ORLANDO (CN) – An Orange County judge has temporarily restricted the release of gruesome footage showing a captive orca whale killing a Sea World trainer. The court granted an injunction sought by the trainer’s family, who pleaded that the underwater tapes of the attack forever stay out of the public eye.
A spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said in an interview that reporters have been calling nonstop, clamoring for a look at videos of Dawn Brancheau being dragged by her hair and drowned by Tilikum, a 20-foot-long male killer whale that regularly performed at Sea World’s Shamu Stadium in Orlando. Brancheau, a Sea World employee and veteran orca trainer, was killed in February when Tilikum pulled her underwater after a show.
Witnesses eating dinner near a subterranean viewing tank said they saw Tilikum playing with the corpse.
“Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance to Brancheau due to the whale’s aggressive nature,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
Tilikum is one of three whales that attacked and killed another Sea World trainer in 1991.
Under Florida’s public records law, Sea World’s videos of Brancheau’s death, which are in possession of the sheriff’s office, were to be released when the investigation closed.
But Brancheau’s family urged the court to intervene.
Releasing the videos of Brancheau’s “lifeless body” being tugged around by Tilikum would only serve to indulge the public’s morbid curiosity, the family said. They said the release of the videos would be “grotesquely intrusive” and cause them “severe emotional distress.”
Citing a precedent in which Florida judges have restricted public access to postmortem photographs of murder victims, the family’s attorneys recalled a Sarasota Herald-Tribune case against the state in 2005.
The Herald-Tribune sought police photos of a murder victim, but an appeals court judge ruled that the public had no right to view the images.
The Brancheau family’s lead attorney, Jon Mills, stressed that his clients’ plea for privacy is less controversial.
“Unlike recent cases involving the closure of death scene photographs, Mrs. Brancheau’s death was a terrible accident. … No crime occurred here. Thus, the public interest in access to any photographs or videos which might be used as evidence does not exist as it would in a murder case,” the family’s complaint in Orange County Court states.
The court issued the injunction on Tuesday, ensuring that for now, footage of the fatal attack won’t end up as fodder for YouTube.