ORLANDO, Fla. - Despite calls to free or destroy the animal, SeaWorld said yesterday it will keep the killer whale that drowned its trainer, but will suspend all orca shows while it decides whether to change the way handlers work with the behemoths.
Also, VIP visitors who occasionally were invited to pet the killer whales will no longer be allowed to do so.
"We're going to make any changes we have to to make sure this doesn't happen again," Chuck Tompkins, chief of animal training at SeaWorld parks, said a day after a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged a trainer into its pool and thrashed the woman to death as audience members watched in horror.
Talk-radio callers, bloggers and animal activists said Tilikum, which was involved in the deaths of two other people over the past two decades, should be released into the ocean or put to death like a dangerous dog.
Tompkins said that Tilikum would not survive in the wild because it has been captive for so long, and that destroying the animal is not an option either, because it is an important part of the breeding program at SeaWorld and a companion to the seven other whales there.
Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old veteran trainer, was rubbing Tilikum from a poolside platform when the 22-foot creature grabbed the woman's ponytail in its jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy.
"He kept pushing her and poking her with his nose," said Paula Gillespie of Delaware, who saw the attack from an underwater observation point. "It looked like she was just totally caught off guard and looked like she was struggling."
The killer whale shows are on hold at SeaWorld's three parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Tompkins said they will not resume until trainers understand what happened to Brancheau. He said trainers will review safety procedures and change them as needed.