SeaWorld fights OSHA findings in trainer's death

MIKE SCHNEIDER - Associated Press

SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — SeaWorld Orlando's policy of relying on trainers to recognize when a killer whale poses a safety threat leaves gaps that can lead to injury or death, a government attorney said Monday in support of safety citations after a trainer's death.

The theme park argued during the hearing that three citations are unfounded. They were issued after trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled underwater by an orca last year and drowned. The park also was fined $75,000. A ruling against SeaWorld could force park officials to change how trainers interact with the whales.

"Whales are large, powerful," said John Black, an attorney for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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 a killer whale named Tilikum grabbed her hair and violently dragged her underwater. The medical examiner said she drowned and suffered traumatic injuries.

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 if attorneys choose to do so.

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 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, "Believe," took place. The citation said a section of the stage without a railing had a 10-foot drop.

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.