Dawn Branchaeu: Legacy Lives On by Sierra Donnelly

Dawn Branchaeu: Legacy Lives On by Sierra Donnelly
It is 9:00pm in Orlando, Florida. Dawn Branchaeu glides through the water with extreme precision.  Her partner; the largest killer whale held in captivity, launches her in the air and assists her in a perfect dive to begin the show. Taking his position many feet under water, the whale awaits his signal. As Dawn swims down to grab his enormous fins, Tillikum in all his 12,000 pound glory, surges upward toward another magical display of human Orca interaction. The night show is a flawless success! Dawn flashes a radiant smile displaying the obvious exhilaration and joy she gets from interacting with these creatures; her love for them apparent. 
The youngest of six children, Dawn grew up in Cedar Lake Indiana. At the age of nine, she discovered her love for working with marine mammals while taking her first trip to Sea World. "I remember walking down the aisle [of Shamu Stadium] and telling my mom,`This is what I want to do,' " Dawn recalled. Dawn was immensely popular and loved all throughout her adolescent years, becoming involved in an extensive number of clubs and organizations. Her ambition, intelligence, and drive kept her following her dreams. By the age of twenty-six she achieved her ultimate goal. Working at Sea World was seemed like the best job in the world, and Dawn soon blossomed into one of the best trainers the theme park had ever seen. She was the Sea World poster child.  Her face could even be found on numerous billboards and ads across the nation.
I would imagine that talking to Dawn would be to experience the essence of her name itself; not unlike the first glimpse of daylight after a long night. She awakened and is still awakening everyone she knew. Her warm smile and charismatic nature seemed to touch countless associates in her many years as a SeaWorld trainer. Her friends uniformly chorused “She’s beautiful, she’s blonde, she’s athletic, she’s friendly; you know everybody loved Dawn!”
Dawn treated the Orcas at Sea World as if they were her own children. As the senior trainer and mentor at Shamu Stadium, Dawn was about as experienced as they get. One might think that with 14 years under your belt, you would become relaxed about the rules and safety protocols when it came to interacting with these large creatures; but not for Dawn. Friends and family frequently described her as the ideal trainer and said that she, of all people, was consistency vigilant about safety. One former co-worker recalled “She captured what it means to be a SeaWorld trainer, and she had so much experience that it made me realize what happened to her really could have happened to anyone.”
It is 2:30pm in Orlando, FL on February 4th 2010, and the Dine with Shamu show is just beginning. Dawn moves in tandem with the Tillikum, giving him all the right signals; throwing handfuls of fish into his open mouth to reward his good behavior. As she leads Tillikum in a perimeter pec wave around the G-pool, you see his shiny black exterior continue along the edge of the pool longer than he should.  To a trained eye it is easy to notice when things begin to go south. The massive whale had seemed agitated all day. A captivated audience watches as Tillikum swims over to the rocky ledge on the left side of the aquarium for what trainers call a “Relationship Session.” Dawn lies down next to Tillikum on an outcrop in the pool, and as she begins to playfully interact, it is obvious she has a personal connection with this animal, and you can’t help but wonder if she suspected the violent act that was to immediately follow. Tillikum lurches forward grabbing Dawn by the head and yank her under the water. Chaos erupts as the audience realizes what has happened all too late. Dragging Dawn under the water Tillikum violently rips her arm off and swallows it whole. Dawn is scalped and mutilated. She is submerged under water for minutes at a time while other trainers frantically run around in a futile attempt to save her, useless against the sheer mass and power held by a killer whale. Brancheau's autopsy indicated death by drowning and blunt force trauma. The autopsy also noted that her spinal cord was severed and she had sustained fractures to her jawbone, ribs, and a cervical vertebrae. A beautiful woman and loving friend’s life was ended, and the tragedy of it all began to sink in.
One trainer and good friend of Dawn’s, who was on site that day, received a disturbing call. The trainer and answered the phone without the slightest idea of the tragic scenario he was about to hear.
