Three years ago, Russ Rector, a Fort Lauderdale dolphin trainer turned marine mammal activist, said he wrote SeaWorld a letter warning it was pushing its show mammals too hard to wow audiences, thereby inviting attacks on trainers.
On Wednesday, a killer whale named Tilikum implicated in two previous fatalities attacked a trainer during a show at the Orlando theme park, dragging her around like a toy and drowning her in front of horrified visitors.
"I warned them this was going to happen," Rector said. "Happy animals don't kill their trainers."
There were conflicting reports of the circumstances that led to the death of Dawn Brancheau, but the accident seemed certain to rekindle debate over turning marine mammals, considered deeply intelligent and highly social by many scientists, into captive circus performers.
The attack on Brancheau, one of the park's most experienced trainers, was the latest in a string of violent incidents — at least a handful of them fatal — involving killer whales at SeaWorld and other marine theme parks around the world.
Tilikum, a 23-foot, 6-ton male that ranks among the largest orcas in captivity, had been linked to two of those deaths.
In 1991, the killer whale grabbed and drowned part-time trainer Keltie Byrne, who fell into its pool during a show at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. It was later shipped to SeaWorld in Orlando where, in July 1999, security guards found a naked dead man draped across the orca's back one morning. The man had apparently slipped into the tank after hours, and though an autopsy showed he died of hypothermia, his body was also scratched and bruised.
Witnesses gave differing accounts to Orlando reporters about what happened during the noon show on Wednesday. Eldon Skaggs, 72, of Michigan told The Associated Press that Brancheau, 40, was on a platform with the killer whale and was massaging it when the creature suddenly "pulled her under and started swimming around with her."
"We were just a little bit stunned," said Skaggs' wife, Sue Nichols, 67.
Another person in the audience told a local TV station that the orca jetted across the tank and shot into the air to grab Brancheau, thrashing so violently that the trainer's shoe shot off. But, according to the AP, Jim Solomons of the Orange County Sheriff's Office said Brancheau slipped or fell into the tank.
In a brief statement posted on the company website, Jim Atchison, president of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said the company was investigating the incident and would review its operating standards.
"Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the animals entrusted to our care," he said. Naomi Rose, a senior scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, which has campaigned at marine parks, said Tilikum's reputation was well known and that SeaWorld specifically forbade trainers from entering the orca's tank.
"He clearly has some sort of issue with people in the water with him," she said of the orca.
Rose and many marine mammal activists believe the stress of life in a tank is acute for orcas, large animals that roam deep waters in close-knit pods.
"They're moody," she said. Rector, who has campaigned for years to free Lolita, a female orca that has spent nearly four decades in captivity at the Seaquarium in Miami, says it leaves them "demented."
Lolita, Rose said, has not been linked to any serious attacks on trainers, but its old tank-mate, Hugo, died of a cranial bleeding in 1980 that activists blamed on the orca ramming its head against the sides of a small tank.
Jorge Martinez, a Seaquarium spokesman, issued a brief statement Wednesday expressing condolences, but declined further comment.
While humans and orca interact without incident on a daily basis in marine shows, Rose and Rector said attacks and rough encounters are common.
"SeaWorld downplays the danger all the time," Rose said.
Last December, an orca drowned a trainer at a park in Spain. Another bit a trainer at SeaWorld in San Antonio in 2004. In 2006, a killer whale named Kasatka had clamped onto the foot of its trainer in San Diego, held him under and nearly drowned him — the third attack on the trainer by the same killer whale.
It was a few months later, after SeaWorld dolphins had roughed up some trainers, that Rector said he wrote the company to warn they were putting the shows before the health of the mammals.
"Too much pressure and stress is being created by the attempt to achieve perfection, the animals are paying the price and displaying the consequences," he wrote in a letter he provided to The Miami Herald.