Adam B. Vary
March 05, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

On Feb. 24, during an event at SeaWorld Orlando, a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum snagged the blond ponytail of trainer Dawn Brancheau, dragged her into the tank, and thrashed her body before drowning her. SeaWorld officials immediately suspended their Shamu show — the iconic stage name for all the parks’ orcas — but by Feb. 27, the killer whales were back before the public, with two notable changes. The show opened with a tribute to Brancheau, featuring photos of the 40-year-old trainer hugging and swimming with the orcas. And once the show began, no trainer entered the water with the performing killer whales.

Should they be performing at all? Tilikum had been involved in two other deaths since 1991, and reports of serious orca attacks against SeaWorld trainers date back to at least the 1980s. Animal rights groups have renewed their calls for the closure of all of SeaWorld’s marine mammal shows. Activist Richard O’Barry, profiled in The Cove, the Oscar-nominated documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan, even called for a federal investigation of SeaWorld. ”It’s not an accident, it’s a calculated risk that SeaWorld takes,” he tells EW. ”The animal has a larger brain than a human, and it’s living in a bare concrete box. Their habitat is so radically altered, they cannot stay mentally healthy.”

SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer, Brad Andrews, adamantly denies that claim, and insists that the orcas’ housing conditions aren’t harmful. ”I’m not going to apologize for the business of the public display of marine mammals,” he says. ”We spend millions of dollars on conservation and education. We rehabilitate stranded animals all the time. There are many opportunities for us to utilize these animals as ambassadors of their kind in the wild. We do it very well, and we’re going to continue to do it.”

More than 13 million people flock to the company’s three parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio to see Shamu every year. Andrews says it ”would be tragic to stop sharing their majesty with the public. It’s a learning opportunity for people to appreciate these animals.” Others see a less lofty motive. ”It’s a moneymaker,” says John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer who worked with Tilikum in the mid-1990s. He’s now a professor of environmental science at Stetson University, in DeLand, Fla.”If we as a society say that’s okay, then I guess that’s okay. I just wish we could stop hiding under this ‘It makes us good citizens’ approach.”

As for Tilikum, who’s approximately 29 years old, some activists would like to see him retired and rehabilitated (see sidebar), but serious dental problems (among other physical issues) would likely prevent the animal’s return to the wild. ”There are so many teeth broken off on the bottom of his jaw,” Jett says. ”Can he even catch prey?” SeaWorld, meanwhile, is reviewing its safety precautions. The company declined to speculate further on what caused Tilikum to attack his trainer, or whether the killer whale will ever perform again.

The Life and Death of Willy
After years in captivity, Keiko, the star of the first Free Willy movie, was set free off the coast of Iceland in 2002. He died the next year.

The 1993 hit film Free Willy ended with the killer whale leaping back into the open ocean. For Keiko, the orca who played Willy, it wasn’t as easy a journey. Languishing in a tiny tank at a Mexico marine park, Keiko waited three years for supporters to get him airlifted to a custom aquarium in Oregon. ”There were bushels of letters to Warner Bros. saying ‘Get Keiko out!”’ recalls producer Lauren Shuler Donner. In 1998, he was transported to a sanctuary in Iceland, where he began an intensive process to reintroduce him into the wild. In July 2002, Keiko was set free, but he died just 17 months later off the coast of Norway, reportedly from pneumonia.

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