It was Feb. 24 when the forty-year-old experienced SeaWorld trainer was killed by a 12,000 lb male orca named Tilikum during a Dine with Shamu performance at SeaWorld Florida. A subsequent autopsy determined that Dawn had died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso. She had also been drowned.
Tilikum had broken Brancheau’s jaw, broken her neck, dislocated one of her elbows, and, according to the autopsy report
, had part of her scalp “forcibly” torn from her head. Tilikum also ripped off Dawn's left arm.
Brancheau’s death was the fourth death caused by orcas in captivity and followed the deaths of Keltie Byrne at Sea Land of the Pacific in 1991; Daniel Dukes in 1999 and Alexis Martinez
at Loro Parque in 2009. Tilikum was implicated in the deaths of both Byrne and Dukes.
SeaWorld imported Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia, after Byrne's death. The company was more than aware of the orca's history, suggests the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation report into Brancheau's death. A report Digital Journal has managed to obtain.
Even the NOAA National Marine Fishery Services (NMFS) was concerned about the whales SeaWorld wished to import. Prior to issuing a permit for public display, they asked the company in a letter (Dec. 17, 1991), if the corporation had considered the tragic incident at Sealand, and what actions it would take to prevent a reoccurrance prior to and after, acquiring Tilikum.
SeaWorld responded it had been implementing enhanced employee training and safety since 1987. As a result it said, there had been no accidents involving killer whales at SeaWorld facilities.
SeaWorld asserted, "we are generally familiar" with the circumstances surrounding the accidental death of Byrne, but we do "not have any of Sealand's reports in this matter." The marine park then urged NMFS to seek the reports directly from the Government of Canada and finally blamed the incident on "poor pool design" not relevant to SeaWorld facilities.
In a follow-up letter on Jan. 14 1992, Anne Terbush of NMFS again urged SeaWorld to, "obtain and closely examine all relevant reports." The Fishery Services believed the Sealand incident to be "a significant enough event," that required further addressing. Added Terbush, SeaWorld should also consider implementing recommendations made in these reports, to address the "care and maintenance" of the orcas after they are imported.
SeaWorld responded on Feb 14, 1992 and informed NMFS the company had undertaken a review of the Workers Compensation Board-Employer's Accident Investigation Report and Sealand's policy statements. The conclusion reached they said, only reinforced their previous assertions that the incident was unique to Sealand. SeaWorld's missive however, did not indicate whether the company had bothered to obtain either the Work Safe BC Accident Inspection
report, or the Verdict of the Coroner's Inquest.
Perhaps yet more disturbing, are the polar opposite views held over Byrne's death by OSHA and SeaWorld. The marine mammal park regarded the trainer's death as accidental. Upon further investigation by OSHA, it was deemed anything but. OSHA referred to a description of the incident by both the Seattle Times
and a PBS Frontline
report, which showed the orcas' willful intent to keep Byrne in the pool with them.
It was clear Tilikum arrived from Vancouver with a history; one the corporation failed to pass on to its staff, said former SeaWorld trainer and co-founder of Voice of the Orcas
, Samantha Berg. Berg who appeared on the CBS Early Show
last year, said:
"My understanding of the animal's past was very limited. In fact, there had been 30 incidents between killer whales, and trainers prior to my being hired at the park. And I didn't know about any of them until after I left SeaWorld. So I think that's a serious mistake on SeaWorld's part that they weren't letting people know the history of all the animals."
OSHA's assessment, concluded six months after Brancheau’s death in August 2010, found SeaWorld culpable. The Florida branch was smacked with a $75,000 fine for a “willful” safety violation by “exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.” An example of the type of struck-by hazard OSHA is referring to at SeaWorld, can be seen in the video below:
SeaWorld countered and moved to appeal OSHA’s citation resulting in a two-part hearing presided over by Administrative Law Judge Kenneth S. Welsch. The hearing drew to a close on November 18 2011, and a ruling is expected any day now. In light of the evidence presented by OSHA in the case, it would be a bizarre decision indeed if OSHA's citation does not stand, but then it would not be entirely surprising either. Back in 2007, SeaWorld challenged and beat another OSHA report into an orca-trainer incident in San Diego.
In August, five months after Brancheau's death, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), called on Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum
, to intervene in the case and pursue involuntary manslaughter charges against SeaWorld and its senior executives, for the death of Dawn Brancheau.
As evidence, PETA presented an impressive and thoroughly researched document, backed by 165 pages of exhibits from Orange County's own Sheriff's Office (OCSO). Exhibits which PETA hammered, as inept and inadequate.
Inside PETA's report, was a 2007 Cal/OSHA investigation on a 2006 attack by Kasatka, a female orca who attacked a trainer at SeaWorld San Diego. Kenneth "Petey" Peters, suffered serious injury after he was bitten and dragged underwater during a performance. The OSHA report, which Digital Journal has obtained a copy of, also described how other "trainers have been bitten, rammed, dragged to the bottom of the pool and held underwater."
Upon concluding their investigation into the Peters' incident, Cal/OSHA wrote:
"The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn't been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen."
The report might have sounded as a warning bell for SeaWorld, but instead wrote USA Today
in 2010, the Cal/OSHA report was rescinded, after SeaWorld complained.
