Gruesome ‘catastrophic’ injuries of trainer ‘scalped’ by orca in killer attack

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Dawn Brancheau was said to have a special bond with Tilikum, the killer whale she trained most days.

One of her SeaWorld colleagues is certain she "loved" the 12,000-pound orca and that he loved her back.

That they had a relationship built on trust made the events of their final meeting all the more horrifying.

During a well-rehearsed public performance in front of hundreds of people, including young children, Tilikum inexplicably turned on his trainer, killing her in a particularly brutal and prolonged attack.

Her grisly death, which happened during a Dine With Shamu show at the park in Orlando, Florida, was caught on camera as tourists were filming the spectacle, expecting to see tricks.

At around 1pm they were waiting patiently to take photos of the 22-foot long apex predator doing a dive, which usually happened after a little bit of coaxing from Dawn.

But during one well practised segment, where she lay down to kiss the huge 30-year-old mammal, he grabbed her, dragging her in to the pool and under the water.

What happened next would shock the audience – and the world.

Tilikum, who had been involved in the deaths of two other people since he was taken from the seas around Iceland as a two-year-old, drowned Dawn in incredibly violent fashion, thrashing her around like a rag doll and leaving her with catastrophic injuries.

He also refused to 'release' her body for a whole 45 minutes, despite more than two dozen staff trying to distract him with food and catch him in nets to stop his frenzied attack and retrieve the remains of their colleague.

Eventually they enticed him in to a smaller medical pool where he eventually let go of her body.

As if the incident itself wasn't harrowing enough, an autopsy report revealed Dawn, who had always dreamed of working with killer whales, suffered greatly in the beast's jaws.

"Catastrophic" injuries sustained in the fatal attack were laid bare.

Delivering what was perhaps the most horrific detail of all, the report told how Dawn arrived at the morgue in two parts – her battered, broken body totally disconnected from her scalp.

Her hair and skin were recovered from the bottom of the pool.

The cause of death was officially recorded as "drowning and traumatic injuries" after blunt force trauma.

Her left arm had been torn from its socket and spinal cord severed. She also suffered broken ribs and a broken jaw.

The report read: "Also received with the body is a portion of the scalp with attached hair and a fragment of red-pink muscle."

Dawn, a senior trainer at SeaWorld, had studied psychology and animal behaviours at university. She had worked at the park, training enormous marine mammals, including Tilikum, for 16 years.

Colleagues were horrified, shocked and baffled by her death.

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John Hargrove, another senior trainer at Seaworld at the time of Dawn's death in February 2010, said: "We’ll never know why Tilikum made that choice to grab Dawn and pull her into the pool.

"He had a great relationship with her, and she had a great relationship with him. I do believe that he loved her, and I know that she loved him."

Dawn's death is one of the main features in documentary Blackfish, which questions the morality of keeping intelligent and dangerous marine predators in unnatural conditions, breaking up family pods and stopping them from acting naturally.

After Dawn's death Tilikum was moved to a new, much smaller tank where he was kept alone and reportedly lay lifeless, floating on the water.

Six years after the tragedy SeaWorld announced it was ending its programme of breeding the orcas in captivity.

Tilikum finally found freedom from his notoriety – and the mundaneness of his daily life – when he died in January 2017.

  • Animals

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