Safety official says SeaWorld put killer whale trainers at risk

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 23, 2011 4:38 PM
Safety official says SeaWorld put killer whale trainers at risk

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - A government safety official said on Friday that Florida's SeaWorld knew it was putting trainers at risk by letting them interact with a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum.

The official cited the amusement park's five-minute "Tilly Talk," in which he said new trainers at Shamu Stadium are told "if you end up in the water with Tilikum, you're going to die."

"Allowing this contact (between killer whales and employees) to proceed or continue was plain indifference," Occupational Safety and Health Administration area director Les Grove said at a federal hearing in Sanford, outside of Orlando.

The testimony came during the fifth day of court proceedings between the Department of Labor's OSHA and SeaWorld, which is challenging safety charges that stem from the 2010 drowning death of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Brancheau was lying on a pool ledge next to Tilikum when the orca bull dragged her into the water in front of park guests and swam around with her for 40-45 minutes.

The most serious charge leveled by OSHA is classified as a "willful violation," meaning SeaWorld showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."

SeaWorld faces a $75,000 fine. Significantly, the park might also be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, company lawyer Carla Gunnin said in her opening statement on Monday.

To make a case for a "willful violation," Grove cited the SeaWorld employee manual, which requires killer whale trainers to sign a statement acknowledging the "calculated risk."

In addition, SeaWorld's incident logs show the company was aware of numerous instances of injuries, close calls and death involving work with killer whales, Grove said.

TILIKUM INVOLVED IN 1991 DEATH

A killer whale expert testified on Friday that there was "no way on earth" he would place himself in close contact with Tilikum.

Whale researcher David Duffus said he was familiar with Tilikum from an investigation the expert led into the 1991 death of trainer Keltie Byrne, who slipped into a whale pen at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia and was grabbed and drowned by Tilikum and two other whales.

The whales held onto 20-year-old Byrne for 90 minutes, Duffus said.

Tilikum was moved in 1992 to SeaWorld Orlando, where Duffus acknowledged more sophisticated training methods have reduced the risk to trainers.

"Twenty years later, a lot has been done, yet I'm reading the same outcome," said Duffus, an associate professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

During several hours of testimony, Duffus was asked repeatedly whether SeaWorld's safety protocols for interaction between trainers and killer whales were sufficient.

"Not under every condition. If the interaction with Tilikum was sufficient under all conditions, we would not be here today," Duffus said.

The hearing was supposed to last a week, but the presiding administrative judge announced that testimony would resume on November 15.

Following the lead of the Humane Society and PETA, representatives of the animal rights group Earthrace attended the hearing on Friday and held a press conference to express opposition to entertainment companies holding whales captive.

"How many people have to die before these places are shut down?" said Earthrace founder Pete Bethune of New Zealand, who made headlines in 2009 when he was imprisoned for five months in Japan after boarding a Japanese whaling ship in protest.

Bethune called the SeaWorld case historic, saying a ruling against the company could reduce the entertainment value of killer whales and thus the trade in the animals.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)