On Tuesday Nov. 12 a panel of three judges in a federal court heard arguments from SeaWorld and OSHA about whether or not trainers at SeaWorld should be allowed back in the water with their captive killer whales (orcas). For decades SeaWorld has offered spectators the thrilling sight of trainers and orcas interacting together in the water. The whales would push the trainers around their enclosures performing high flying acrobatics. Since 2010, SeaWorld has been ordered to keep trainers out of the water with their whales. A decision made by a federal judge in the wake of a tragedy.

On February 24, 2010, senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled from a platform by a killer whale named Tilikum. Park guests watched in horror as the bull orca thrashed Brancheau in the water until she died. (1) Tilikum is the largest captive killer whale in the world. He weighs 12,000 pounds and is 22-feet long. Tilikum grabbed Brancheau by the arm pulling her into his tank. The orca then proceeded the thrash, bite and ram her until she died. Park workers had to pry Brancheau's body out of the whale's mouth.

When Tilikum finally released Brancheau part of her arm came off in his mouth and was swallowed by the massive mammal. (2) Dawn Brancheau's was the third death associated to Tilikum and the second he was directly involved with. In 1990, seven years after Tilikum was captured as a calf in the waters off Iceland he was a performer at a Canadian park called Sea Land of the Pacific." In February of 1990 Sea Land trainer Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the enclosure where Tilikum lived with two other female whales.

The three whales ganged up on Byrne dragging her under the water and preventing her from escaping the small netted tank. Each time Byrne attempted to escape Tilikum and the other whales would grab her feet and pull her under. Keltie Byrne died, and was the first of four people who would be killed by captive orcas. (3) Of the four human deaths by captive orcas, Tilikum is connected to three. After the Keltie Byrne incident Sea Land closed down and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld.

In July of 1997, seven years after Byrne's death, SeaWorld employees were shocked to discover a dead body in one of their pools. A man by the name of Daniel P. Dukes jumped into Tilikum's pool after sneaking into the park after hours. The official report states that Dukes became hypothermic from the cold water and drowned. But the autopsy report tells a different story. Dukes had cuts, contusions and even his genitals bitten off by Tilikum. While none of the night watch trainers heard or saw Tilikum kill Dukes, the drifter was found naked, draped across the whale's back the next morning.

Before Dawn Brancheau was killed there were many animal rights organizations that would claim SeaWorld was keeping its orcas in less than suitable conditions where they were prone to fighting and frustration, even aggression. Most people dismissed these organizations believing that a respected institution like SeaWorld would never neglect the well-being of the animals in their care. After Brancheau's death many people started to ask questions about SeaWorld, their practices and the well fare of their animals.

Dawn Brancheau's death caused documentary film maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite to question what exactly was going on behind the scenes at SeaWorld. Wanting SeaWorld to have a voice in her film "Blackfish" Cowperthwaite emailed the company continually for six months before the organization declined to be a part of the film. "Blackfish" became an international sensation and has caused many to look at marine mammal parks in a new light. Featuring former SeaWorld trainers "Blackfish" describes the lives of captive orcas and how they differ from their free swimming cousins.

"Blackfish" focuses on Tilikum and his life in captivity leading up to Dawn Brancheau's death. (4) The film ends with a recent visit to Tilikum's tank where he spends most of his time isolated from the other whales. Tilikum has been seen floating motionlessly in his tank for hours on end. A behavior not seen in wild orcas and that some attribute to depression. Three judges heard the arguments between SeaWorld, who want their trainers back in the water and OSHA, who is demanding the trainers remain separated from the animals.

Following Tuesday's hearing the three judges have adjourned to deliberate. A decision is expected to be made in a few months.

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