SeaWorld animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was killed Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando during a show by Tillikum, a whale involved in two other deaths. While police say Brancheau slipped, onlookers insist that the whale knocked or grabbed her. One onlooker on the video below stated that the whale appeared to be acting strange in the prior show before the incident.
The whale is 11,000-pounds and 22 feet long. Tillikum has sired some 13 offspring.
Witnesses insist that the whale grabbed the trainer in the 35-foot-deep tank at Shamu Stadium and proceeded to shake her violently. However, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said she just slipped. Jim Solomons states “[t]his appears to be an accident.” I am not sure what that means since no one is alleging murder by means of a whale.
UPDATE: it now appears that the whale may be grabbed her by her ponytail, here.
In 1999, a 27-year-old man’s body was found in Tillikum’s tank and experts believe he died from the whale’s “horseplay.” The man had hid in the facility and then jumped into the tank.
Tillikum and two other whales also were involved in the drowning of a trainer at a Victoria, British Columbia, marine park in 1991.
There is of course strict liability for injuries caused by wild animals. However, zoos and animal attractions often have special exemption from the common law rules — requiring a showing of negligence. In this case, there is also likely to be a contract that expressly assume the risk of work with wild animals — making this a worker’s compensation issue. That does not mean that there could not be liability depending on the findings of the investigation. At least one witness in the segment below stated that the whale appeared to be acting strangely in the prior show.