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article imageOp-Ed: SeaWorld is slapped again by OSHA for repeat violation

By Elizabeth Batt     Jun 11, 2013 in Business
Orlando - It's been three years since Dawn Brancheau was mercilessly killed by SeaWorld's bull orca -- Tilikum. Yet despite four human deaths, the marine park still allows dangerous interactions between its whales and trainers. Last Friday, OSHA spanked them again.
David Kirby, author of the book Death At SeaWorld, was the first to break the story yesterday at Kirby said:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a "repeat violation" and a fine of $38,500 against SeaWorld Florida for ignoring a federal court order and continuing to run a workplace with "recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees in that employees were exposed to struck-by and drowning hazards."
Following Brancheau's death, a Federal judge ruled that trainers must be protected from orcas during showtimes by a physical barrier. SeaWorld removed its trainers from the water, but is still allowing close interaction between the whales and trainers on the slideout section of the pool during shows.
OSHA's concern was valid. This is an example of a stuck-by hazard:
Nobody was seriously hurt, but the potential for injury is undeniable.
OSHA criticism
Kirby's article was also posted at, and criticism of OSHA swiftly followed. Here is just a small sample:
"The trainers know the risk they are taking when cozying up next to the killer whales. If they didn't want to do it, they wouldn't."
"Can you imagine OSHA telling a vet or farmer that they can't be within 5 feet of a horse's hoofs without a barrier? Stupid!"
Someone else mentioned hogs, and then there was this comment:
"This is beyond ridiculous. OSHA has grossly overstepped its bounds, and they are only furthering this in order to spite SeaWorld. These trainers are highly skilled and trained, and they are with these whales voluntarily. Working with any animal of any size is a risk, but it is one these trainers willingly take because they love these animals. Being an animal trainer is not the only job that has risk."
Examining the potential
What if, you were a trainer who worked with a killer whale and was never told about its violent history?
What if, OSHA had warned SeaWorld about how dangerous swimming with killer whales could be years before Dawn Brancheau's death?
What if, your son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother didn't come home and their employer errantly blamed them for their own death, knowing there were two previously similar incidents involving the same whale?
What if, while you were being brutally killed by a 12,000 lb animal, the company could not rescue you, yet waited 27 minutes to call emergency services?
What if, the investigation into your loved-one's death was so mismanaged that key witnesses ended up having to contact authorities with evidence?
What if, there was a list of 106 recorded incidents between orcas and trainers at parks around the world with the majority of them occurring at SeaWorld facilities -- some of them during dry work?
Would you still say that OSHA was 'stupid?'
All of the 'what ifs' listed above are actually documented
Tilikum arrived from Vancouver with a history; one the corporation knew of, and yet failed to pass on to its staff, said former SeaWorld trainer and co-founder of Voice of the Orcas, Samantha Berg.
Berg, who appeared on the CBS Early Show shortly after Brancheau's death, said:
My understanding of the animal's past was very limited. In fact, there had been 30 incidents between killer whales and trainers prior to my being hired at the park. And I didn't know about any of them until after I left SeaWorld. So I think that's a serious mistake on SeaWorld's part that they weren't letting people know the history of all the animals.
Tilikum's import (he was involved in killing Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1991), was even queried by NOAA. The National Marine Fishery Services (NMFS) concerned about the permit application asked SeaWorld in a letter (dated Dec. 17, 1991), if the corporation had considered the tragic incident at Sealand, and what actions it would take to prevent a reoccurrence prior to and after, acquiring Tilikum.
SeaWorld said, "we are generally familiar" with the circumstances surrounding the accidental death of Byrne, but we do "not have any of Sealand's reports in this matter." The marine park blamed the incident on "poor pool design" not relevant to SeaWorld facilities.
In a follow-up letter on Jan. 14, 1992, Anne Terbush of NMFS again urged SeaWorld to, "obtain and closely examine all relevant reports," believing the Sealand incident to be "a significant enough event," that it warranted attention.
Again, SeaWorld insisted that their facilities were safe and the incident remained specific to Sealand. SeaWorld labeled the attack an accident, despite conflicting news reports by both the Seattle Times and a PBS Frontline report, which showed the orcas' willful intent to keep Byrne in the pool with them.
In 1999, Tilikum was implicated in the death of Daniel Dukes.
In 2007, there was a Cal/OSHA investigation into an attack by Kasatka, a female orca at SeaWorld San Diego. In 2006, Kenneth "Petey" Peters, suffered serious injury after he was bitten and dragged underwater during a performance. The OSHA report, which Digital Journal has obtained a copy of, described how other "trainers have been bitten, rammed, dragged to the bottom of the pool and held underwater."
