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OSHA questions safety of Shamu shows at SeaWorld

Tilikum performs during a show in March at SeaWorld in Orlando. The killer whale was removed from performances for more than a year after the death of one of its trainers.

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Tilikum performs during a show in March at SeaWorld in Orlando. The killer whale was removed from performances for more than a year after the death of one of its trainers.

SANFORD — In hearings that could ultimately determine the future of SeaWorld's famous Shamu shows, federal lawyers said Monday that the theme park's animal trainers cannot safely work in close contact with killer whales.

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"Killer whales are large, powerful and nondomesticated animals. They have the potential to cause serious physical harm or death to people who get near them," John Black, a U.S. Department of Labor attorney, said during opening arguments in the case, which pits SeaWorld against the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"SeaWorld's killer-whale training program doesn't change the essential facts that harm or death to people is possible," Black said. "Their program doesn't eliminate what SeaWorld itself recognizes as a calculated risk."

Black was arguing in support of safety citations filed after last year's death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled under water by an orca named Tilikum. The park also was fined $75,000. A ruling against SeaWorld could force park officials to change how trainers interact with the whales.

SeaWorld attorney Carla Gunnin told an administrative law judge that the resort has a history of rescuing marine animals and is a leader in marine mammal research. The OSHA attorneys said their citations should apply to performances, but SeaWorld officials contend there is little difference in how trainers interact with the whales in the shows and how they interact behind the scenes.

Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch said his role was not to determine if whales should be held in captivity or if the theme park resort is responsible for the accident, but to decide the merit of the three OSHA citations given to SeaWorld.

About a half-dozen protesters gathered outside with signs that said "Throw the Book at SeaWorld" and "Stop Imprisoning Orcas."

Brancheau died Feb. 24, 2010, when Tilikum grabbed her hair and violently dragged her underwater. The medical examiner said she drowned and suffered traumatic injuries.

SeaWorld has said repeatedly that Tilikum pulled Brancheau into the water by her long ponytail, which drifted into the orca's mouth. But OSHA signaled Monday that it would challenge that statement as this week's hearing unfolds. Some SeaWorld critics have said the evidence suggests Tilikum grabbed her arm.

Brancheau's husband was attending the hearing and was accompanied by attorneys representing the Brancheau family if OSHA chooses to show videos and photos taken during the trainer's death. Family members have argued showing them would be a violation of privacy. A federal judge last week ruled that OSHA may use the images.

The government's only witness Monday, SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Flaherty Clark, testified that in a 25-year review of whale behavior she couldn't find a case, other than Brancheau's death, when there weren't environmental or animal cues that would explain an animal's undesirable behavior. While trainers learn about what to do if they fall into the water with a whale, Clark said she never anticipated Tilikum pulling a trainer into the water.

Under questioning from Black, Clark said trainers sign a document acknowledging their own skills are responsible for their safety. She also conceded there are calculated risks to being a trainer.

"Trainers are trained for different scenarios," Clark said. "You have to recognize everything in the environment. It may be behavior. It may be weather."

The OSHA citations said that SeaWorld:

•Exposed its workers to drowning hazards and the chance of being struck during interactions with killer whales. The agency recommended putting physical barriers between trainers and killer whales.

•Failed to install a stairway railing system on the stage in Shamu Stadium.

•Failed to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in the stadium with weatherproof enclosures.

Information from the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Tilikum. The park also was fined $75,000. A ruling against SeaWorld could force park officials to change how trainers interact with the whales.

SeaWorld attorney Carla Gunnin told an administrative law judge that the resort has a history of rescuing marine animals and is a leader in marine mammal research. The OSHA attorneys said their citations should apply to performances, but SeaWorld officials contend there is little difference in how trainers interact with the whales in the shows and how they interact behind the scenes.

Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch said his role was not to determine if whales should be held in captivity or if the theme park resort is responsible for the accident, but to decide the merit of the three OSHA citations given to SeaWorld.

About a half-dozen protesters gathered outside with signs that said "Throw the Book at SeaWorld" and "Stop Imprisoning Orcas."

Brancheau died Feb. 24, 2010, when Tilikum grabbed her hair and violently dragged her underwater. The medical examiner said she drowned and suffered traumatic injuries.

SeaWorld has said repeatedly that Tilikum pulled Brancheau into the water by her long ponytail, which drifted into the orca's mouth. But OSHA signaled Monday that it would challenge that statement as this week's hearing unfolds. Some SeaWorld critics have said the evidence suggests Tilikum grabbed her arm.

Brancheau's husband was attending the hearing and was accompanied by attorneys representing the Brancheau family if OSHA chooses to show videos and photos taken during the trainer's death. Family members have argued showing them would be a violation of privacy. A federal judge last week ruled that OSHA may use the images at the hearing.

The government's only witness Monday, SeaWorld animal training curator Kelly Flaherty Clark, testified that in a 25-year review of whale behavior she couldn't find a case, other than Brancheau's death, when there weren't environmental or animal cues that would explain an animal's undesirable behavior. While trainers learn about what to do if they fall into the water with a whale, Clark said she never anticipated Tilikum pulling a trainer into the water.

Under questioning from Black, Clark said trainers sign a document acknowledging their own skills are responsible for their safety. She also conceded there are calculated risks to being a trainer.

The first of the three citations by OSHA claimed SeaWorld exposed its workers to drowning hazards and the chance of being struck during interactions with killer whales. The federal agency noted in the citation that Tilikum also was involved in the death of a trainer at a marine park in British Columbia in 1991. The agency recommended putting physical barriers between trainers and killer whales.

The second citation said SeaWorld failed to install a stairway railing system on the stage in Shamu Stadium, where the killer whale show took place.

A third citation said SeaWorld failed to equip outdoor electrical receptacles in Shamu Stadium with weatherproof enclosures.

The hearing is expected to last all week, and the judge isn't expected to issue a ruling until at least 10 days after arguments.

Information from the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press was used in this report.

OSHA questions safety of Shamu shows at SeaWorld 09/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 11:31pm]

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