Nearly two weeks after the largest killer whale in captivity killed one of its trainers, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is still wrestling with the dilemma of what to do with its most prized asset.
The U.S. marine-park operator said it is continuing to review safety procedures for all of its orcas and hasn’t decided yet whether Tilikum will perform in shows again after it dragged Dawn Brancheau into a Florida pool and drowned her in front of spectators.
Sipa PressTilikum the killer whale in 2009 at SeaWorld Shamu stadium in Orlando, Fla.
In the meantime, Tilikum has been taking swimming turns at SeaWorld’s public viewing gallery in Orlando, even though this isn’t the first time the 22-foot, 12,000-pound orca has been tied to a death.
Attendance at SeaWorld has been “normal” since the Feb. 24 killing, a company official added Monday. SeaWorld suspended orca shows for two days after Ms. Brancheau was killed, before resuming more scaled-down versions with its smaller killer whales.
Trainers have been instructed not to get in the water with any orcas during the continuing safety review. Eventually, trainers “will get back in the pool, but it’s a matter of how we do it,” said Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s head trainer.
Orcas are big business for their owners and represent a huge investment.
Blackstone Group LP agreed to pay as much as $2.7 billion last year to buy 10 entertainment parks, including three SeaWorld parks, from Anheuser-Busch InBev NV in one of the largest private-equity deals of 2009.
The death has heightened public scrutiny of captive orcas, which don’t have any natural predators in the wild.
Tilikum’s owners say euthanasia is out of the question.
“We’re not in the business of punishing our animals,” said Jim Atchison, SeaWorld’s chief executive. The company is still “trying to get our arms around the incident,” he added.
SeaWorld is more heavily invested in orcas than anyone else, owning 26 killer whales. That is more than half the 42 held in captivity around the world, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
Orcas are the headline acts at SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, drawing a combined 12.2 million visitors annually.
“They are the identifiable icon of SeaWorld and responsible for generating hundreds of millions of dollars to that organization,” said Dennis Speigel, an industry consultant at International Theme Park Services.
Even before the latest incident, SeaWorld had prohibited trainers from entering the pool with Tilikum.
In 1991, a year before SeaWorld acquired the 30-year-old killer whale, Tilikum and two other orcas killed a trainer at a now-defunct Sealand marine park near Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.
In 1999, a man was found dead in Tilikum’s SeaWorld pool in Orlando after apparently climbing in.
Other types of animals also have attacked their handlers in recent years, although such incidents appear to be rare. In 2008, a trainer in California was killed by a grizzly bear during a promotional video.
In the most famous case, illusionist Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy was almost killed after being mauled by a tiger during a show in Las Vegas in 2003. Mr. Horn performed with the tiger again last year.
Tilikum is about twice as big as SeaWorld’s other performing orcas and has sired 13 calves, more than half the number of killer whales born at its parks. Such breeding has become increasingly critical in recent decades as the number of orcas taken from the wild dwindles amid public opposition.
Industry watchers estimate a killer whale could fetch as much as $10 million on the open market—if there were any for sale. They say it also takes several years to prepare an orca for live performances, which in some cases include trainers riding atop the mammals.
It also costs a lot of money to maintain killer whales, after the initial investment of building a pool that typically holds seven million gallons of water and features complex filtration systems. Keeping pool temperatures slightly above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and ensuring proper salinity levels alone cost millions of dollars a year.
Tilikum consumes about 250 pounds a day of “restaurant quality” salmon, mackerel and squid on his own, according to SeaWorld.
There have been few incidents in which killer whales harmed their trainers. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums said last month’s death is “without precedent” among the association’s 43 members over its 25-year history.
Blackstone said financial considerations haven’t entered the picture as SeaWorld’s has weighed what is best for Tilikum. “We fully support their handling of this matter,” said Peter Wallace, a Blackstone senior managing director on SeaWorld’s board.
Killer whales can roam for hundreds of miles in the wild.
“Everything about their well-being is compromised in captivity,” said Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal scientist at the Humane Society of the United States.
Ms. Rose said the best outcome for Tilikum would be retirement in a “sea pen” in a large cove, with a net across it.
SeaWorld said its orcas receive excellent care and thrive through interaction with their trainers. It said the shows also heighten public interest in killer whales, aiding conservation efforts. Thad Lacinak, a former head trainer at SeaWorld who retired from the company in 2008, said he thinks the marine park operator might put Tilikum back in its shows, but this time participation by the whale “might be more limited.” SeaWorld also points to its rescue and rehabilitation efforts of marine animals. It said that it and partner parks have contributed more than $20 million to wildlife conservation since 1970.