The video of Peters' attack was released by Kirby last year via the Huffington Post. It would never have been released but for the OSHA investigation.
The subsequent Cal/OSHA investigation reached a prophetic conclusion:
The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn't been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen.
The agency then rescinded its report after SeaWorld complained. For silencing the warning bell, two more trainers would die. Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld orca at Loro Parque in Tenerife, just two months before Brancheau was killed by Tilikium.
Trainer error attributed to Dawn's death
According to The Orca Project (TOP):
Through their recounting of that tragic day, virtually every news outlet, press release, and article written about her death portrayed the attack and initial take-down of Dawn as a “ponytail grab” and subsequent drowning.
They couldn’t be more wrong. The preponderance of evidence indicates that Dawn was not pulled in by her ponytail but instead was dragged into the water by her arm.
Photos at TOP may dispute SeaWorld's theory, but SeaWorld's version was accepted as the truth. It is a method often employed by animal parks because it conveniently shifts the burden, onto the shoulders of trainers.
As to why SeaWorld took so long to call emergency services after Dawn was grabbed is worth debating. Her body was noted as lifeless at 7 minutes, and yet the 911 call was still chillingly around 19 minutes from being forwarded to the Sheriff's office.
Of equal importance, is that prior to her death, Dawn Brancheau was positioned on a slideout -- a shallow ledge with limited water. Yet despite the attack on her, SeaWorld is still allowing trainers to interact with whales in this manner.
The investigation
During the investigation into Brancheau's death by Orange County Sheriff's Office (OCSO) -- (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), several discrepancies and strange incidents occurred:
By the time OCSO was on scene, many of the "public" witnesses had been escorted away by SeaWorld.
OCSO reported that witnesses were moved to an area called The Terrace (a dining area), for questioning. Those in attendance at The Terrace were all SeaWorld employees, bar one, Susan DeWitt, a visiting tourist from the Netherlands.
One female witness from Vermont who observed the incident, said she saw Tilikum impact Brancheau "squarely in the chest." She was never escorted to The Terrace, but "out of the area" by SeaWorld staff. The witness finally gave her sworn statement to OSCO after contacting them, two days after the incident.
OSCO's Investigative Report: Case Number 2010-016715 into the death of Dawn Brancheau listed 41 interviews conducted by OCSO. All but three of them were conducted with employees of SeaWorld. Only two interviews came from guests.
Visitors to the Dine with Shamu show are required to make reservations and sign-in upon arrival. Yet neither of these lists were provided by SeaWorld to OSCO, and OSCO never requested them.
Todd and Suzanne Connell along with 10-year-old Bobby were at Shamu Stadium watching Dawn Brancheau feed Tilikum when the incident occurred. They captured the event on video and offered the film to SeaWorld for review. Remarkably, SeaWorld refused the footage saying that they had cameras of their own.
Whales and horses and hogs
The differences between killer whales and horses or hogs is self evident. Working with horses and hogs requires them to be at least, partially domesticated. Killer whales are one of the ocean's top predators.
Orca Home possesses a list of known orca attacks on trainers that date back to the 1960s. It isn't a full list by any means, SeaWorld acknowledged during the OSHA hearing that it might have forgotten to log a few. Still, there are 106 trainer-orca incidents on record.
While orcas can be somewhat trained, they work primarily for food rewards. Throw in their intelligence level and it can make for some dicey situations. Former 14-year veteran SeaWorld trainer -- John Hargrove, talked about some of these situations in this fantastic interview at Radio Free Palmer. The complex inner-workings of an orca's mind are both fascinating and terrifying.
While it is worthy to note that there are no known reports of killer whales attacking humans in the wild (only in captivity), moderate common sense should tell you never to approach a predator without some form of protection.
Dawn Brancheau had a wetsuit and a bucket of fish.
Her autopsy report is eye-opening.
Voice of the Orcas
Tilikum had broken Brancheau’s jaw, broken her neck, dislocated one of her elbows and torn part of her scalp "forcibly" from her head. The orca then swam around for some time with several of Dawn's body parts, primarily her arm and hair in his mouth. Brancheau's arm was torn off and was attached only by her wetsuit. When scissors were used to cut the suit, it freed only her body. Her arm had to be retrieved afterwards.
If this was your loved-one, would you be as flippant?
Given the history, I'd be inclined to give OSHA, the benefit of the doubt. If they didn't have a case then a federal judge would not have ruled on it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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