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SeaWorld Aware Of Dawn Brancheau’s Ponytail Dangers?

11/18/2011 08:28 AM ET

SeaWorld Ponytail - SeaWorld Curator: Trainer Dawn Brancheau’s Ponytail Likely Caused … but does that mean they were aware of the dangers? The Florida park had chosen to “desensitize” the animals to dangling hair rather than ban it, an employee testified at a federal hearing on Thursday.

The decision came after a trainer from a different SeaWorld park was pulled into the water by a killer whale that grabbed her loose-fitting sweatshirt in 1997, said Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando.

As a result of the sweatshirt incident, the Florida park ordered trainers to wear skin-tight wetsuits around the whales. Recognizing that trainers’ ponytails also were susceptible to being grabbed, the park opted to expose whales daily to the hairstyle to get them accustomed to it, Clark said.

But after the 12,000-pound bull orca Tilikum dragged 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau in a pool and killed her last year, SeaWorld began requiring trainers to secure their hair in buns, Clark said.

Clark’s testimony came during a hearing in which SeaWorld is challenging workplace safety charges filed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The most serious charge is classified as a “willful violation,” meaning SeaWorld showed “plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.”

SeaWorld faces a $75,000 fine and might be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, which traditionally has been the highlight of shows at Shamu Stadium, company lawyer Carla Gunnin said.

The hearing began in September and resumed on Tuesday. Administrative Judge Ken Welsch said he intends to conclude the proceedings this week.

Immediately after Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld stopped allowing trainers to enter pools with killer whales. Clark testified that some close contact with the whales has resumed. She said trainers are allowed to touch whales’ faces while cleaning their teeth and hug the youngest whales without physical barriers.

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