A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

SeaWorld vs. OSHA – Day Four

It’s still about the ponytail

Tilikum at SeaWorld in 2009. (The collapsed dorsal fin is one of the effects of captivity.)

On Thursday, witnesses at the hearing that pits SeaWorld against the Occupation Safety & Health Administration were once again focusing on how exactly killer whale Tilikum pulled trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water before killing her.

Jay Topoleski, a former trainer who was acting as Dawn Brancheau’s “spotter” on the day she was killed, testified that he saw her struggling with both hands to free her ponytail from Tilikum’s mouth.

SeaWorld has repeatedly claimed that Brancheau’s hair drifted into his mouth, causing him to react. And this version of events puts more of the blame on the trainer, less on SeaWorld, and makes it overall more of an accident. Other witnesses have said they saw him grab her arm, which makes what happened a deliberate attack by a fundamentally dangerous animal.

What we know for sure is that once Tilikum had her in his grip, he was not about to let go. SeaWorld’s own profile of the orca states:

And OSHA’s description of the attack says that:

“Underwater footage shows the brutal predatory behavior of the killer whale. The decedent made two unsuccessful attempts to escape with her efforts thwarted by the 12,000 pound whale striking her head-on. On the second attempt, it appears that she actually made it to the surface before being pulled back under water. After about 8 minutes of her being pulled around the pool you see her lifeless body floating to the surface. The whale turns, gains speed and strikes her for a third time, head-on. The decedent was scalped and her arm was severed. The autopsy report states the cause of death as drowning and traumatic injuries.”

This is savage stuff and neither an accident nor the mistaken behavior of an orca who was simply playing with his trainer.

(Compare the fact that there is not a single case on record of a killer whale ever having killed a human in the wild, and only one known case of a human being attacked. That one was considered a case of mistaken identity since the whale immediately let go.)

Another witness, trainer Sharon Groves, who has recently been transferred from the killer whale side of SeaWorld Orlando to its sea lion and otter unit, was called by OSHA to testify about the warnings that SeaWorld gives its staff about working with orcas. Groves was one of the first to respond to the emergency alarm when Brancheau was pulled into the water, and when she was shown a photo of herself working with Tilikum, she broke down in tears.

At the end of the day, Judge Welsch said the proceedings, which were due to end on Friday, would need to be extended, and will reconvene in October or November.

Finally, once again, here’s Anderson Cooper’s nightly discussion with author/journalist David Kirby, who has been in court every day:

See also SeaWorld vs. OSHA – Day Three and A Real Killer Education.