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article imageOrca who killed SeaWorld trainer performs again amid protests

By Kim I. Hartman     Mar 31, 2011 in Entertainment
Orlando - Tilikum, the SeaWorld ocra responsible for the death of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau, was greeted by thunderous applause when he took the stage at Shamu Stadium while animal rights activists gathered outside the gates of the Orlando park.
 
The 6-ton killer whale performed for the first time since the accident that took the life of Brancheau, after SeaWorld President Jim Atchison gave the go-ahead this week to allow Tilikum to return to the spotlight.
Introduced to the near capacity crowd as Shamu, which is customary for SeaWorld orcas, Tilikum promptly doused the audience in a steady stream of water as he made his debut in the park's signature show Believe.
In a statement this week, SeaWorld Animal Training Curator Kelly Flaherty Clark said "returning Tilikum to performing at this time is what's best for the whale. Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum's day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment," Clark said.
"He has been regularly interacting with his trainers and the other whales for purposes of training, exercise and social and mental stimulation, and has enjoyed access to all of the pools in the Shamu Stadium complex."
The park's decision to use Tilikum again in the show has received mixed reactions and has generated a host of protests over the past few weeks since SeaWorld first announced they were preparing trainers to go back into the water with the orcas, who are often called killer whales.
PETA members converged on SeaWorld on the one-year anniversary of the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau to call attention to the suffering of the marine animals.
"SeaWorld keeps huge orcas in what are basically cement boxes, depriving these smart, social animals of everything that is natural and important to them, including the sea and their families," says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman.
Protesters gathered yesterday outside the gates of the park with signs reading "Life in a concrete box is no life," "Free Tilly" and "It will happen again," according to the Orlando Sentinel.
SeaWorld trainers were not permitted in the water with the Tilikum or any of the whales today and have not been since Brancheau's death. Linda Simons, the former head of safety at SeaWorld, who was fired in the aftermath of the deadly accident last year, told Good Morning America that "Anyone who got into a pool with him would come out as a corpse."
Tilikum has earned the name of killer whale after being involved in the death of at least three individuals including Brancheau. Keltie Byrne, 20, a trainer at a British Columbia aquarium, drowned in 1991 after falling into the water with Tilikum, reports the National Post. The third victim of drowning in a tank with Tilikum was in 1999 when "the body of Daniel Dukes was found draped over Tilikum’s back after he sneaked into SeaWorld after hours to swim with the animals."
"Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld Orlando trainer who now opposes keeping whales in captivity," told AOL News, "There are inherent risks to working with killer whales. They can reduce the risks but they can't eliminate them completely."
"He's only going to get five or six minutes at a time for the show, but it's something, and that's a good thing," he said. "He is chronically and severely de-conditioned from floating in the same spot, or swimming small circles for the past 13 months." A killer whale living in the wild, he noted, would likely swim over 80 miles a day."
Ventre also said that watching whales in captivity, where they suffer "social strife" and have no natural family groups, now saddens him. "They're too big, they're too smart, and this is just another version of the circus. These parks will be gone eventually, and history will look back on them like circuses. The circus was once popular too, and now we know it's not the right thing for these animals."
Reactions were mixed from spectators at the park for the opening show and those who have been following the recent park announcements. Spectators included curiosity seekers, animal rights activists and fans of Shamu and SeaWorld. One man, Russ Rector, when asked about going into the tank with the killer whale told the Orlando Sentinel "If you had a friend that had a dog that had mauled three people, would you go play with that dog?"
"Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale who now opposes keeping marine mammals in captivity," told the paper, "These people only care about the show. They never learn."
Fans of the 'Shamu' branded shows said:
"You never can tell with any of these animals — they are wild animals," Wendy Santiago said of the trainer's death. But she added, tears welling in her eyes at the show's conclusion, "I'm happy today that I was able to see him perform," reported MSNBC.
Marcos Santiago said he also experienced a mix of feelings while watching the show with their 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter. "I've love SeaWorld, ever since I was a little kid and used to come here many times," he said. "I fell in love with Shamu and so did my son. So to me it was very emotional to be here on this day."
According to ABC News, "When the 12,000 pound orca made his splashy entrance, the crowd erupted in applause and cheers." Part of the excitement "included the thrill of danger."
"I was afraid," said one boy who was splashed by the giant whale.
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