​SeaWorld Contact Ban: SeaWorld “Willfully” Violated Laws

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November 13, 2013

SeaWorld is fighting a new ban in federal court keeping contact between killer sables and their trainers apart, which was imposed after a bull orca drowned a worker during one its primary marine park attractions, according to a Nov. 13 report by NewsMax.

SeaWorld argues that the Labor Department judge went too far when he place a ban to prohibit “close contact” between the killer whales and their keepers after the Feb. 24, 2010, death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Brancheau died after Tilikum yanked her from a platform into a pool during the “Dine with Shamu” show and thrashed her until she drowned. The whale has contact with Brancheau in his mouth for nearly 45 minutes before other trainers could extricate her body.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Brancheau’s death and cited SeaWorld for “willfully” violating federal safety laws that require a workplace to be free from “recognized hazards” and away from dangerous contact.

Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest whale at 12,000 pounds, had killed at least once before coming to SeaWorld. In that incident at a park in Canada in 1991, a trainer slipped into a pool and Tilikum pulled her under repeatedly, drowning her. In a second incident, a man who sneaked into the park after closing was found dead in Tilikum’s pool after having contact with the whale.

The federal government says SeaWorld knows Tilikum is dangerous and prohibits trainers from working in water more than knee-deep with the animal. With other whales, trainers can swim in their pools. SeaWorld’s trainers have dozens of close interactions daily with the park’s seven killer whales.

Although Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch downgraded the citation from “willful” to “serious,” he fined the marine amusement park $7,000 and barred “close contact” between SeaWorld staff and killer whales.

The judge found that the “emotions inspired by the grandeur of humans interacting with killer whales” did not justify the risk.

SeaWorld, which is represented in court by Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, argues in a legal brief that human contact with the killer whales is educational, integral to the care of the whales and answers “an elemental human desire to know, understand and interact with the natural world.”

Many activities that put humans in contact with nature, such as mountain climbing or kayaking, carry risk, SeaWorld argues. The law requires the theme park to minimize risks, not eliminate them, court papers say.