Trainer killed by whale at SeaWorld was USC grad

The pool where SeaWorld trainer and USC grad Dawn Brancheau was killed
The pool where SeaWorld trainer and USC grad Dawn Brancheau was killed

ORLANDO, Fla. (WIS) — The SeaWorld trainer killed in front of horrified onlookers by a killer whale Wednesday was a University of South Carolina graduate, university officials confirm.

Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, graduated from USC in 1991 with a degree in psychology, according to the school. One of Brancheau's sorority sisters called her "the kindest person in the world."

Brancheau was rubbing the whale named Tilikum after a noontime show Wednesday when the whale grabbed her and pulled her into the water, killing her.

SeaWorld Chief of Animal Training Chuck Tompkins said there was no sign of problems with the killer whale before the attack. He told the CBS "Early Show" on Thursday it was not true that the whale was misbehaving, as some witnesses have said.

Tompkins said the 12,000-pound whale had done really well during the show and the trainer was rewarding him by rubbing him. Some witnesses said they had heard the whale was not responding earlier to commands.

The incident occurred behind SeaWorld's main "Shamu" pool, a world-renowned venue for tourists. Experts say it was a scenario that nobody working with the animal could have predicted.

"If that's the case, that's about as drastic as I can imagine," said former killer whale trainer Joel Silverman. "Normally, if you have an aggressive animal and you're standing on stage, that's normally a safe place."

Satch Krantz, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, says the whale will not be put down.

"We don't do that, this animal at the end of the day was doing exactly what it was programmed to do over thousands of years and that is to attack and kill," said Krantz. "All of us that work with dangerous animals know that, we know it's a possibility."

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Tilikum the killer whale has attacked.  

In 1991, while living at a Canadian park, he attacked a trainer who had fallen into his tank and killed her.

Then in 1999, a man who was believed to have snuck into SeaWorld was found dead in Tilikum's pool. That death was ruled a drowning.

Brancheau was considered to be a very experienced trainer who would have taken all precautions and avoided putting herself in danger.

SeaWorld Orlando General Manager Dan Brown is among the many in shock.

"Never in the history of our parks have we experienced something like this," remarked Brown.

The section of SeaWorld where the attack occurred remains closed as investigators determine exactly what happened and if it could have been prevented.

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