Mid-South animal trainer mourns death of Sea World employee

By Lori Brown - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - A Mid-South animal trainer who once worked at Sea World in Orlando said Friday she believes a whale trainer's death there this week was a complete accident.

Monica Boucek, who now lives in Memphis, worked with Dawn Brancheau eight years ago at the Orlando Sea World.

"(She was) definitely working at SeaWorld for the right reasons, because she loved the animals," Boucek said Friday.

Like Brancheau, working at SeaWorld was also a childhood dream for Boucek.

"Went to the theme park as a youngster and completely fell in love with the idea of working with animals," she said.

Boucek trained sea lions, otters, and walruses at SeaWorld for three years.

"You don't take for granted what could happen every time you're inches away from a 12,000 pound animal what could happen," Boucek said. "But you do go in and out of the park every day safely and you do start feeling kind of comfortable."

Tilikum, the whale involved in Brancheau's death, had a troubled past.  He was one of three Orcas blamed for killing a trainer in 1991 at a theme park near Victoria, British Columbia. In 1999, the body of a naked man was found draped over Tilikum at SeaWorld. Officials said the man had stayed in the park after closing, apparently fell into the whale tank and died of hypothermia, but was also bitten by Tilikum.

Because of that past, Boucek says Tilikum was only used to splash the audience.

"He was huge," she said. "He was twice as big as the next biggest whale at the park. He would come and he would splash. He could splash rows and rows of people."

Boucek wants people to know that SeaWorld always put trainer safety first.

"I really feel like, from everything I knew about her and everything I know about my friends who stay in touch with her, that this was a complete accident," she said.

SeaWorld will restart its killer whale shows this weekend.  SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim Atchison said Friday trainers won't get in the water with the killer whales for now until officials finish reviewing what happened to veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40.

"We will make improvements and changes and we will move forward," Atchison said as killer whales swam in a tank behind him during a news conference at the Florida park, one of three SeaWorld locations. The others are in San Antonio and San Diego.

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