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SeaWorld says Tilly loved his trainer he killed, Dawn Brancheau

7:50 PM, Feb 25, 2010   |    comments
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Dawn Brancheau, with one of SeaWorld's killer whales

Orlando, Florida --  Veteran SeaWorld animal trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau was no stranger to the killer whale Tilikum, known as "Tilly."

"He lover her," said Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld's zoological curator, "She taught other trainers how to work with him, so no doubt she knew him very, very well."

The seemingly problem-free relationship is adding to the mystery of why the animal dragged her into the water in front of an audience, killing her.

Tompkins tells 10 Connects, Brancheau was rubbing Tilly for a job well done after a show when he grabbed her long pony tail and pulled her under water.

"She was underwater a very long time and unfortunately that length of time caused either a drowning... at this point, we don't know.  We just know she was under water for an extended period of time," said Tompkins.

By the time the other trainers were able to coax Tilly into a shallow pool so they could retrieve their colleague, she was already gone.

"It's very hard to put into words how we feel about this.  I mean, obviously as her boss, I need to lead.  At the same time, I have a family member that we lost," Tompkins told 10 Connects.

The medical examiner says an autopsy showed Brancheau likely died of multiple traumatic injury and drowning, making her death the third death linked to the 30-year-old killer whale.

Read: Autopsy:  Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau likely died from trauma, drowning

"We didn't ignore these incidences.  We worked with him very carefully.  We do not get into the water with this animal like we do with the other killer whales.  We had very specific training techniques we used with him, technologies, protocols we used that were very special to him," said Tompkins.

Read:  Sea World trainer killed, staff says whale was dangerous

The Shamu killer whale shows at Sea World Orlando and Sea World San Diego have been suspended until the park can review safety protocols.

Tompkins said, "We're not going move forward until we provide the safest environment for our trainers and we're going to make any changes we have to make sure this never occurs again."

Tilly was moved out of isolation and put back with his killer whale family.  The park says it has no plans to get rid of the animal.

Tompkins dismissed reports from witnesses that the killer whales, including Tilly, had been agitated and were not obeying commands.

"I don't know what was going through his head," explained Tompkins, "This is one of those times, we just don't know."

SeaWorld CG, Dan Brown read a statement released by Brancheau's family:  "Being a trainer was a life long dream she achieved.  She was a compassionate, loving person who touched so many lives."

Funeral and memorial arrangements are pending. 

More Coverage:

Laura Kadechka, 10 Connects

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