The Tragedy Of Loro Parque

Dawn Brancheau was the first SeaWorld trainer killed by a killer whale. But she wasn’t the first trainer killed by a SeaWorld killer whale.

Exactly two months before she died, on February 24, 2010, a SeaWorld killer whale on loan to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands killed trainer Alexis Martinez. I explored Dawn Brancheau’s death in an Outside story called The Killer In The Pool. And now, in a story at Outside Online, I dig deep into the death of Martinez, using extensive interviews with his fiance and family, and information from confidential documents, to explore the tragedy.

Alexis Martinez and Keto, the SeaWorld whale that would eventually kill him.

I came away understanding much better the inherent dangers of being in the water with killer whales at marine parks, how hard it is to expect that trainers will always make the correct decision given the myriad subjective decisions they must make when they are working with highly intelligent, and highly variable, marine mammals, and how dire the consequences are once a killer whale decides it has had enough.

I also came away thinking that the death of Alexis Martinez is directly relevant to the current dispute between SeaWorld and OSHA regarding the safety of killer whale entertainment.

I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback on the story, and to following up on some of the issues raised in the story here on my blog.

Here’s the intro:

AT 11:25 A.M. ON DECEMBER 24, 2009, Estefanía Luis Rodriguez’s cell phone rang. Rodriguez, 25, is an earnest, friendly young woman who works as a pharmacy technician near the coastal town of Puerto de la Cruz, on the north coast of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. She glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was her fiancé, Alexis Martínez, a killer whale trainer at a nearby zoological park called Loro Parque, one of the largest tourist attractions in the islands. Loro Parque displays everything from birds and dolphins to sea lions and, as of 2006, four orcas it had been loaned by SeaWorld.

Rodriguez and Martínez, 29, had been together seven years, after meeting at a friend’s party, and had moved into an apartment together three months earlier. She adored Martínez, who was handsome, generous, funny, and, in his spare time, played guitar in a band, Inerte. He’d been working nonstop with the killer whales at Loro Parque’s Orca Ocean to prepare for a special Christmas show. 

When Rodriguez answered, however, it wasn’t Martínez on the phone. The caller was Orca Ocean supervisor Miguel Diaz, using Martínez’s phone. He told Rodriguez that Martínez had been involved in an incident with a killer whale but that he would be fine, that he was being taken to the University Hospital in San Cristóbal de La Laguna, about 20 miles away. Rodriguez immediately called Martínez’s family and then joined his mother, Mercedes, to rush to the hospital. 

In the car, Rodriguez was deeply apprehensive. For months, Martínez had been telling her that all was not well at Orca Ocean, that there was a lot of aggression between the killer whales and that they sometimes refused to obey commands, disrupting training and the shows. After starting in Loro Parque’s penguin and dolphin displays, Martínez had begun as a killer whale trainer in 2006. As he gained experience, according to Rodriguez, he began to fret about safety, and he twice contemplated leaving the job. Preparing for the Christmas show only added to the stress. “I’m so tired,” Rodriguez recalls Martínez telling her. “That’s OK, everyone is tired from work,” she’d responded. He shook his head. “My job is especially risky, and I really need to be well rested and ready. With everything that is going on, something could happen at any time.”

You can read the whole story, and watch some exclusive behind-the-scenes video from Loro Parque, here.

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Two Former Orca Trainers Document The Deadly Stresses Of Captivity

Since the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau almost one year ago, the world has been learning a lot about more about the reality of life in marine parks for killer whales.

Now two former trainers have just released a powerful report that captures the full range of stresses suffered by orcas in captivity, stresses that likely contributed to the death of Dawn Brancheau (as well as a trainer named Alexis Martinez as a marine park in the Canary Island two months earlier).

2011-01-20-AlexisDawn.png
(Note: Images are from the report)

The former trainers, Jeff Ventre and John Jett (now a doctor and a professor, respectively), worked as trainers at SeaWorld Orlando (including with Tilikum) for a combined total of 12 years, and both knew Dawn Brancheau. The stresses they catalog include: aggression between whales, medical issues, captive breeding practices, and the total disconnect between marine park life and the natural world and social structures killer whales are used to in the wild.

