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SeaWorld defends use of 'Tilikum' and other killer whales

After 'Tilikum' killed whale trainer Dawn Brancheau, SeaWorld officials are defending the use of captive orca killer whales for recreation and education.

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An online poll by Harris Interactive in 2005 showed that 97 percent agree that marine parks play an important part in educating the public, and 96 percent agree that they provide valuable information about waters, oceans, and the animals that live there.

A Roper/Starch poll in 1998 found that 94 percent of park visitors said they learned “a great deal” about marine animals, and 97 percent said that their personal experience with such animals was greater when they could interact up close. (Do killer whales belong in theme parks? More here.)

SeaWorld President and CEO Jim Atchison was in front of cameras Friday, answering tough questions from reporters who wanted to know if training protocols had been broken in the Orlando SeaWorld incident, whether or not it is time to retire the orca, and if there are any tributes planned for the trainer who was killed.

He said they are currently editing a tribute to veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau for Saturday’s 11 a.m. show. He said it “would be a shame” to retire Tilikum: “This is really a wonderful animal. His participation in shows is an important part of his life and husbandry.”

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SeaWorld parks expected to change training and performing

Atchison said that SeaWorld would be analyzing the park’s training and performing protocols; he assumes the parks will make changes, but declined to give details. (How common are killer whale attacks? Monitor report.)

Meanwhile, Julie Scardina, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens animal ambassador, is reminding reporters that SeaWorld’s entire mission from its founding in 1964 has been to support animal health, veterinary, reproductive, and physiology programs worldwide. It has rescued more than 15,000 large marine mammals – not fish but seals, manatees, dolphins, sea lions, and whales. It also gives worldwide grants to rescue efforts.

The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund was formed in 2003, and has since given $5.5 million in grants. SeaWorld also has an education department which works with school districts to organize in-class video programs and field trips.

“SeaWorld contributes an incalculable amount to conservation and marine life worldwide, which is, by any measure, extremely significant, both in practical terms and in setting an example for others,” says Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting body that sets standards for animal care and conservation. “They are subject to the highest standards.”

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