The family of the SeaWorld trainer who was killed by a whale last year said today they're OK with that whale returning to the water.
On Feb. 24, 2010, Dawn Brancheau was killed when a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum grabbed her ponytail and drowned her. On Saturday, the whale returned to the Orlando theme park's big stage to thunderous applause.
"If that's what's best for Tili, that's what Dawn would want," Dawn Brancheau's sister Diane Gross said this morning on 'Good Morning America.' She said that decision should be left to Sea World. "They have the expertise."
Brancheau's death was caught on tape and watched by horrified spectators. The 40-year-old trainer was at ease with the killer whale and had just petted him on the nose just before it pulled her into the pool and began swinging her around in its mouth.
Thomas LoVerde, Brancheau's brother, said he does not know if his sister would have wanted the animal euthanized. "Obviously it's hard to speak on Dawn's behalf in this situation" he said.
Following Brancheau's death, the park banned trainers from being in the water with all killer whales. Tilikum is connected to the deaths of three others.
In 1991, trainer Keltie Lee Byrne fell into a tank holding Tilikum and two other whales at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada. A homicide inquest found that the whales had prevented Byrne from climbing out of the tank and ruled her death an accident.
After Tilikum was transferred to SeaWorld in Orlando, Tilikum was again connected to the death of a person in 1999.
The body of Daniel Dukes, 27, was found naked and draped across the giant whale's body in July 1999. Dukes reportedly got past security at SeaWorld and remained in the park after it had closed. Wearing only his underwear, Dukes jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water of Tilikum's huge tank.
Tilikum had been brought to SeaWorld mostly to mate and trainers like Brancheau were not allowed in the water with him, but did interact with him on the pool ledge.
Is killer whale a 'time bomb'?
SeaWorld officials had always said Tilikum would be back after Brancheau's death, despite protests by experts and activists.
"He is a time bomb in my opinion," killer whale activist Colleen Gorman said. "If anyone even comes close to him, trust me, he is going to grab somebody."
SeaWorld will not say exactly what precautions it is now taking, but the park said it is spending tens of millions of dollars on safety measures to protect staffers.
The federal govenment fined SeaWorld $75,000 and recommended that trainers not be allowed to have any physical contact with Tilikum unless protected by a physical barrier.
"So much emphasis has been on how she died," Gross said. "The important thing is how she lived. She was such an example to all of us."
A dedicated trainer and a passionate animal lover, family members said working at SeaWorld was Brancheau's dream since she was 9-years-old.
"We took her to SeaWorld and she said that's what I want to do," Brancheau's mother Marion LoVerde said. "This young lady loved these whales and she loved her work," said animal expert Jack Hanna, "and she was one of the best there is."
Her family has set up the Dawn Brancheau Foundation in her memory. The foundation has planned a number of fundraisers for children's charities, including a 5k run on what would have been Brancheau's 42nd birthday.
"She was very proud of educating people--primarily children--of the animals she worked with," Gross said.