In 2010, a Labor Department judge placed a ban on "close contact" between killer whales and their trainers after SeaWorld's largest bull orca drowned one of veteran trainers that Februrary. Now, on Tuesday, the Orlando-based park is challenging that ban in the U.S. Court of Appeals, asserting that the park can manage the risks associated with these enormous carnivores without having to shut down its central attraction.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau was held underwater for almost 45 minutes by the park's 12,000-pound orca Tilikum in 2010. The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration subsequently determined that SeaWorld had "willfully" violated federal safety laws requiring a workplace free of "recognized hazards."
The park operator was fined $75,000, but SeaWorld appealed the decision last year and reduced the fine to $12,000, also reducing the charge to “serious” from "willful." Still, the judge found that "emotions inspired by the grandeur of humans interacting with killer whales" do not justify the risk, and the ban was upheld.
On Tuesday, Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, represented SeaWorld with the argument that human contact with killer whales is educational, showcasing "an elemental human desire to know, understand and interact with the natural world."
Tilikum was the subject of the documentary film Blackfish that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and grossed $2 million. Also aired on CNN, the film is extremely critical of SeaWorld's treatment of killer whales.