“Hello” John Harold says expecting nothing out of the ordinary.
The police man’s somber voice came through, “Mr. Hargrove, there’s been an accident… a trainer was killed.”
Not yet fully comprehending, John stamped out “Oh my God… who?”
 “Dawn Branchaeu,” the police said “and he still has her.”
 Looking back on the phone call, John recalls: “Hearing that it was Dawn, I just couldn’t believe it, and when he said ‘and he still has her,’ I just.. was so disturbed by that, and the reality of how powerless we are.” Another close trainer admitted, “I’ve been expecting it since the second person was killed, I’ve been expecting someone else to be killed by Tillikum, and I’m surprised it took as long as it did.”
Dawn was a beacon of light to everyone around her.  She emanated trust and openness. Sadly, the people who are so easy to trust you are sometimes the people who get taken advantage of the most. At first, Sea World and the local Sheriffs County made an official statement that a trainer tripped and fell into the tank. It wasn’t until eye witness accounts disputed that statement that Sea World executives had to change their story. It was then publicized that Tillikum grabbed Dawns pony tail and dragged her into the water. This report was also a lie, and a deceitful one in that it subtly placed the blame on Dawn herself, when in reality Tillikum had in fact aggressively surged up and grabbed her arm.
After her death, Thad Lacinak, former Sea world executive, reported on live news that “Dawn, if she was standing here right now would tell you that it was her mistake.” After hearing this brash remark, many shocked trainers and friends agree with the statement John put out declaring. “How dare you! How disrespectful for you to blame her, when she isn’t even alive to defend herself.” Dawns death surfaced shocking evidence animal maltreatment. It is hard to say where Dawn would have stood in the moral debate. The fact is Dawn did nothing out of the ordinary that day as a trainer. She was one of multiple people whom were murder by Tillikum; a fact kept secret from everyone, which just further proves that what happened to her could, and should have been avoided.
As a result of Dawns death, the third murder on behalf of Tillikum, the public has demanded change of some sort. Sadly, Tillikum has nonetheless returned to performing at Sea World. SeaWorld says they have developed a lengthy set of safety protocols for Tillikum, allowing only its most experienced trainers to be part of his "team," and forbidding anyone from getting into anything more than knee-deep water with him. Speculation as to whether these rules are being followed is underway. OSHA officials, for example, argue that multiple Sea World personnel have been in the water with Tillikum collecting his sperm.  This would certainly constitute human interaction. Animal rights activists are exploiting the sad truth which is that the primary reason Tillikum is not being released back into the wild, is in fact because the orca is the number one sire in captivity, boasting twenty one offspring.
In the aftermath of this tragic loss, the movie Blackfish was released, grimly documenting the detailed life of Dawn and Tillikum, that resulted in the end of a strong partnership. Sea World has seen extreme backlash as a result of these exploitations, and has in turn rebutted this documentary aggressively and openly. In a way, this movie has made it possible for Dawns death to act as a sort of catalyst in the world on behalf of animal captivity and shows. The moral debate relative to marine mammal abuse has become one of the hottest topics in the media today.  Even more devastating, is that Dawn’s death was what it took for people to finally realize that change is eminent, and that immediate action needs to be taken, to ensure trainer safety and Orca well-being. As far as Dawn’s family, they find it hard to be so constantly reminded of her tragic death. Instead they try to focus on celebrating and remembering her wonderfully vibrant life.

            Today, Dawn is remembered by everyone who was touched by her charisma through many organizations. At the age of thirty-six, Dawn was not ready to be taken out of this world, but nonetheless was, leaving a void in the hearts of many. Her death has sparked an enormous amount of speculation about the mistreatment of animals, and the unethical safety regulations that Sea World currently has in place. Dawn’s death, unlike many others, will not be covered up by Sea World, nor will it go unnoticed by the people who are willing to fight for the justice of both trainers and Orcas.