SeaWorld bills itself as an amusement park, but its business practices are anything but amusing. The company imprisons wild animals in cramped tank environments, forcing them to perform tricks for the entertainment of guests. But few members of the cheering audience realize there’s a dark side to the industry.
SeaWorld’s mascot is Shamu, a fictional orca. These massive creatures weren’t dubbed “killer whales” for nothing: they are capable of sudden, viscous attacks — a behavior that keeps them safe and well fed in the wild, but is viewed with horror when it occurs in our world.
In 2010, Tilikum, a captive orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, suddenly grabbed her trainer, Dawn Brancheau, shook her around like a rag doll, and pulled her under water, where she drowned. At the time, SeaWorld staff tried to claim that Tilly was playing, and didn’t know any better, but there are lots of good reasons to think that the attack was motivated by rage at her long-term imprisonment.
While animal rights advocates continue to fight for the release of orcas, dolphins and other marine creatures held captive by SeaWorld, a new disturbing detail of the saga has come to light.
An investigation by wildlife expert and Death At SeaWorld author David Kirby recently confirmed that SeaWorld is secretly fighting an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ban on trainer/orca interaction during “Shamu” show segments.
In-water work–where trainers swim with, ride upon, and rocket from the powerful predators–with the orcas was declared a safety hazard and forbidden by OSHA in a citation issued by that agency after the tragic 2010 incident. The ruling was upheld by a federal judge and a Labor Department commission in late spring 2012, but like its continued disregard for animal safety, SeaWorld seems more concerned with losing money than protecting trainers.
Since the 2010 killing of Brancheau, SeaWorld “still allowed its trainers to keep in close contact with the whales—except Tilikum—during “dry work,” which is typically performed on stage or in special “slide out” areas, where trainers embrace, kiss and caress the animals,” writes Kirby.
In response, OSHA Chief inspector Lara Padgett issued a citation for SeaWorld’s “willfull” violations, writing that trainers were “exposed to struck-by and drowning hazards in that they were allowed to engage in ‘waterwork’ or ‘drywork,’ ” without proper protection. But still they continue. And now we find out that the powerful corporation is working behind closed doors to broker its own deal with the Agency.
The precise subject matter of the discussions was not disclosed, but a source close to the case—and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act—indicate that SeaWorld wants to keep trainers in contact with the whales during certain “Shamu” show segments.
“The government’s position was strong,” Dr. David Duffus, the government’s expert witness at the Brancheau trial, told TakePark. “I hope OSHA won’t give any leeway on this. If they do, they will really be compromising trainer safety. Any time a killer whale can actually make contact with you, you are not safe. It is complete arrogance on SeaWorld’s part to suggest otherwise.”
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