SeaWorld has no plans to euthanize the killer whale that dragged a trainer to her death Wednesday, and will allow trainers to continue to work with the animal, a park official said today.
As two federal agencies launched investigations into Dawn Brancheau's death, the park said it will review its safety policies and determine whether Tillikum, a 12,000-pound bull killer whale, will be used in shows and publicly displayed.
Brancheau, 40, an experienced trainer, was snatched by the whale in front of a stadium of horrified onlookers, thrashed and ultimately held under water to drown.
SeaWorld has for years banned trainers from swimming with Tillikum, who was linked to the death of a Canadian trainer in 1991 and another man who snuck into a holding area in 1999. The whale has, however, been used in public shows and is given commands from trainers from the sides of the tank.
Though captive land mammals, including tigers and chimpanzees, are routinely killed on sight or later euthanized if they attack people, SeaWorld said it has never killed an animal for displaying aggressive behavior.
"Euthanasia is different in a veterinary setting, but we have never euthanized an animal for being aggressive," SeaWorld spokeswoman Leigh Andrus said.
"The plan is to review our protocols and continue to care for Tillikum with the same high level of care. Trainers will interact with the animal to provide care, but this was never an animal which trainers swam with."
Given the whale's checkered history and the animal's natural predatory tendencies, a debate has emerged about what should be done with the whale.
Brancheau's family and animal rights activists say they do not want to see Tillikum killed.
Brancheau's sister, Diane Gross, told The Associated Press that the trainer loved the animals like they were her children and "would not want anything done to that whale."
Activists at PETA who oppose the captivity of all wild animals said the park should release the whale to a coastal sanctuary that would allow the animal to swim in the ocean in a controlled setting.
Such sanctuaries were built for the whale Keiko, star of the 1993 film "Free Willy," first in Oregon and then Norway with the hopes of one day returning the whale to the wild.
Some animal experts, however, doubt that a whale held captive for years can successfully be returned to the wild. "These animals are 100 percent dependent on human beings and its incredibly unlikely that they would be able to survive if put back in the wild," said naturalist Jeff Corwin, host of "Corwin's Quest" on Animal Planet.
"This animal should not be punished for being what it is: a wild predator," he said.
Though euthanizing captive whales is rare, a number of the 5,000 marine mammals that find themselves stranded on U.S. beaches every year are killed, said Janet Whaley, a vet at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries department.
In the United States, beached whales are typically euthanized using a chemical cocktail, but they are simply shot in other countries, she said.
By some accounts, Tillikum was depressed and acting erratically, but Chuck Tompkins, curator of zoological operations at SeaWorld Orlando, told "Good Morning America" that the whale was "a good animal."
Tompkins said the whale attack may have been triggered by Brancheau's long hair, which swatted the whale in the face and by which the animal grabbed the trainer.