Dawn Brancheau’s death : my SeaWorld Experience
Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 1:16pm
As a visitor and witness to the tragic events at SeaWorld on February 24, 2010, I think it is sad to consider that Dawn Brancheaus’ death may go down in history as an accident. An accident is an unforeseen event or circumstance. Given past history and my experiences of that day, I believe the word « accidental » misrepresents this tragedy. Although the recent legal conclusion of the Orange County Sheriffs’ Office deems her death an « accident », SeaWorld has shown its’ negligence in its failures to heed the warning signs to prevent this tragedy. Since OSHA warned « it’s not a matter of if, but when the next attack occurs », SeaWorld, the Blackstone Group and their supporters will have to live with the consequences of this and any subsequent attacks should they continue the unnatural captivity, display and human interaction with Orcas. My guess is they will not care and will fight to continue exploiting these intelligent, social animals so long as profits offset the grief… just as it did this time. But I sense the tide is turning and the end is near for greedy owners and representatives of this exploitative entertainment industry.
I was at the park that day and attended the « Believe » killer whale show just minutes prior to the attack on Mrs. Brancheau and witnessed the unusual and aggressive behavior the whales were exhibiting which ultimately led to the show being cancelled. Shortly after, I grew increasingly concerned that SeaWorld had not been truthful and had not provided the Orange County Sheriffs Office, other investigators or the public with an accurate account of the days’ events. Additionally, it does not appear that OCSO sought clarification or testimony of independent witnesses (although they did include my correspondence to them as part of their final report issued 04-28-2010). I understand that they, like me, are not « whale experts » and it may have been beyond the scope of their investigation. However, it became apparent to me that SeaWorld was misrepresenting or failing to disclose the facts of that day and did not offer any information to investigators regarding the problems that were evident with the whales just prior to the Dining with Shamu event in which Dawn was killed. SeaWorld representatives were misleading and outspoken in stating that there were no indications of any problems prior to the attack. As a witness to these events, I take offense to SeaWorlds’ statements and take exception to the accounts of that day.
A synopsis of my experience follows:
30 minutes prior to Dawn Brancheaus’ violent death I attended the « Believe » Killer Whale show at Shamu Stadium with some family members. During this performance the whales did not behave as anticipated.
Toward the end of the show, a second whale entered the performance pool during the « splash » segment and the two whales set-off at a high rate of speed, chasing each other aggressively, nearly smashing into the wall at the far end of the pool while staff manually operated the pool’s gates trying to bring the whales under control and separate the offenders. Guests were asked to stay away from the glass walls surrounding the pool due to these aggressive actions. Giving it little thought at the time we awaited patiently for the show to get back underway.
During this unscheduled intermission, a female trainer spoke to the crowd and explained that, like feuding siblings, the whales were misbehaving and the trainers were just going to « ignore » the whales’ behavior until they settle down, laughingly indicating that they were more interested in « splashing » each other instead of the crowd.
After a 10 minute « cool down » period, and with the whales now separated, an attempt was made to resume the « splash » portion of the performance, but to no avail. It was clear that the whales were agitated, uncooperative and focused on things other than performing. As the whale continued its’ disobedience and refused to follow commands the show was cancelled abruptly. Disappointed, we left Shamu Stadium following the failed performance. Regardless of the whales obvious defiance, the next show went on and approximately 30 minutes later Mrs. Brancheaus life was ended violently by SeaWorlds’ star performer Tilikum as we stood a mere 50 feet from the pool located behind the Dining with Shamu building.
As the days pressed on I became increasingly dismayed over the initial reports that filtered in, first that a trainer had slipped and fell into the water and drowned, which just made no sense given the information we heard from witnesses that day.
Then we were subjected to reports in the media by SeaWorld staff that there was no indication that the Killer Whales were behaving abnormally prior to Mrs. Brancheau’s tragic death. While I knew this may be true of the few minutes immediately preceding the attack, problems with the killer whales’ behavior were evident during the Believe show a mere 30 minutes prior. And, in hindsight, there appeared to be a problem with one of the gates that separate the main performance pool and the series of backstage pools as all other operations appeared automated. Was it possible that the second whale that entered the main pool was not supposed to be in there? Could this have led to the distraction and agitation of the other whale? I felt it was worth reporting.
Upset by the apparent « oversight », I contacted SeaWorld with a brief description of what I had witnessed and asked that the information be forwarded to interested parties. The response that I received from them did not indicate that this information would be passed along, nor did they inquire further of my observations… which I found odd, but not unexpected, from what I now view as a for-profit organization who says they are conducting a full investigation of themselves.
I of course went ahead and notified investigating parties myself. After filing a complaint with OSHA, I spoke with investigator Lara Padgett, who had already met with SeaWorld concerning this tragedy. She was not told of these earlier problems until I spoke with her. She and I were not surprised, having indicated that SeaWorld has not been very forthcoming with information.
I was becoming increasingly leery of SeaWorlds’ motives and it was becoming abundantly clear that they were more interested in protecting themselves through mistruths than shedding light on the tragedy. I couldn’t help but feel that SeaWorld’s utter discontent for human life and the lives of their captive performers was evidenced by continuing to blame Dawn for the attack rather than taking responsibility for their own shortcomings of placing profit above safety.
