A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

SeaWorld Goes on Trial

Is it time to bring the Shamu sham to an end?

On Monday morning, 19 months after killer whale Tilikum dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau to her death, SeaWorld Orlando will be in court to fight charges of having committed “willful” safety violations.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration wants to fine SeaWorld $75,000. That may be a mere parking ticket for the $1.2 billion-a-year business. But a “willful” safety violation is OSHA’s most severe classification, and if the judge upholds the decision, it could be very difficult for SeaWorld to put humans back in the water with orcas like Tilikum.

That would mean no more stunts with humans riding around circus pools on the noses of these animals.

No wonder the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions said it is “monitoring” SeaWorld’s case. No wonder Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo says he’s “concerned about the outcome,” admitting that it may harm “our business.”

This morning, Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer and now a severe critic of SeaWorld, told CBS News that when she was employed by SeaWorld she had no idea of how dangerous orcas like Tilikum could be to humans in captivity. (In the wild, by comparison, there’s only ever been one case of a human being attacked – most likely a case of mistaken identity because the orca immediately released them.)

“Knowing what I know now, there’s no way I would get in the water with a killer whale,” Berg said.

Noting that Brancheau was the third person that Tilikum has killed, Berg added that it’s just not possible to put captive killer whales, who are used to roaming hundreds of miles in the ocean, together with humans in the confines of a SeaWorld pool.

“They’re being forced to perform five times a day for dead fish [in exchange] for tricks,” she said. “It’s time to stop the shows. It’s time to stop forcing these animals to perform in what is basically a circus environment. They should release the animals that are young enough and healthy enough to be released. And the animals like Tilikum who are old and sick and have put in 25 years in the industry should be released to an open ocean pen so they can live out their lives and just experience the natural rhythms of the ocean.”

Here’s the interview on the CBS Early Show:

OSHA is also in possession of video footage showing the brutal death of Brancheau, and the trainer’s family has been trying to prevent that video from being released. But on Thursday U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Presnell rejected the family’s motion for an injunction, ruling that their legal argument was “murky, to put it mildly.”

Ken Welsch, the administrative judge who will preside over the hearings, has said the video will not be shown in court. But OSHA has received lots of requests through the Freedom of Information Act. So, sooner or later, the videos will be released, leading to edited versions being shown on the major media and complete versions, no doubt, on the Internet.

Those who saw the attack when it happened and those who have seen the videos say it was ferocious and gruesome – totally giving the lie to the pretense by SeaWorld that these huge animals live happy, contented lives in their pools.

The hearing is expected to last a week. And it will probably be weeks or months before the judge gives a ruling. If OSHA prevails, that ruling could effectively prevent SeaWorld trainers from swimming with the orcas ever again. It could also open the door to civil lawsuits.

And even if the judge rules that this was not a “willful” violation, the writing is now on the wall for SeaWorld.

Expect the disturbing video of Brancheau’s death to be released. Expect more ex-trainers to speak out. (Berg is due to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN this week.) Expect current SeaWorld employees to blow the whistle, too.

Orcas are the apex predators of the oceans – more so even than great white sharks. Their place in the ecosystem is critical to the lives of other ocean animals since they ensure the health and vitality of other species. They are highly intelligent, and to watch a SeaWorld trainer toying with them and getting them to bounce back and forth in exchange for a dead fish is simply grotesque.

SeaWorld wanted its audience to believe that Tilikum was enjoying himself being played with in the way. What the audience saw, last year, was a frustrated, enraged captive wild animal finally snapping and going berserk.

For the sake of the people who are placed in harm’s way by SeaWorld, as well as for the sake of these magnificent animals who belong in the ocean, it’s time to bring the Shamu sham to an end.