In reverting back to Brancheau's case and PETA's pursual of involuntary manslaughter charges, the foundation accused OCSO of failing to interview many of the witnesses to the incident, despite an awareness of Tilikum's history. Additionally PETA said, the Sheriff's Office did not request any records or other information about the orca, and never questioned a single SeaWorld executive.
Finally, the organization blasted what it described as a "shameful attempt" by the park, to place the "blame for this incident on Ms. Brancheau."
Being in possession of Orange County Sheriff's Office Investigative Report: Case Number 2010-016715 on the death of Dawn Brancheau, I can confirm, out of 41 interviews conducted by OCSO, all but three of them were conducted with employees of SeaWorld. Only two interviews came from guests, guests who were possibly able to provide valid testimony, from prime viewing positions within Shamu stadium.
But perhaps most baffling, is why OCSO was not notified of the attack on Dawn until 27 minutes after the incident first occurred?
In this written statement to OCSO, Fredy Herrera, a security officer employed at SeaWorld, said:
"At appox 1:37 PM [...] I did observe Shamu trainer Dawn petting the whale named Tilikum at the concrete area of the pool when the whale grabbed the trainer's arm and pulled her into the pool and would not let go. At that moment, trainer Jay was present and saw the whole incident, then he ran to the alarm box and I called in a signal 500 (water rescue), then all emergency personnel started to arrive."
But though the code was immediately issued, it did not automatically signal 911. Instead, it simply alerts SeaWorld's own dispatch, who must then notify the authorities. According to investigative details published by OCSO:
"On Thursday, February 24, 2010, at approximately 1337 hours, SeaWorld security received a call concerning a trainer in the water at the Dine with Shamu encounter. At approximately 1404 hours, this information was relayed to the Orange County Sheriff's Office Communications Center."
This was twenty-seven minutes after the initial code was first given and twenty minutes after Dawn was seen to be pale and lifeless.
When the 911 call is finally made, a subject identified as Joe, asks for SO (Sheriff's Office) to respond to Shamu Stadium because a "whale has eaten one of the trainers." Sounding somewhat in disbelief, the recipient of the call then asks the notifying party to clarify his statement. (Listen to the 911 call
Yet remarkably, aside from the delay in notification to OCSO, there are further (rather convenient) incidents that should raise red flags and prompt questions for everybody.
For example, by the time OCSO responded to the scene, many of the "public" witnesses had been escorted away by SeaWorld. OCSO claimed in its final report that most of them had been moved to an area called The Terrace (a dining area), for questioning. Of this group of potential witnesses, all of them were SeaWorld employees, bar one, who was a visiting tourist from the Netherlands.
A female witness from Vermont who also observed the incident, said she saw Tilikum impact Brancheau "squarely in the chest." But rather than being escorted to The Terrace, this witness was "escorted out of the area" by SeaWorld staff. The female finally gave her sworn statement to OSCO after contacting them, two days after the incident.
There was certainly more than a handful of guests watching the Shamu show the day Dawn was killed. But where are they, and why were they not interviewed? It would not have been difficult to track them down, visitors to the Dine with Shamu show are required to make reservations and sign-in upon arrival. Yet neither of these lists were provided by SeaWorld to OSCO, and OSCO never requested them for their investigation.
PETA's report also refers to a third guest witness, one who offered SeaWorld a video of the events preceding Tilikum's attack on Brancheau. SeaWorld declined the guest's offer and pointed out they had cameras of their own. Yet said PETA, these cameras were not focused on the pool until after SeaWorld dispatch received the alarm and manually redirected them.
OCSO readily supplies the full timeline of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau's movements which were captured on camera between 13:38:10.76 and 14:01:05.23. Each movement is time stamped at varying intervals. Inexplicably, the cameras were turned off prior to Dawn being freed from Tilikum, and three minutes before the call was made to the Sheriff's department. Why?
There has also been an attempt of censorship made by SeaWorld supporters on a book being released by author David Kirby.
Recently, Digital Journal spoke with Kirby
, about these attempts to censor and even ban his new book, Death at SeaWorld
. Activists concerned that Kirby is exploiting Dawn's death for profit have launched two separate petitions to ask bookstores not to sell it and the media not to promote it. But they have yet to read the book. When I spoke with Kirby, he assured me that Dawn is in perhaps one of 36 chapters, and the book's primary focus rests with the whales, not Dawn. Kirby's book hits bookstores in July.
Perhaps SeaWorld supporters should officially read the recorded facts of the investigation into Dawn's death which are readily available through the Freedom of Information Act. And indeed, these reports should be read, particularly the details about how it took almost an hour to free Dawn from the jaws of Tilikum. Also included are personal eyewitness accounts that describe how the orca continued to swim around with Brancheau's severed arm, after her body was retrieved.
These reports are devastating and heartbreaking. Evidence shows that Dawn Brancheau lost her life to an orca she obviously adored. So yes, please do read the case files, read them well and take notes. Opinions on who is exploiting whom, may very well change.
But it's also important to consider SeaWorld's history. From experience, when one consistently encounters large pats of dung, it might be time to start looking around for the cow.