SeaWorld Orlando Fined $75K in Trainer's Death

By R. Stickney
|  Monday, Aug 23, 2010  |  Updated 10:04 PM PDT
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SeaWorld Orlando Fined $75K in Trainer's Death

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SeaWorld Orlando Fined $75K in Trainer's Death

The government report calls into question the park's human-animal interaction.
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SeaWorld’s park in Florida has been fined $75,000 for three safety violations that led to the death of a trainer by a killer whale.

SeaWorld Orlando is similar to the SeaWorld San Diego park in that audience members watch shows where killer whales go through routines to music.

On Monday the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the citation stating that the Orlando park was responsible for three safety violations which led to a six-ton killer whale grabbing a trainer and pulling her into the water on February 24.

One of the three violations is considered "willful," or shows indifference or intentional disregard for employee safety. The willful citation was given for exposing workers to drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment posted a statement on its blog stating the park disagrees with the OSHA fines, calling the allegations "unfounded."

Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau died when a killer whale grabbed her hair and dragged her into a pool during what was described as a relationship session.

The death happened as a noontime show was winding down, with some in the audience staying to watch the animals and trainers.

One witness described what happened as Brancheau was on a platform massaging the whale. The whale "pulled her under and started swimming around with her" according to the witness. An alarm sounded and staff rushed the audience out of the stadium as workers scrambled around with nets.

The whale involved in the attack was also involved in the 1991 death of an animal trainer in a separate park in Vancouver.

“In addition to the history with this whale, the OSHA investigation revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando,” the OSHA release stated.

SeaWorld argues that its killer whale program is a model for marine zoological facilities and has launched an internal review of its program by an independent committee made up of marine mammal experts from around the world. According to SeaWorld, that panel's conclusions "are in stark contrast to OSHA's."

SeaWorld San Diego canceled its whale shows the day after Brancheau's death. The shows resumed three days later without trainers in the water.

For now, trainers will stay out of the water while the company implements changes suggested from its independent panel. What is not clear is if those changes comply with OSHA's suggestion that trainers not not play with killer whales, either in the water or out of water, unless they are protected by a barrier or deck.

"In facilities that house wild animals, employers need to assess the animals under their care and to minimize human-animal interaction if there is no safe way to reliably predict animal behavior under all conditions," said Les Grove, OSHA’s area director.

Two "serious" citations were also given, including one for failing to install a stairway railing system beside the stage in Shamu Stadium at the Orlando location.

SeaWorld plans to fight the OSHA citations.

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