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Helping Kids Make Sense of the Sea World Tragedy


Wednesday’s death of Dawn Brancheau at Sea World is truly an unthinkable tragedy. It’s one of those events that reminds us that some family entertainment that we take for granted is much more involved than we want to admit and puts many highly trained, dedicated and good-hearted people at risk each and every day.

Given children’s love for orcas, and Shamu in particular, this story is likely to have an impact on most children, regardless of age.  In my mind, there are two big issues to consider when helping your children process this story: the media coverage itself and the issues around the orca, Tilly.

In terms of media coverage, this story is very highly covered right now and some of the details not only disturbing but a bit unclear. That can make it confusing for our kids, regardless of age, as well as upsetting. So, we have to help them with the influx of information as well as processing the information.

For very young children, it could be very scary to think of Shamu killing a trainer. That’s a heavy concept! If they do find out, reassure them that it was an accident and focus on the size of the orca. That may help them understand a bit better.

For tweens and teens, they may seek out the information and some of it is frankly upsetting. The descriptions are quite graphic of the orca pulling Dawn into the water regardless of what triggered the attack and the images being shown very eerie. One image online now shows Tilly, the orca, in his pool after the attack with Dawn’s shoe near by. In another, they actually show the tent under which Dawn’s body is still lying covered in a black tarp. So, be cautious about the coverage your kids see because it is detailed.

Luckily, teens and tweens understand that wild animals do attack and may see this for what it is. However, if your child seems upset or is fixating on the situation, sit down with your child and just have them talk about the story. Often that is all this age group needs.

As for the wild animal issues to consider, when talking with your kids, just be honest but not too detailed.  It’s ok for older kids to know about Tilly’s history of violence and that some experts believe attacks are just inevitable when placed in small areas such as a Sea World tank. It may help them to know that many of these experts believe that these attacks are the result of the orcas “just being orcas” so to speak. It’s not that they are being malicious or trying to hurt a person but just being what they are at their core – an orca who is supposed to live in a massive ocean. Many now believe that whales such as Tilly should never be on display in a show…and perhaps he now needs to be moved out of sight and into his own tank, especially given his past history of violence.

Some other facts to keep in mind and help your kids understand:  Orcas are members of the dolphin family but no ordinary dolphins. First, they have the name “killer whale” for good reason. In the wild, they hunt mammals, seals and even great white sharks. Other dolphins have been known to be very kind to humans and there have been numerous reports of wild dolphins saving humans from great whites when in danger. Pointing out the difference between the animals in the dolphin family and how they behave in the wild can help your kids get a bit of perspective about how animals may fare out of the wild, which is always hotly debated.

So, when talking with your kids this week, try and stick to the facts and the lessons learned for the future. This week’s tragedy is a wake up call that the animals we are all drawn to at these shows need to be cared for and respected differently. If that can be accomplished at Sea World and other parks around the country moving forward, Dawn’s death won’t have been in vain.


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