By Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - The SeaWorld killer whale that drowned his trainer in 2010 in Orlando, Florida, was known for refusing to let go of objects he found in his pool, a senior trainer said on Tuesday in a federal hearing.
But a SeaWorld executive, in the same hearing, defended the safety of close human contact with killer whales and noted that the company had recorded just one other trainer death before Dawn Brancheau was drowned in front of park guests in 2010.
SeaWorld is challenging federal safety charges against the resort that stem from the drowning of 40-year-old Brancheau, who was pulled underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca bull, in front of park guests.
The most serious charge leveled by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is classified as a "willful violation," meaning SeaWorld showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."
The theme park company faces a $75,000 fine. More importantly, SeaWorld might be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, company lawyer Carla Gunnin had said in her opening statement on Monday.
Performances at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium long featured iconic moments of trainers surfing on the backs of killer whales and getting launched from the whales' snouts. But SeaWorld trainers have not performed or interacted in the water with killer whales since Brancheau's death, with one exception in a medical emergency, Gunnin said.
Senior trainer Lynne Schaber, called to testify by federal lawyers at the hearing in Sanford, outside of Orlando, said trainers had to receive special approval from management to work with and touch Tilikum.
A separate section of the trainers' handbook was devoted specifically to Tilikum because "we did not get in the water with him," Schaber said.
"Tilikum displayed behavior that he did not return objects in the pool ... I could assume, possibly understand, that it could include people," Schaber said.
SEAWORLD DEFENDS CONTACT
SeaWorld corporate animal curator John Tompkins defended close interaction with killer whales, testifying that trainers were able, because of their training and experience, to predict the killer whales' behavior "to a very high degree."
In the two decades before Brancheau's death, Tompkins said trainers filed 101 reports about episodes in which they thought a whale might become aggressive.
Of those reports, 12 involved trainer injuries. One death occurred in December 2009 at Loro Parque in Spain, which is not owned by SeaWorld but uses SeaWorld whales, trainers and training procedures.
After investigating the 2009 death, which was attributed to human error, the company did not believe an overhaul in safety measures was needed, Tompkins said.
"We didn't feel like we needed to make radical changes," Tompkins said. "It's human error. It doesn't mean the process broke down."
Tompkins and other SeaWorld employees testified that trainers are taught to recognize "precursors to aggression" to protect themselves from physical harm.
On Monday, SeaWorld Orlando animal curator Kelly Flaherty Clark testified that Tilikum gave no indication that he would act aggressively toward Brancheau, one of the Orlando theme parks most experienced trainers, before he pulled her to her death.
Federal lawyer John Black had said in his opening statement on Monday that SeaWorld's primary method of protecting its trainers from killer whales was to teach them how to recognize visual cues indicating an animal might turn aggressive.
"Relying primarily on training the trainers to be careful leaves gaps," Black told administrative judge Ken Welsch, who is presiding over the hearing.
The proceedings are expected to last a week, and a final ruling could be months away.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)