Eight-year-old Jillian Thomas is so obsessed with dolphins that when her parents brought her to SeaWorld Orlando last week, she made sure to visit the dolphin cove twice.
But she and her parents received the fright of their lives when the marine mammal lunged toward her during the feeding and snapped his toothy snout around the 8-year-old's hand.
Her father, Jamie Thomas, captured the Nov. 21 attack on video with images of his little girl's face contorting with pain when the dolphin bit her hand. He posted it online as a warning to other parents.
"The first thing I thought was I would have to jump in the water and save my daughter's life," Thomas said. "I literally thought she was going to be pulled into the water."
Thomas said Jillian suffered three puncture wounds the size of dimes and her hand became swollen. The cuts are healing, but Thomas said he and his wife are unhappy with the way SeaWorld employees seemed to trivialize the bite.
SeaWorld officials said in a statement they had not seen the video but are taking the matter seriously.
"Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our guests, employees and animals," the statement said. "Educators and animal care staff were at the attraction when this happened and immediately connected with the family."
The Atlanta-area family came to Orlando to visit their family and knew they had to make a stop at the theme park featuring their daughter's favorite animal, said Amy Thomas.
She said they paid $7 each to feed the dolphins fish at the popular attraction after spending regular park admission to get into SeaWorld.
Guests are given instructions not to wear loose jewelry, touch the dolphin's head and under no circumstances, move the paper tray holding the fish from the edge of the pool.
"I am such an overprotective parent that if I knew my child might get bitten, I would not have even let my daughter do this," Amy Thomas said. "But I felt safe. Everyone just imagines dolphins as smiling, non-biting animals with knobby teeth. You forget these are wild animals."
She doesn't remember what the signs at the attraction said but warned her son, 5-year-old James, to be careful just moments before his sister was attacked.
Jillian was happily tossing the scraps of fish into the awaiting mammal's mouth when she instinctively lifted the plate to indicate she was done. That's when the dolphin lept out of the water, the video shows.
The animal's mouth shut around the girl's hand, pulling her toward the water and then, it let go.
It was the second time that day her daughter had visited the dolphin cove and Jillian may have forgotten the rules in her excitement, her mother said.
"The second it happened, one of the employees came over to Jillian to ask her if she had a positive experience and realized she was bleeding," Amy Thomas said. "[Jillian] made a mistake but you can't hold a minor responsible for that."
A first-aid provider treated Jillian's wounds and asked if she had had a tetanus shot but her parents were told they had no reason to worry.
SeaWorld officials confirmed that a member of their health-services team treated Jillian, assuring that "educators and animal care staff were at the attraction when this happened and immediately connected with the family," according to a statement.
They expected a manager to talk to them but they were given ice and a bandage, the family said.
"It was strange how they downplayed the whole thing," Thomas said. "At the time, we thought we were at fault but these are children. We just want other parents to know the dangers."
When he asked employees whether bites occurred frequently, they replied that it was rare.
In 2006, two adults had to pry open a dolphin's mouth to free a 7-year-old from its grip. It bit the boy and bruised his hand but SeaWorld authorities at the time told the Orlando Sentinel they were confident with the attraction's setup and would not change anything.
The bite was the second time a dolphin had bitten a child in three weeks in 2006.
Amy Thomas said the gravity of the bite sunk in after she returned home and did some research about the bacteria inside the mouths of marine mammals. Some, she said, are harmful to humans.
Jillian did not get an infection but she was melancholic for a few days. She worried the dolphin was might be hurt after eating the paper plate in her hand and she prayed for it, her mother said.
The aspiring dolphin trainer's love for the animal hasn't relented but her parents said for now, Jillian won't be getting too close - at least not at SeaWorld.
The family said they don't plan taking any legal action against the theme park but would like officials to either raise the age for children participating in the attraction and remind parents that dolphins bite.
"I'm just thankful it wasn't worse," Amy Thomas said.
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