The orca, which at 6 tons is one of the largest in captivity, appeared in a performance of the park's show, "Believe," this morning. In February 2010, the whale dragged his trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, into the water, tossed her violently in his tank and drowned her.
SeaWorld Orlando said performing is an important part of the 30-year-old whale's "physical, social and mental enrichment," and it outlined a series of safety measures it has implemented since Brancheau's death.
"Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum's day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment. He has been regularly interacting with his trainers and the other whales for purposes of training, exercise and social and mental stimulation, and has enjoyed access to all of the pools in the Shamu Stadium complex," Kelly Flaherty Clark, SeaWorld Orlando's head animal trainer, said in a statement. "We will be using the same methods in caring for Tilikum that have been in place for more than a year."
SeaWorld has installed safety guardrails to limit contact between trainers and whales and said it plans to place fast-rising platforms in the tanks that would separate the animals from their trainers in case of an emergency. No trainers are allowed in the water alongside the massive creatures, either.
Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld Orlando trainer who worked with Brancheau and Tilikum but now opposes keeping whales in captivity, said the changes will make trainers safer. But he said there are inherent risks to working with killer whales.
"They can reduce the risks but they can't eliminate them completely," Ventre, who is now a medical doctor, told AOL News by phone today. "It wasn't Dawn's fault. It's just a vulnerable position."
Tilikum had killed humans twice before. In 1991, the whale killed a 20-year-old marine biology student at a park in Canada, and in 1999, he killed a 27-year-old homeless man who had wandered into his tank in Orlando late at night. And other whales have killed as well. In December 2009, just two months before Brancheau's death, killer whale Keto drowned a trainer in Loro Parque, a marine park in Spain.
The Occupational Safety and Administration fined SeaWorld last year for showing what it said was a disregard for the safety of its trainers and recommended in a report that SeaWorld employees not have direct contact with the animal, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Ventre said the park is right, however, to try to give Tilikum more exercise.
Ventre also said that watching whales in captivity, where they suffer "social strife" and have no natural family groups, now saddens him. "They're too big, they're too smart, and this is just another version of the circus. These parks will be gone eventually, and history will look back on them like circuses. The circus was once popular too, and now we know it's not the right thing for these animals."
SeaWorld Orlando declined to comment further on Tilikum or the subject of whales in captivity in general.