Unfortunately, the smallest mistake when dealing with wild animals can turn deadly. It appears that this is what happened on Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Dawn Brancheau, a 40 year old veteran marine animal trainer was finishing a training session with Tillikum, a 12,000 lb. Killer Whale, when she was pulled under the water by her ponytail. Accounts are varied, but it appears that she broke protocol by laying on the ramp rather than standing on it. A small detail, but one that likely triggered the tragedy. The prevailing theory by fellow trainers is that she was laying in the water rubbing the whale’s chin as a reward when her ponytail floated near Tillikum’s mouth. It is likely that the Orca instinctively grabbed the ponytail thinking it was food and the ensuing thrashing kicked in his prey drive further.
Creating a bond with an animal is a magical thing. To do so with a wild animal must be even more exciting. When you have created such a strong bond with an animal, it can be alluring to bend the rules ever so slightly. Her desire to show the whale how pleased she was with his performance likely made her let her guard down and made her forget about her loose ponytail. Though I did not know her personally, I know the dedication and level of skill required to obtain a position as a whale trainer at Sea World. I strongly considered taking this path when I was an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego. Several hundred people vie for a job as a trainer at Sea World every year. These are one of the most coveted positions by animal trainers, and therefore, only go to the best of the best. I am sure she deserved that title and this was simply an accident. A simple mistake, a devastating tragedy. My heart goes out to Dawn Brancheau’s family as well as her Sea World family.