a a trainer at SeaWorld when Tilikum arrived, also recalls being told very little about what happened to Keltie Byrne at Sealand, ad well as other incidents:
When Tili arrived we were given only gross safety instructions, which included: only senior trainers could work him; no waterwork; wetsuits must be zipped up when around him; no dangling objects (except training whistles); must have a spotter when working him. There were no restrictions on inside vs. outside of walls, which pools we could work him in, etc.
What is troubling to me is how little I was ever told about his participation in the girl’s death at Sealand. I was told she fell into the pool, became hypothermic and the whales played with her. Few details. Further, I was never told Nootka participated in her death alongside Tili, and I worked around her too. This lack of detailed information was also the norm when accidents happened at other parks. For instance, I remember an accident happening (not sure which one) and all of us were pulled from waterwork for a short time. To this day I don’t know what happened. It would have been nice for the specifics of these accidents to have been presented to us so that we could have possibly prevented it from happening in our pools. I was never shown video footage of these accidents either. My take is that management purposely keep us in the dark for at least two reasons. First, they didn’t want trainers questioning the overall safety of their program, after all, the show had to go on. Second, they probably assumed that if we didn’t really know how dangerous the job was then we wouldn’t be inclined to demand more than near-minimum wage earnings.
Samantha Berg remembers the discussion of whether to desesnsitize Tilikum to humans in the water (which had never happened at Sealand), in case a trainer fell in, and adds some depth to what I reported in Killer In The Pool:
I was there when Tilly arrived so I remember all the discussions re: putting a trainer in the water or not. I know that Mark [Simmons] argued for it and so did several other trainers. I remember being very conflicted about it – who would volunteer to go in the water with him?? I supposed we could have done it in a large pool where Tilly was on the far side of a pool and the person getting in the water was so far away that Tilly couldn’t possibly get to the person in the time it would take to get out of the water. But, eventually, you would have to take closer and closer approximations until the trainer was definitely in a completely vulnerable position with Tilly. I can see why management decided not to take the risk, BUT they had already taken a much bigger risk by bringing him to the park in the first place.
Next, Samantha described the extreme caution with which Tilikum was initially treated:
When Tilly arrived, everyone was incredibly hypersensitive about being careful around him. On the first day he was at Shamu Stadium, I saw a trainer walking across a gate (he was on one side, empty pool on the other side) making cooing sounds to Tilly and attempting to play with him . She had her hair down and her wetsuit was tied around her waist and she was standing on a gate between two pools, leaning over to talk to Tilly. I swear, Chuck [Tompkins; who is still with SeaWorld] and Thad [Lacinak] almost exploded on the spot. I can’t remember who, but one of them practically screamed to her to get out of there (probably with an expletive, but it’s been too long for me to remember exact words) AND at that moment both Chuck and Thad decided that the rules around Tilly would be: Absolutely no unzipped wetsuits, nothing hanging for him to grab, and no hair hanging down. My understanding was no lying down next to him EVER – sessions would only be conducted from a standing position.
Honestly, at the time, I didn’t know what the fuss was about, mostly due to my ignorance of what actually happened at Sealand. Based on what I thought I knew, I thought they were being over-cautious. So, obviously, they knew more than they were telling some of the trainers. I was never approved to work with Tilly, so I didn’t need to be told how to interact with him – I just avoided him while I was there.
What Dawn was doing– laying down in the slide out area with him–NEVER would have been allowed back then.
Did something change with the rules when Thad left? Or did people get too complacent with Tilikum? Dawn started a few months after I left, so I never met her, but if the rules changed that much, it could have been any one of us. Like I can’t imagine what she was doing hadn’t been done 100 x’s before – it probably wasn’t the first time someone was laying down in the slide out with him, right? So, basically she was doing water work and he was not trained for water work.
Thanks to these photos, we now know that Samantha’s suspicion that Dawn wasn’t doing anything different the day she died, and that trainers had been putting themselves in vulnerable positions with Tilikum, were spot on.
So that leaves SeaWorld to answer a critical question that takes us one step closer to understanding how and why Dawn Brancheau died: how did management’s initial caution regarding Tilikum evolve into the seeming complacency and tolerance for close contact with Tilikum shown in these photos?