Animals Are Unpredictable

February 26th, 20102:50 pm @ Angela Odom


Dawn Brancheau with one of her beloved Orcas

First, my condolences to the family of Dawn Brancheau. What a remarkable woman. Brancheau pursued her dream to become a “Shamu trainer” after visiting SeaWorld when she was 11-years old. Brancheau went on to attend the University of South Carolina where she earned degrees in psychology and animal behavior. It was not long after that she landed a job at SeaWorld, initially “training sea lions for a couple of years and then she got into Shamu Stadium,” according to her mom.

Dawn Brancheau swimming with Tilikum moments before incident

Most people working with or training animals will get a sixth sense about them. If you love them as much as I’ve read Brancheau did Tilikum, you kind of know when they are up or down. You know when you can push the boundaries a bit and when to stand down. I’m almost sure Brancheau did not feel any menacing behavior coming from Tilikum the day of the accident. She was in the water, smiling and playing with that big ole whale just as she would any other day. Tilikum, apparently, was her favorite whale.

The initial reports from witnesses described whales acting ornery. Tilikum, according to some eyewitness reports, was swimming in the tank aggressively and then — defeating the rules of nature and gravity — jumped high out of the water — like he was going to do a double pike — came down miraculously grabbing the trainer around the waist with his mouth — yep, while on his way down — shook her like a rag doll before hitting the water, finally taking her under. Really? How very talented that Tilikum. Honestly, I could not believe some of the stories I heard of this incident.

As the days have gone by, the incredible eyewitness testimonies have been replaced by actual video. What is seen in the video is a non-aggressive Tilikum eating treats and performing tricks. As the show ends, Brancheau and another trainer are seen running around the tank with Tilikum. Brancheau throws fish into the whale’s mouth, throws water on his nose and fins, and then she jumps into the water with the big ole whale and happily swims around with him. The video ends moments prior to the attack.

She was not standing on a platform and she did not slip and fall into the tank. Brancheau was already in the water so there was no need for Tilikum to jump out of the water, come down, grab a woman by the waist, shake her, and then enter the water. Didn’t happen. She was in the water and, according to folks at SeaWorld who have now seen a video that has not been released, her ponytail brushed the nose of Tilikum and perhaps — as far as Tilikum was concerned — he saw a pelican or a seagull. He grabbed her ponytail and — as whales are wont to do — took the ponytail under water with him. That’s what whales do.

There are a number of videos on YouTube showing Whales at these shows going after birds that land in the water. Bird plops down in the water, feet go to peddling away, end-o-bird, end-o-story. That’s what whales do. It is their natural instinct to hunt and eat. They do this and I’m sure every trainer at SeaWorld is very aware of this behavior in whales.

Of course, like we would all do, Brancheau went into flight or fight mode in trying to save herself. She found herself jerked suddenly underwater, she probably thrashed around trying to save herself or get balance and the whale, doing what whales typically do when they see the behavior of prey, went to subdue his prey. I’m sure he had no idea he was actually killing his buddy.

Not all rich kids, thankfully, are like the Menendez boys. Not all pit bulls are killers. In fact, I know a lot of pit bulls that are love nuggets. Nothing in life is predictable. Just because your kids smiled at you at lunch and gave you love does not mean they won’t return tonight with shotguns to kill you for your money. You just never know what one thing will set a person off or what one thing will set an animal off. You just don’t know.

I have had dogs all of my life and I’ve been bitten by a few of them too. The worse one was a Cocker Spaniel who did not want to be bothered when she was in season. I got bit. I did not put her down, consider giving her away, or taking her to an animal retreat for bad Cocker Spaniels in season. I understand PMS and thus, we learned to understand each other. After our nice little meeting of the minds, the little girl made it a point to stay away from me when she felt this way and I stayed away from her.

Another incident involved a Doberman of mine. A friend walked him one day — without a lead — and he fancied a particular guy running around the track. He was not interested in anyone else running on the track that day, just this one guy. Was the guy displaying fear at seeing a dog off-lead? Was there something about this guy my dog saw that said “go get ‘em”? I don’t know. My Dobe ran after this guy and chased him over a fence. My Dobe did not care about anyone else in the park or on that track. He only cared about and ran after this one guy. Who knows why.

Of course I admonished my friend for walking a dog, my dog, or any dog without a lead. You never know what might set a dog off. Though my Doberman was popular with kids and considered the sweetest dog known to man, something set him off that day. Something about that guy set him off. Just because we don’t see it does not mean the animal doesn’t. Brilliant as we may think we are, we never know what is in the mind of any animal. The instinct of an animal is a whole new world we know nothing about.

Another incident, involving the same Doberman, happened in my backyard with a little girl who loved herself some Thor and Thor loved himself that little girl. One day they were in my backyard playing around and suddenly I heard a bark and a growl. I looked out of my window to find Thor looking face to face with that little girl. Both of them were tense. If she had screamed, ran, jumped, or thrashed about, he would have torn her to shreds. Why? Natural instinct. Prey runs, animal grabs it, and animal doesn’t stop until prey is dead. Fight or flight. That’s what animals do. It matters not if the dog was a Dobe, a German Shepherd, a Great Dane, a Pit Bull — doesn’t matter. Instinct dictates.

Animals do not have whale-to-English or dog-to-English translation books in their back pocket. They are trying to understand us and we are trying to understand them. Unfortunately, in trying to understand one another we make mistakes. It is not the animals fault. It’s not even our fault. It happens.

The little girl who loved herself some Thor knew what happened. I ran outside in a panic to stop what I thought was about to happen only to hear the wisdom of a child. “It’s okay” she said. “He got mad at me for petting him too hard on the head. He didn’t like it and he told me so.” Ain’t that precious and as precious as it was I also made it a point to never have these two together alone, without supervision, after that. Animals are unpredictable.

So as we debate whether Tilikum should be put down or put out to sea — please no more Free Wily, we know what happened to him after he was freed — let’s take a deep breath and celebrate the life of a woman who did what she always wanted to do. She died doing what she loved. I’m sure she knew the risks involved with her job.

Just as the little girl who loved Thor felt his unhappiness with her, I’m sure Brancheau — who loved Tilikum so much — would have felt something from Tilikum if he were in fact displaying aggression. I really don’t believe she did, otherwise she would have high tailed it out of the water. It was a freak accident.

One report (here) captivated me. They say: “Her body was not recovered from the whale’s jaws until staff members coaxed him into a smaller pool and lifted him out of the water on a platform, officials said.” Poor baby. The big guy doesn’t have arms so he kept her in his mouth. If he had arms he probably would have cradled her instead. I’m sure he’s unhappy about what he did to his friend. He didn’t know and he tried to keep her with him as long as he could.

The following is a video of how unpredictable animals can be. The video shows a trainer at SeaWorld who does what they always do, dive from the nose of a whale. Something went wrong this time and the diver — seen at the right of the screen — dives off the whale and tries to swim back to the stand. One of the whales takes him underwater and the other trainers try desperately to get the attention of the other whales. They guy was eventually freed and is able to swim back to the stand from the right side — after reemerging from underwater — and limps off stage. The whale was playing with the guy but this could have turned deadly.