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SeaWorld vs. OSHA – Day One

The question: Whose fault was the death of Dawn Brancheau

In a central Florida court today, SeaWorld met OSHA (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration) to defend itself against the charge of “willful neglect” leading to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau last year when killer whale Tilikum dragged her into the water and brutally killed her.

Main points from the day:

In his opening, OSHA attorney John Black said, “Killer whales are large, powerful and non-domesticated animals. They have the potential to cause serious physical harm or death to people who get near them.”

SeaWorld argued that Brancheau’s death was an isolated tragedy, and that Tilikum had never given any indication that he would attempt to pull someone into his tank. (He had already, in fact, killed two other people.)

OSHA is pressing for trainers to be prohibited from swimming with killer whales during their shows, which would seriously undermine the whole circus event. SeaWorld argues that you can’t separate the work of the trainers during the shows from their work in the water outside of the shows. Training manager Kelly Flaherty Clark testified that the death of two whales in the time since the death of Brancheau was at least partially due to the fact that trainers couldn’t get in the water to work with them as they had always done before.

“Tilikum had never given us any indication that he would pull somebody into the water with him,” Flaherty Clark said.

She was questioned for four hours. Observers said she left the court in tears.

OSHA attorney Black noted that trainers are required to sign a quasi-waiver recognizing the inherent risk of working with killer whales. “SeaWorld trains its trainers how to recognize and how to avoid potential risk. And then, in effect, it tells them, ‘Be careful,’” he said. He characterized the waiver as a woefully thin line of defense.

While not actively accusing Brancheau of being at fault, SeaWorld keeps suggesting that the way she was bobbing her head at Tilikum, with her hair waving from side to side, distracted the orca, and that he joined in the “game” and what followed was a terrible accident.

Not so, say other observers. Brancheau, a very experienced trainer, was doing nothing different from what she always did. And Tilikum didn’t grab her ponytail, as SeaWorld has been saying; he grabbed her by the body.

This was taken up in the evening CNN when Anderson Cooper interviewed author and journalist David Kirby and former killer whale trainer Carol Ray. Kirby refuted SeaWorld’s version of what happened, and said that the video of the attack, which SeaWorld has been fighting hard to keep under wraps, makes clear that the attack was brutal and purposeful.

“You can’t blame a killer whale for killing,” he said.

See also: SeaWorld Goes on Trial
Background: Facts about Killer Whales in Captivity