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In particular, Jett and Ventre break new ground by explaining how life at marine parks leads killer whales to damage their teeth:

Social strife and boredom accompanying orca captivity also contribute to broken teeth. Steel gates are the primary method of separating orcas prior to training sessions, shows, or when aggressive tensions exist between animals (e.g. Kayla and Kalina). It is common for separated whales to bite down on the horizontal metal bars, or to “jaw-pop” through the gates as they display aggression at each other. In addition, under-stimulated and bored animals also “chew” metal bars and mouth concrete pool corners, like the main stage at SWF. As a consequence, tooth fragments can sometimes be found on the pool bottoms following these displays. This breakage leaves the pulp of some teeth exposed.

This behavior, and the resulting broken teeth and exposed pulp, prompts SeaWorld to drill out broken or worn-down teeth to prevent abscess and infection. The resulting bore holes require trainers to irrigate the teeth multiple times each day (the authors note that SeaWorld trainers tell visitors this is evidence of the superior dental care the whales receive), and might be a vector for some of the mysterious infections which often seem to be the cause of death in marine park killer whales.

2011-01-20-KalinaTeeth.png

Continue reading “Two Former Orca Trainers Document The Deadly Stresses Of Captivity”

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?

Dawn Lies Down With Tili Moment Before He Grabs Her

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:

A trainer, with a ponytail, lies down with Tilikum

Continue reading “Did Dawn Brancheau Make A Mistake, Or Was SeaWorld Taking Risks With Tilikum?”

Talking Tilikum (And Killer Whales) On NPR This Wednesday

Just a heads up that NPR’s On Point will do a show this Wednesday on Tilikum, Dawn Brancheau, and killer whales. I’ll talk about Killer In The Pool from 11am-noon EST; check listing for local broadcast times). Ken Balcomb (Executive Director of the Center For Whale Research), and Thad Lacinak (a former VP of Animal Training at SeaWorld) will also appear on the show.

It should be a fascinating hour, and I hope you will tune in (and help spread the word). On Point will take calls toward the end of the show, so feel free to call in and be part of the conversation (details here).

Here’s what we’ll be talking about:

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Diary Of A Killer Whale: You Will Not Be Seeing Dawn Brancheau Die

Media organizations have given up on their legal efforts to force videos and photos of Dawn Brancheau’s death into the public domain. Here is a report from the Orlando Sentinel, one of the media outlets seeking access to the material:

The Orlando Sentinel and other media outlets have abandoned an effort to ensure public access to video recordings and photographs documenting the killing of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer by one of the park’s killer whales.

The move is a victory for SeaWorld and the family of the late Dawn Brancheau. The two parties have been battling in court to block any release of the images capturing the Feb. 24 tragedy, in which a 6-ton killer whale named Tilikum pulled Brancheau into his tank by her hair and drowned her in a violent episode in front of some park guests.

The court dispute revolved primarily around images recorded by SeaWorld surveillance cameras — including one capturing an underwater view into Tilikum’s tank and another mounted atop the park’s 400-foot-tall Sky Tower — which SeaWorld turned over to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office as part of that agency’s investigation into Brancheau’s death.

A lawyer for the Sentinel’s parent company said Thursday that representatives for SeaWorld and the Brancheau family were unwilling to accept a settlement offer in which news organizations would have agreed not to publish any of the images or air the video in exchange for the right to have their reporters inspect the materials.

The only reason to ever make any of this sort of material publicly available is if it helps answer questions about what happened, and can help prevent a similar tragedy. Anything else is just prurience, and voyeurism of the sickest kind. I have watched a person die on video. In that case the video was the only way to understand why he died. It was still an intensely harrowing, and painful experience (which is why I haven’t supplied the link to the video).

I am not sure what photos are involved, but if they depict scenes from the aftermath, when efforts to resuscitate Dawn were being made, and when she was cut out of her wetsuit, then I don’t think they come close to meeting this standard.

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: You Will Not Be Seeing Dawn Brancheau Die”

Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance

One of the other clues to Tilikum’s potential state of mind (Part 1 here) just before he killed Dawn Brancheau is his performance in the “Dine With Shamu” show that she completed with him before he grabbed her.

Trainers working with killer whales are trained to look for clues in their behavior, anything that might indicate that there is something wrong, or potential danger. These are called “precursors,” and no experts I spoke with about Tilikum’s interaction with Dawn in the “Dine With Shamu” show believed that there were any precursors or red flags that should have warned her that she might be in danger. That said, some behavioral experts I spoke with also told me that the “Dine With Shamu” show did not go that well from a performance point of view. Specifically, they said Tilikum appeared uninterested and somewhat disengaged, and did not perform well.

