That’s the question being hashed out in a courtroom in Sanford, Florida, and the answer could have a major impact on the future of SeaWorld’s iconic Shamu shows.
The hearing follows an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation into the February 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled into a pool and killed by SeaWorld’s largest orca, Tilikum. After concluding its inquiry, OSHA cited SeaWorld Florida with a “willful” safety violation for “exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.”
SeaWorld appealed OSHA’s citation, and the appeal is being heard by Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch. The hearing began September 19, and after a week of testimony Judge Welsch decided more time was needed to fully explore the issue. The next session, which is expected to conclude the hearing and lead to a decision, begins November 15. The courtroom is open to the public, and the audience has included Dawn Brancheau’s family and her husband, Scott, along with animal-rights activists and journalists.
To defend its citation, OSHA has to convince the judge of two things: 1) SeaWorld’s killer whale practices put trainers in danger, and 2) SeaWorld was aware of the dangers but disregarded them.
To win its appeal, SeaWorld has to convince Judge Welsch that it can manage the risks of having trainers work with killer whales, that it makes every effort to do so, and that Brancheau’s death was an isolated, unforeseeable tragedy.
Where does the case stand? Here’s what went down the first week of the hearing and a preview of what to expect on November 15.
Both OSHA and SeaWorld lawyers and representatives presented evidence on the risks to SeaWorld trainers and how SeaWorld has handled those risks.
1. What were the risks to trainers?
OSHA submitted evidence of some 100 incidents documented by SeaWorld in which killer whales either threatened or harmed trainers. Under questioning from OSHA lawyer John Black, SeaWorld Orlando animal-training curator Kelly Flaherty Clark testified that there are calculated risks involved in working with killer whales and acknowledged that trainers must sign a document that says their safety depends on their own training and skills.