Before horrified onlookers at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010, a dedicated veteran trainer — who had dreamed of working with killer whales since she was a little girl — was dragged to her death underwater by an orca who had killed twice before.
And yet, only 14 months later, her family holds no animosity toward Tilikum, the whale that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, nor toward SeaWorld, which last week returned that whale to its roster of performing animals. Instead, finding hope in the tragedy, they have established the Dawn Brancheau Foundation to help and encourage children in need to follow their dreams, just as Brancheau did.
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“She loved that whale,” Brancheau's sister, Deborah Frogameni, told TODAY’s Ann Curry Monday in the family’s first interview since Brancheau’s death. “We know that she would want whatever’s best for Tilly. We don’t know what’s best for Tilly, so we’re going to leave that up to SeaWorld and her fellow trainers who were her SeaWorld family.”
The incident sparked controversy and raised questions about whether it was too risky to allow trainers to get too close to massive predators like the 6-ton killer whale. That controversy grew when it was learned that Tilikum — not only one of SeaWorld’s star performers, but also among its most prodigious breeders — had killed twice before, drowning a trainer in 1991 and a trespasser eight years later.
An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with overseeing workplace safety, found that SeaWorld had exposed its workers “to struck-by and drowning hazards interacting with killer whales,” and fined the park $75,000. But park administrators have disputed OSHA’s findings, and last week, they returned Tilikum to the pool.
“Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum’s day,” park officials said in a prepared statement. “But we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment.”
Still, they have made changes. Trainers are no longer allowed to enter the pools with Tilikum or any of the park’s other killer whales. Plans are being developed to construct an emergency escape hatch in the pools just in case. In the event that a trainer is in trouble, the bottom of the pool would rise to the surface, stranding the whale, and hopefully separating the trainer from danger.
Brancheau’s family says they support those changes and support SeaWorld’s decision to give Tilikum a chance to continue performing. “We obviously want her fellow trainers to be safe,” Frogameni told TODAY.
Related: Whale that killed trainer returns to SeaWorld show
It was not SeaWorld’s decision to return Tilikum to the public eye that prompted the family to break their silence about Brancheau’s death: “We didn’t time this with Tilly’s going back into the pool,” Frogameni said. Instead, the family was motivated to appear by their desire to honor Brancheau’s memory through the work of the foundation named for her, said her brother, Thomas LoVerde.
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The goal of the foundation, LoVerde said, is to encourage children to do what Brancheau had done from the time she decided at age 9 that she wanted to spend her life working with killer whales. “We’re going to inspire them by showing them Dawn’s story, encouraging them,” he said.Video: Family: Slain SeaWorld trainer ‘loved that whale’ (on this page)
And if there’s any lesson in Brancheau’s life, he added, it’s that those goals can often lead to a good that goes beyond personal satisfaction — “to become a community servant and give back to the community in a way that Dawn did.”
“Her example was really thinking about others first ... spending a lot of time with children. Part of the reason she loved her job was because of the opportunity to educate children.”
For more information about the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, click here.
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