The primary resource when it comes to seeing Tilikum and Dawn’s work together in that show comes from a video made by a family attending the Dine With Shamu show on February 24. Here is the video, made by the Connell family, from New Hampshire. It’s a little difficult to watch, knowing what comes moments after it concludes, but it is a key to helping understand what happened that day.

[Update: WESH-TV, which is a local Orlando station has disabled the embedding for this video. Interestingly, they have not disabled embedding on the other videos on their YouTube channel. SeaWorld conspiracy theorists, you can run with this one! For those who just want to watch the video, click on the link which appears along with the “embedding disabled” message]

To the untrained eye, this looks like Tilikum putting on a pretty good show. And when Dawn engaged with Tilikum after the show, lying down next to him on the slide-out and talking to him and stroking him in what is known as a “relationship session,” it indicated that she thought he had done okay, too, as relationship sessions are partly used as a reward for good behavior (though she also had to keep him engaged while the Dine With Shamu guests headed down to the underwater viewing area).

Following the tragedy, SeaWorld employees described the “Dine With Shamu” show as “perfect,” with nothing out of the ordinary occurring. Here is trainer/spotter Jan Topoleski’s description of the show to Orange County Sheriffs Office investigators:

However, one behavioral specialist I spoke with took the time to break down the video of Dawn working with Tili and found a less than smooth performance.

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance”

Diary Of A Killer Whale: Is Tilikum A Transient Or Resident Orca?

This from a comment by Dee Johnston on my post about Tilikum’s state of mind:

Resident (fish-eating) killer whales. The curv...
Image via Wikipedia

With regard to the Education of Seaworld: I found on a message board that someone had contacted Seaworld and asked “Is Tillikum transient or resident?” and Seaworld replied:“Thank you for contacting the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Family of Parks. We appreciate your questions as they are invaluable in helping us provide you with world class service.

Tillicum lives at our Orlando facility full time.

Thank you again for your interest!

Best Regards,

Karen
SeaWorld and Aquatica
Guest Correspondence
guestcorrespondence@worldsofdiscovery.com

That is definitely a different definition of “resident.”

In my research I also pursued this question. And the best answer I could come up with is that the orca population off eastern Iceland, where Tilikum came from, shows resident characteristics. Another key point is that the Icelandic orcas were caught either by following the herring fleets, or by dumping herring into the water ahead of a pod. So Tilikum almost certainly came from a fish-eating population, which reinforces the notion that he is more likely resident than transient.

One other very interesting question raised for me by orca biologists is whether transient killer whales that are taken into captivity–used to eating and hunting large mammals–are more likely to be involved in trainer incidents. There probably are not that many transients kept at marine parks since most of the killer whales taken into captivity were taken from the Pacific Northwest and Iceland, from resident populations. But it is an interesting idea.

Anyone have insights into this transient versus resident question?

From source: Two mammal-eating
Image via Wikipedia
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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?

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?”

Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum And The Death Of Dawn Brancheau

My effort to trace the marine park experience of Tilikum the orca, in order to try and understand how his life life led to the death of Dawn Brancheau, his trainer, is now out in the July issue of Outside. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Tilikum as
Image via Wikipedia

Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau’s colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who’d been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her.

“Every safety protocol that we have failed,” SeaWorld director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion. “That’s why we don’t have our friend anymore, and that’s why we are taking a step back.”

Dawn Brancheau’s death was a tragedy for her family and for SeaWorld, which had never lost a trainer before. Letters of sympathy poured in, many with pictures of Bran­cheau and the grinning kids she’d spent time with after shows. The incident was a shock to Americans accustomed to thinking of Shamu as a lovable national icon, with an extensive line of plush dolls and a relentlessly cheerful Twitter account. The news media went into full frenzy, chasing Brancheau’s family and flying helicopters over Shamu Stadium. Congress piled on with a call for hearings on marine mammals at entertainment parks, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened an investigation. It was the most intense national killer whale mania since 1996, when Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was rescued from a shabby marine park in Mexico City in an attempt to return him to the sea. Killer whales have never been known to attack a human in the wild, and everyone wanted to know one thing: Why did Dawn Brancheau die?

The story tries to answer that question. Hope it succeeds, at least in part.

There are a number of elements to the tragedy that I did not have space to fully explore. In the coming weeks, I’ll get into some of them right here, with the help of some of my expert sources. So please stay tuned…

In the course of reporting the story I developed enormous respect for the intelligence and complexity of orcas. Here’s a beautiful video that captures some of their majesty:

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