Danielle Hanna, Global Animal

ORLANDO — Three years after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando theme park, SeaWorld has been fined $38,500 and labeled a repeat offender for continuing to employ trainers in unsafe working conditions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has imposed the fine after a follow-up investigation of the safety procedures at SeaWorld. The drowning of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 by an aggravated whale named Tilikum was certainly not an isolated incident.

Dawn Brancheau swimming with an orca named Nalani in 2009. Photo credit: Barcroft/Fame Pictures
Dawn Brancheau swimming with an orca named Nalani in 2009. Photo credit: Barcroft/Fame Pictures

Tilikum had previously killed two other individuals, including a trainer at a Canadian park in 1991 and an individual who snuck into his tank in 1999. A video of another orca attacking a trainer at SeaWorld San Diego, almost fatally in 2006, was also released last year.

The upcoming documentary entitled Blackfish exposes the dangers and realities of keeping orcas in captivity, highlighting the death of Dawn Brancheau. 

“These are huge and highly intelligent animals.  They should not be in captivity,” said director Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Life in captivity is not adequate for these large wild animals who instinctively hunt their prey. Orcas kept in tanks much smaller than their natural environment and trained to perform random tricks for entertainment purposes commonly threaten or injure trainers as a result of the stress and trauma of being held in captivity. SeaWorld’s corporate records indicate there has been more than 100 such incidents.

The original fine of $12,000 was assessed in the Summer of 2012 following an investigation prompted by Brancheau’s death. Along with the small penalty, OSHA also mandated that SeaWorld install barriers between orcas and trainers and implement a minimum distance between these wild animals and the people who work with them.

Although trainers are no longer allowed to swim in the water with the whales, as they used to in the Shamu show, OSHA’s follow-up inspection in December 2012 found that SeaWorld’s safety policies are still not adequate.

While SeaWorld officials claim trainers are required to stay at least three feet away from orcas if they are kneeling, and at least eighteen inches away from the edge of the pool if standing, trainers are still allowed to pat or rub the whales, as long as they are standing alongside the whale, between the blowhole and tail. OSHA’s lawyers point out that even positioned away from the orca’s mouth, the trainer’s safety essentially relies on the individual’s own judgment.

Footage also revealed trainers hugging and kissing orcas after the minimum distance ruling was put into effect. Lawyers representing OSHA did not accept SeaWorld’s claim that they are compliant with necessary safety measures.

SeaWorld released the following statement:

SeaWorld has received a citation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concerning the manner in which trainers currently interact with killer whales in Orlando. The citation is related to the prior citation that is currently on appeal before the United States District for the D.C. District. The safety of guests and employees and the welfare of animals are SeaWorld’s highest priorities. Since 2010 the company has voluntarily implemented significant changes to the training protocols for its killer whale program that have proven to be safe and effective. OSHA’s enforcement activities and the new citation demonstrate the agency’s continued and fundamental misunderstanding of how to properly and safely care for and work around these animals.”

Although the penalty does very little to prevent the corporation from profiting off the mistreatment of captive animals, it will hopefully bring attention to the issue at hand. While the small fines are not substantial enough to impact the profits of the corporate giant, a lack of visitors to SeaWorld parks certainly would. Families should leave these marine parks out of their vacation plans and refuse to support captivity of wild animals for our entertainment.

Watch the Blackfish trailer below.

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Former SeaWorld Employee Speaks Out About Drowning

Orca Attacks Trainer at SeaWorld

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