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Op-Ed: Four deaths not enough, SeaWorld wants trainers back in the water

By Elizabeth Batt     Aug 1, 2013 in Environment
Orlando - Not content with four deaths and numerous injuries to trainers by its killer whales, SeaWorld is rolling out a big shot lawyer in an attempt to get its trainers back into the water with captive orcas.
Four human deaths and 106 recorded attack incidents later, the majority of them occurring at SeaWorld facilities, the corporation is insistent on reintroducing trainer-killer whale interactions at its parks.
According to WKMG Local 6 news, SeaWorld in its fight against OSHA, "recently hired Washington D.C. attorney Eugene Scalia, a former Department of Labor solicitor who happens to be the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia."
Brief legal history
Following the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, the fourth known human death attributed to SeaWorld's killer whales, the park was slapped by citations from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
Discontent with the fines, SeaWorld appealed these citations and took the case to court. After reviewing all of the evidence, a federal judge sided with OSHA and ruled that trainers must be protected from orcas during showtimes by a physical barrier.
SeaWorld complied by removing its trainers from the water but continued to push the envelope by allowing them to interact with the whales on slideout areas. It was in one of these areas that Dawn Brancheau was standing when she was pulled into the water and subsequently killed by the park's prime bull orca, Tilikum.
As a result, last June, OSHA issued a "repeat violation" and a fine of $38,500 against SeaWorld Florida for ignoring the federal court order and for still exposing its employees to, "recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm."
Pushing for waterwork
Despite the smack on the wrist, SeaWorld never faltered, and has now retained Scalia, who just filed a briefing with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., arguing that the company "brings profound public educational benefit."
To work at SeaWorld as a trainer who cares for the animals, performs medical checks on the animals and interacts with the animals, SeaWorld requires no degree. The only mandatory requirements to work as an animal trainer at its parks are SCUBA and CPR certificates, basic first aid, and the ability to pass a swim test. Everything else is taught in-house and on-the-job.
It is a scenario that implies that SeaWorld views itself as the absolute and leading authority on everything orca-related.
Take this statement for example made on SeaWorld's killer whale educational page:
The question of animal intelligence is intriguing. It is extremely difficult, and in many cases misleading, to rate the intelligence of different kinds of animals. It would be inaccurate to quantify or qualify the intelligence of marine mammals, for there is no way known to test and measure such a thing.
So why not fund research into developing such a test to help it understand its own marine mammals better?
It's possibly because these studies already exist and SeaWorld doesn't like the results.
Peer-reviewed research into cetacean intelligence has been available for decades. Conducted by eminent scientists, dolphin intelligence (orcas remember, are members of the dolphin family), has already been established.
For Dr. Diana Reiss, a researcher who has studied self-recognition in captive dolphins, there is no ambiguity. She told the New York Times recently, "I never felt that we should have orcas in captivity," she explained. "I think morally, as well as scientifically, it's wrong," she added.
Put simply, SeaWorld Corporation has developed a penchant for dismissing studies that do not jibe with its own philosophy on captive marine mammals. They even routinely disregard one of the foremost authorities on cetacean brains, neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino.
In 2010, Marino testified at The House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee that not only are the educational programs offered by marine parks woefully inept, they are also fundamentally wrong.
As for research, the corporation does fund some studies through its "non-profit SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund (SWBGCF)." Funding it through the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, means that when the marine mammal park grants money to others, the cash can be primarily gleaned through government grants and public donations.
This excellent piece at The Orca Project (TOP) website offers a far more in depth analysis and overview of SeaWorld's grant program. It essentially states:
In the past 10 years alone, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ... has awarded SeaWorld (and Hubbs-SeaWorld) almost $2 Million dollars in grants. The for-profit SeaWorld continues to take in billions off the backs of killer whales and dolphins in captivity and contributes little to their protection in the wild.
And as it stands, it allows SeaWorld to claim it is widely active in a variety of conservation programs.
SeaWorld plays to public ignorance
By positioning itself as the foremost authority on all things cetacean-related, SeaWorld deftly pirouettes on an arrogant pedestal. This pedestal in turn, perched on a financially-driven soapbox, teeters precariously on a mountaintop of public gullibility.
When the perceptive American author and humorist Mark Twain said, "All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure," he was obviously not referring to SeaWorld, but he could have been. If public opinion can be swayed, it is easier to fool the masses, even when spouting some prize bloopers.
Unhappy over the rave reviews received by the movie Blackfish, a documentary that examines the park's operations and treatment of its killer whales, SeaWorld recently issued their own response to the movie. In an highly unusual move, the company's PR firm fired off an e-mail to film critics that said:
"Tilikum did not attack Dawn."
