Thursday, February 25, 2010

Seaworld Visitors Get More Than They Bargained For

A killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida grabbed his trainer's ponytail and pulled her into deep water yesterday afternoon.  Dawn Brancheau, 40, died of "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning" just after the end of an Orca Show at the park.  Sea World has indicated they will not euthanize the whale involved.  PETA has already begun using this incident as a talking point in its crusade against holding marine animals in captivity.

This is obviously a horrible tragedy for SeaWorld and for Brancheau's family and friends.  She must have known there was a risk to the work she did, but at the same time I'm sure she didn't think it would actually lead to her death.  Those who loved her were probably even less prepared.

My mind keeps drifting, however, to the spectators who were at the park yesterday.  People come literally from all over the world to the theme parks in Orlando.  These are the trips of a lifetime.  Yesterday, hundreds of families came to see the Orca show and stayed to listen to the trainer talk about the whales and how they are trained.  Hundreds of people, young and old, watched her die.

There are undoubtedly resources out there for Brancheau's family in this horrific situation.  There probably are some for her coworkers as well.  I doubt, however, that there is much being offered to the crowd that watched this happen.  Parents did not bring their children to SeaWorld yesterday expecting to expose themselves, let alone their children, to a traumatic death.  Now they are faced with trying to figure out how to calm their children's fears and answer their questions when they themselves may well be experiencing some intrusive memories and other stress symptoms from this incident.

So, how do you explain this to a child who saw it?  How do you reassure them when you are not feeling reassured yourself?  Sometimes it pays to take a step back and figure out what you imagine someone who wasn't there would say about what happened.  People tend not to do that because they feel that somehow, having witnessed the event and having been upset by it, they are not allowed to take a dispassionate view.  But dispassionate is exactly what this situation needs.

The more detached but kid-friendly explanation of what happened goes something like this:

Orcas are huge and dangerous animals.  They are called killer whales because that name suits them.  As majestic and wondeful as they are, you have to take their power seriously.  Dawn Brancheau knew that this animal was dangerous.  In fact, this is the third death in the last 20 years that this particular whale was involved with.  She had lots of training and was very careful, and that made her more safe than most of us would be around a killer whale.  But she wasn't 100% safe, and she knew that. 

This was a horrible accident, and it is very sad for her and her family.  It is also sad for the whale, who probably did not mean to do what he did.  It is very upsetting and very disturbing when something like this happens, particularly if you see it with your own eyes.  It's OK to be upset, and it makes sense if you find yourself thinking about it a lot for a few days.  Just remember that this is something that happened to Dawn Brancheau, not something that happened or will happen to us. 

People who see things like this often find it useful to talk to each other about what they saw, or to draw or write about it.  We will all take care of each other and help each other to feel safe and not so upset.  The adults will help the kids and the kids can help the adults, and in the end we will be OK.

Then, once the adults have said all this to the kids, they have one last job to do.  They need to say it again, this time to themselves.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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