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Former trainers question SeaWorld protocol

Former killer whale trainers are raising questions about safety at SeaWorld Orlando following the death of a trainer on Wednesday.

Former killer whale trainers are raising questions about safety at SeaWorld Orlando following the death of a trainer on Wednesday.

Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was dragged by her ponytail into the water to her death by a killer whale named Tilikum. The orca thrashed Brancheau around underwater as a horrified crowd watched.

Thad Lacinak, the former head of animal training at the SeaWorld Orlando, said the rules in place at the Florida park when he left in 2008 would not have allowed a trainer to lie down on a submerged shelf next to the whale as Brancheau did just prior to her death.

"She lay completely down, which is a very vulnerable position to be in with an animal like Tilikum. And apparently her ponytail drifted into the water. He just opened his mouth, sucked it in and pulled her in the water," Lacinak said.

Tilikum's trainer at the now-closed Sealand in Victoria, B.C., Steve Huxster, told CBC on Thursday that he was surprised to hear the whale was performing at all.

"It was my understanding from when Tilikum was acquired by the SeaWorld organization that he would not be a display animal. The intent was that he was to be part of the breeding program and that was it," said the whale's former trainer of eight years.

Breeding animals do not perform and are not on public view.

Huxster, referring to Tilikum's past involvements in two other human deaths, said that the intelligent animal would want to recreate, what he described as, "highly stimulating situations."

"Like any complex and intelligent animal, that kind of circumstance they will remember and will want to repeat if the opportunity presents itself," said Huxter.

The orca was involved in an earlier death at the Orlando park as well as one at Sealand in Victoria.

"They were fully aware of what the potential was for another accident taking place. And through their awareness of that, the decision had been made that he was not to be made a display animal," Huxter said.

Jim Atchison, the president of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, said Friday that Tilikum has been suspended from performing and trainers will not get in the water with the other whales in the park until officials finish reviewing the trainer's death.

Atchison made it clear that the killer whale will remain at SeaWorld and will not be put into retirement.

"He will remain an active, contributing part of the team. He is a very special animal that requires special handling," said Atchison. "Retirement would be a shame."

Atchison made no apologies in his statement and said that SeaWorld has launched in an internal investigation to determine what changes need to be made.

"We will make improvements and changes and we will move forward," he said.

With files from The Associated Press