In an almost immediate response, author David Kirby reacted to the statement by describing Dawn Brancheau's last moments:
Tilikum grabbed her once again and pulled her under. He would not release his trophy. He swam around the pool rapidly with Dawn in his mouth. At one point, when he dove again to the bottom, her motionless body drifted up toward the surface. Tilikum swam to the opposite end of the pool, turned around and charged at Dawn once again. He gained speed as he approached, and then rammed her body head-on for the third time.
Kirby, who had based his observations on Brancheau's autopsy report, wrote in his book, Death at SeaWorld:
Dawn had sustained multiple blunt force injuries of the head and neck, including: the avulsion (ripping away) of the scalp and associated bleeding of the skull area, lacerations of the right ear, abrasions of the left cheek, fracture of the mandible (lower jaw) with associated laceration and hemorrhaging of the oral cavity, fracture of a cervical vertebra, bleeding from the spinal cord outer membrane and softening of the spinal cord.
Blunt force injuries of the torso included abrasions of the left upper back, fractures of three ribs, fracture of the sternum, lacerations of the liver and blood in the abdominal cavity. There were also abrasions, lacerations and contusions (bruises) of the arms and legs, a complete tearing away of the left arm and dislocation of the left elbow and left knee.
But according to SeaWorld, "Tilikum did not attack Dawn."
With their new brief now filed, the park is advocating for a return to water work. SeaWorld argues:
Interacting with nature is not without risk—not when mountain climbing or kayaking, not when sailing or swimming in the ocean, not when visiting our national parks. On rare occasions, killer whales can be dangerous. SeaWorld has taken extraordinary measures to control that risk. But it cannot eliminate it while facilitating the interaction between humans and whales that is integral to its mission.
Mountain climbing, kayaking, sailing, swimming and visiting national parks are hobbies for most people. These leisure activities are rarely demanded by employers and the individual retains an element of control over their environments. But how many of these 'hobbyists' would consider getting into the water with an apex predator that can decide on a whim when to break and go 'off behavior'?
When animals are placed in captivity, can this still be considered natural? Or is this forced community of mishmash orca ecotypes now an 'artificial' environment? One that in the wild, would never 'naturally' occur, because scientists know, that different ecotypes do not like to mix?
Shouldn't SeaWorld know that already?
On the contrary, the company's attorneys are instead casting blame. OSHA, they said, does not have the expertise in marine mammal care to prohibit close contact between its trainers and animals. Well OSHA certainly knew enough to recognize that throughout history, no human deaths have ever been attributed to killer whales in the wild, only in captivity.
Throughout this case, OSHA has received its fair share of criticism for its refusal to relax the rules, but it is currently the only government agency (or any agency), taking a stand against the deaths attributed to SeaWorld orcas. OSHA knows, these deaths could have been avoided.
So why did these killer whales attack their trainers?
Killer whales throughout history
In How Stuff Works, Jacob Silverman writes about the origins of the moniker "killer whale." It "probably began," he said, "with sailors and whalers calling orcas whale killers. At some point -- perhaps through an error in translation -- it got switched around to killer whale."
Ethan Morris in 'Why Killer Whales Don’t Eat People: Where Science and Legend Meet', also explained:
Killer whales seem to follow rules that go beyond basic instinct and border on culture. Individual pods forage, communicate and navigate differently, much the way different cultures of people do. Researchers have witnessed "greeting ceremonies" between pods. They’ve even seen the equivalent of a funeral. It may very well be that within "orca culture" there is a social norm not to go after people.
Morris added, "trainers at places like SeaWorld say very little goes into orca training. The whales seem to understand people, and are eager to cooperate and create bonds." But in the wild, Morris argued, "it's clear that ... orcas seem to have a pretty universal rule: don’t attack humans."
This universal rule cannot be applied to captive orcas. So alongside OSHA, shouldn't other intelligent people be asking why?
More importantly, shouldn't SeaWorld be asking why?
Perhaps if SeaWorld invested its money to discover why captive orcas attacked their trainers instead of funding lawyers, its brief might have some validity. Absent query into the four separate deaths and more than 100 attacks on trainers, SeaWorld prefers to push its people back into the water and 'hope' that these 'scientifically untrained' employees, will have the ability to judge when an orca might attack them.
In retrospect, although fishermen may have errantly awarded the killer whale its moniker because of how they capture their food, SeaWorld has now earned the unfortunate distinction of forcing these cetaceans to live up to their names.
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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