SeaWorld got permission Thursday to help the family of killer-whale trainer Dawn Brancheau keep photos and video related to her death out of the public eye. An Orange County judge granted the theme park's request to join a motion by Brancheau's family to prevent the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the local medical examiner from releasing images related to the attack that killed the trainer.
At issue are photos taken by Orange County deputies and SeaWorld video that park officials turned over to the Sheriff's Office after an orca grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail, pulled her into the water and then drowned her Feb. 24. According to court records filed earlier, the video recordings include an underwater view from a camera in a window in the pool, and an overhead view from a camera mounted on the park's Sky Tower. The underwater view doesn't show Brancheau until after she enters the water, the Brancheau family's complaint said. The Sky Tower camera wasn't aimed at the scene until after the incident occurred.
Neither video shows events leading up to Brancheau being pulled into the water, the complaint said. "What the videos do depict is Mrs. Brancheau's drowning and her lifeless body," the court record said.
In a motion filed by SeaWorld counsel Wednesday, the company said it has an interest in the pending litigation because it is the exclusive owner of all rights in and to the videos and will be directly affected by the outcome of the litigation.
A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, where a judge will determine whether the material will become public or remain private.
By Florida law, materials collected by the Sheriff's Office as part of its investigation will become public record when the agency's case concludes.
Three times a day, just as they always have, SeaWorld Orlando's killer-whale trainers brush Tilikum's teeth. But they no longer stand right next to the animal with a water pick. Instead, trainers have built a 2-foot extension that allows them to work farther from the 6-ton orca's jaws. The jury-rigged toothbrush is one small example of the many adjustments SeaWorld has made in the 3 1/2 weeks since Tilikum grabbed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and drowned her in front of park guests.
After the Feb. 24 tragedy, SeaWorld removed Tilikum from its daily shows and ordered its trainers to keep their distance from the animal, who is twice as big as any other orca at SeaWorld Orlando. The park imposed the restrictions while it reviews its killer-whale safety protocols, a process now expected to extend into April. But though Tilikum no longer shows up to splash audiences during SeaWorld's popular "Believe" killer-whale show, he continues to live in the park's seven-tank orca complex. SeaWorld says it has taken numerous steps to continue providing a healthy, stimulating environment for the animal. "He's the same exact Tilikum through all of this, and we're providing him with the same exact environment, as far as it being stimulating and enriching and healthy," said Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando. "What's changed is we're challenged with finding new ways of doing that."
Some of the adjustments have required Tilikum to learn new behaviors. Consider how SeaWorld obtains blood samples from its orcas. Typically, trainers will have a killer whale line up along a shallow ledge while a trainer kneels by its tail. The animal will then roll over, deposit a tail fluke in the trainer's lap and allow an adjacent veterinarian to take a blood sample with a syringe. But with trainers no longer allowed that close to Tilikum, they have had to devise a new method. So they have trained him to line up with the tip of a target pole held over the water, with only his tail by the side of the tank. A vet can then reach over a wall to get a sample of Tilikum's blood. Flaherty Clark said Tilikum learned the new process in only about two weeks, a sign that the orca remains engaged.
There are other examples. When trainers must open or close a gate between tanks, for instance, they have any nearby orca wait a short distance away, allowing trainers time to adjust the gates. Tilikum used to maintain such holds for 10 to 12 seconds, Flaherty Clark said; now, he holds for as much as three or four minutes.
Tilly's new tricks
Tilikum has even learned a new way to accomplish the orca equivalent of cleaning his room. Whenever he is done playing with his "toys" -- which include oversized plastic disks, blocks of ice and large balls originally designed for elephants -- the animal now knows to deposit them by the side of the pool and then swim to another tank so trainers can enter to gather them.
Flaherty Clark said Tilikum has long enjoyed tactile interactions with his trainers -- having his pectoral fin rubbed, for instance -- that are no longer possible. So trainers have taken to spraying salt water from a high-pressure hose into his tank to simulate a massage. "You'll see him manipulate his body in ways that only he can possibly come up with, in order to get just the right body part under the saltwater pressure," Flaherty Clark said.
Tilikum continues to rehearse maneuvers used in SeaWorld performances, to keep him active and involved. Although SeaWorld maintains that life remains enriching for Tilikum, some animal activists, who argue against keeping killer whales in captivity at all, say that is unlikely.
Howard Garrett, board president of the Orca Network in Greenbank, Wash., which advocates for killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, said forcing trainers to keep their distance likely has a negative effect on Tilikum, as orcas are inherently social animals who enjoy physical contact. "They're very tactile.
He's going to notice the difference that nobody will come close to him," Garrett said. "And, inevitably, that's going to increase his sense of isolation."
SeaWorld has said it will not permit its trainers back into the water with any of its killer whales until after its safety review is complete, possibly in April.
Not waiting to act
But the park is already making some procedural changes. For instance, the number of killer-whale trainers permitted to handle Tilikum has been reduced to the six most-experienced on staff. Previously, SeaWorld had permitted about a dozen of its 28 orca trainers to work with Tilikum.
And SeaWorld says a new rule that trainers with long hair tie it in a bun -- rather than merely binding it in a long ponytail, as Brancheau did -- is a permanent policy change.
Some adjustments, such as Tilikum's extended toothbrush, had to be quickly improvised. Flaherty Clark said trainers began thinking of new ways to care for the animal immediately after the incident. "Caring for Tilikum is something that was absolutely front in our minds," she said. "It would certainly have been at the front of Dawn's mind."