I was the first to admit that I was unsure what role, if any, the earlier whale behavior may or may not have had leading to this tragedy. I also did not know if or how Tilikum might have been affected by these events. Nor did I know for sure whether the perceived problem with the gate had any relevance. Perhaps two whales got together that weren’t suppose to be together. Perhaps there were social problems in the pod that day. Maybe the whales never did quite « settle down » and were giving the warning sign « just don’t mess with me today ». Maybe it was the underlying profit-driven pressure that « the show must go on ». Or, it could have been nothing of the sort. I did not know. I am not a whale expert nor claim to be proficient in whale behavior; however, I now know that this strange disobedient behavior can precede attacks. This is a fact that SeaWorld is well aware of and they have attempted to deceive the public and investigators by failing to disclose the unusual behaviors exhibited that day.
Although several other witnesses did come forward in news reports immediately after the attack, it appears that I have been the only witness to the earlier aggressive whale behavior who has chosen to report my observations to investigators and follow through with debunking SeaWorlds’ erroneous reports. So it has been an uphill battle. But it has been a battle I intend to keep fighting because I am infuriated with SeaWorlds behavior. In my initial correspondence to SeaWorld, I also provided my ticket number for verification… easy enough for them to conclude that I was legitimate. They however chose to ignore my observations and I’m sure they hoped I would just go away and leave the investigation up to them.
They were wrong. In their efforts to squelch the truth, any and all information I later posted on their website, blogs and/or SeaWorld Fan FaceBook page were quickly removed. They also successfully had my FaceBook page shutdown for several days while FaceBook investigated my content and postings. Although my FaceBook account was reactivated, I am blocked from any further postings at SeaWorld… no surprise there.
I am also well aware that they (SeaWorld and its’ fans) have been monitoring my FaceBook account from the moment of it’s inception, awaiting any new information in order to make anything I post « fit » their version of events, so I have been careful in posting only the information I feel they need to know or see at this point. It will be interesting to see how their version of their « internal » investigation is portrayed.
As of May15, 2010, aside from OSHA, no other investigative parties have followed through with my reports and observations. Although the Orange County Sheriff’s Office included my written statements in their final investigative report, they never contacted me prior to completion of their investigation to request any additional information, clarification of my observations and/or photos or videos I took that day. This seems to be indicative of the Sheriff’s Office investigation. They chose not to investigate or interview other independent witnesses such as the Connell family from NH, present at the initial attack and videotaped the moments preceding the attack at the Dining with Shamu event.
Instead, the OCSO chose to rely on SeaWorld employee testimony as the basis for the investigation and its’ conclusions. I also sent correspondence detailing my observations to the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs and Wildlife.
Kathleen Hampton, Office of Executive Director, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission did respond via email on March 2, 2010 and indicated that « FWC was involved with regard to the issue of captive wildlife on the day of incident. However, FWC is no longer involved » and she gave me contact information for the agencies coordinating the ongoing investigations.
Essentially I never heard anything back from the USDA (APHIS), NOAA or any members of Congress. Regardless of the « investigators » lack of interest in my observations, I have spoken with many experts, and non-experts, that feel that these prior behaviors are compelling and more so that SeaWorld has attempted to conceal these facts from public scrutiny and investigators.
I for one intend to keep pressure on SeaWorld, the public and all investigative bodies until SeaWorld’s lies and unscrupulous practices are revealed and changes are brought about. History should have guided them and the warning signs should not have been ignored. Either way the truth needs to be known and actions taken to prevent further tragedies for « trainers » and marine mammals alike. This will only happen if the full truth is told, all the facts reviewed and the captivity and exploitation ceases.
Until recently, I was not associated with any organization or activist group, nor did I have any desire to. But since that tragic day, I have found that there are so many wonderful people that have been actively involved in exposing the exploitation and captivity of marine mammals long before this event occurred. While my observations pale in comparison to those unfortunate enough to hopelessly witness the initial brutal attack, SeaWorld has shown from the very start that they are not interested in the facts, or the truth, and their only true concern is to protect profits. It has been my intention to expose these truths and share my experiences with the public and investigators and I will continue to post updates on my FaceBook profile and share new information as warranted.
By chance, that February day was my first visit to SeaWorld and I have been deeply affected by what I witnessed and the publicity and misinformation that followed. Prior to this date I had never formed an opinion of SeaWorld or the captivity and « display » of Orcas. Previously aware of SeaWorld’s rescue and conservation efforts, I am now saddened and outraged at what appears to be a primarily profit-driven entertainment industry which operates under the guise of an educational institution.
My first visit to SeaWorld was indeed an educational experience; unfortunately it has not been the experience I anticipated and one which I hope no one else will have to experience in the future.
In my rapid education on this issue over the past few months it has become abundantly clear that the exploitation of these magnificent animals must end. Thank you to all who are working toward that goal.
John Kielty (posted on Facebook)
Read also :