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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
The independent student publication of The Unversity at Buffalo, since 1950

Stop hating on SeaWorld

I still believe.

One week ago, Dawn Brancheau, a senior killer whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, tragically died.

Brancheau was finishing up a training session at Shamu stadium when Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale, grabbed her by her long ponytail. 'Tilly,' as the male leviathan is affectionately called, then pulled her deep underwater, where she eventually drowned.

While the outcome was unfortunate, this was more about incorrect trainer behavior than animal homicide.

Being a member of the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association, I can tell you that Brancheau would admit she had made an error as a trainer in this situation. She was lying in four inches of water on a platform, rubbing Tilly down as he was lying on his back. She may have lost sight of her environment and gotten too comfortable, having over 16 years of training experience with this particular whale.

Tilly is the largest killer whale under human captivity in the world. SeaWorld has certain protocol in place directly for this whale. When certain rules are broken, there are tragic consequences.

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Brancheau was highly experienced and could be considered the cream of the crop in the animal training industry. She had a welcoming presence and gave great advice to apprentice trainers such as myself.

I was fortunate enough to meet her last March when I visited SeaWorld Orlando. She radiated passion and love for her profession. She shared her gift with millions, diving off the nose of Shamu and surfing his back during thousands of safe interactions in the killer whale show 'Believe.'

I have heard my classmates express that Brancheau shouldn't have been careless in letting her ponytail grow so long and that her death was her fault.

However, her ponytail was so long because she was growing it out for Locks of Love. That's just the type of person she was.

Chuck Tompkins, head of animal training for SeaWorld parks, says that SeaWorld is not taking this incident lightly and everyone in the industry is feeling a significant loss.

As I walked through the halls this past week at UB, I have heard many say they think having marine mammals under human care is wrong and inhumane.

But if so many are concerned for animal welfare, than why did over 180 million people visit aquariums and zoos across the nation in 2009? These parks provide people with a personal connection and valuable education on how we can preserve animals' natural habitats.

SeaWorld may not provide as much water as the open ocean for these animals, but it does provide an environment that allows them to grow, learn and thrive by receiving the highest quality of care.

In the wild, the average killer whale dies in its mid-20s. Tillikum is 31 and still growing under human care.

SeaWorld maintains the largest collection of animals in the world. It cares for more than 100 endangered, at risk and threatened animal species from across the globe and is a leader in animal care and research.

The dedication of trainers has led to breakthroughs in the environment that are invaluable in these uncertain times.

Take it from a future employee of SeaWorld – this is where the future lies.

Brancheau lived out her passion and dream. Every day she went to work to impact the lives of more than 12 million visitors a year.

So, before criticizing her work and the marine mammal industry, just ask yourself, what are you doing to leave your mark?




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