Animal Law, Pets

A Whale of a Lawsuit?

shamu killer whale.jpgYesterday, a killer whale demonstrated at a SeaWorld in Orlando why it has that name. The Shamu show turned horrific when a male orca named Tilikum killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Brancheau was talking to the audience and petting Tilikum’s head, when he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the water. After some violent thrashing, the alleged killer whale drowned her.

The Sentinel reports that trainers did not ever get into the tank with Tilikum, because of his murderous past. He’s more like a serial killer whale:

In 1991, Tilikum and two female killer whales dragged trainer Keltie Byrne underwater, drowning her in front of spectators at Sealand of the Pacific, a defunct aquarium in Victoria, British Columbia.

Acquired by SeaWorld the next year to breed with female orcas, he was involved in a second incident in July 1999 when the naked body of a man who had apparently sneaked into SeaWorld after hours to swim with the whales was found draped dead across his back.

In fairness to Tilikum, he’s a majestic animal captured by humans and imprisoned for their amusement and curiosity. How many people would you kill to escape forced mating with a female orca?

An animal rights activist told the Sentinel that Tilikum is “a killer” and should have been set free years ago, and not been kept in contact with humans at SeaWorld.

It sounds like SeaWorld could be in dangerous legal waters…

Brancheau’s family is not talking about putting down Tillkum or filing lawsuits:

Brancheau’s older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer wouldn’t want anything done to the whale because she loved the animals like children. The trainer was married and didn’t have children.

“She loved the whales like her children, she loved all of them,” said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. “They all had personalities, good days and bad days.”

Gross said the family viewed her sister’s death as an unfortunate accident, adding: “It just hasn’t sunk in yet.”

But what about the audience members who were subject to the worst Circle of Life show ever? They witnessed some truly traumatizing scenes of natural selection. From the Times:

Victoria Biniak told a local TV station that Tillikum, nicknamed Telly, “took off really fast in the tank and he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing her around”.

“He was thrashing her around pretty good; it was violent,” said Ms Biniak.

Her husband Gary added: “He dragged her underneath the water and wouldn’t let her come up. The force by which the woman was pulled into the water… her shoes were pulled off, it was terrible.

And from the Sentinel:

Brazilian tourist João Lúcio da Costa Sobrinho, 28, and his girlfriend, Talita Oliveira, 20, watched the attack from an underwater-viewing area where they had gone to take photos.

Suddenly, they saw a woman in the killer whale’s jaws, her face bloody. The more than 20-foot-long orca circled round and round, turning her over and over, they said.

Theme-park goers are known to be a litigious group. The Orlando Sentinel compiled a database of almost 500 personal injury lawsuits filed against Universal, Disney and Busch (which owns Busch Gardens and SeaWorld) between 2004 and 2008, most of them slip and fall cases. An expert told the Sentinel:

The parks may attract more than their share of frivolous lawsuits, one expert says, because they create a fantasy world where expectations of comfort and safety run high.

In Disney fantasy worlds, you can set up shop with Pinocchio and have tea inside a whale’s stomach. In real life, whale teeth and digestive juices are a motherf***er.

As Overlawyered points out, suing theme parks is no thrill ride. Florida law is strongly in favor of plaintiffs paying defendants’ legal bills if they lose.

Obviously, it’s dangerous to tangle with a cartoon mouse in a courtroom. But if you find yourself under the sea, don’t expect a sing-a-long with a carnivorous whale.

Lawsuits against theme parks, and fee-shifting [Overlawyered]
Trips, slips dominate theme-park lawsuits [Orlando Sentinel]
SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau dies in killer-whale attack [Orlando Sentinel]
Tilikum known as dangerous whale at SeaWorld Orlando [Orlando Sentinel]
Killer whale drags trainer Dawn Brancheau to her death in Florida [Times Online]

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