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SeaWorld vs. Osha – Day Two

Ponytail theory takes another dive

Will SeaWorld continue to be able to put trainers in harm’s way like this?

A key witness in the dispute between OSHA (the Occupational safety & Health Administration) and SeaWorld testified on Tuesday that from everything he saw, killer whale Tilikum grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau by the arm, not by her ponytail.

This topic has become one of the key elements in the hearing that’s being held in Florida this week.

Fredy Herrera, a SeaWorld security officer who witnessed Brancheau’s death, disputed SeaWorld’s account that the trainer was pulled under the water by her ponytail. He said it looked like she was pulled by her arm from his vantage point across the pool. SeaWorld’s attorneys tried to poke holes in Herrera’s testimony by getting him to admit he could not state his recollection with 100 percent certainty. But there was little doubt about what his certainty, and other witness have confirmed Herrera’s recollection of what happened.

SeaWorld has pressed for video of Tilikum’s death not to be shown in court out of respect to Brancheau’s family. The judge has rejected that request, but OSHA attorneys have not — at least not yet — called for the video to be shown in full.

Since it would be easier for a whale to reach someone’s arm than their hair, Herrera’s account reinforces OSHA’s charge that trainers were exposed to dangerous conditions. And going forward, it would be more difficult for them to design safety measures to keep whales from grabbing an arm because trainers use their hands to feed and direct the animals.

One outcome of the trial could be that SeaWorld will be unable to have trainers in the water with killer whales, which would greatly reduce the entertainment value of their circus shows.

But even if the judge rules that SeaWorld was not guilty of “willful neglect”, as charged by OSHA, the company will still have big problems. There’s more to this than simply legal technicalities.

Just for starters, after all the evidence that’s been presented, including more testimony about other trainers who have been killed and injured in the past, it’s hard to imagine insurance companies wanting to insure SeaWorld against the next disaster. Hard also to imagine Sea World’s attorneys advising the company to get trainers back in the water with killer whales. What happens to them when the next person is killed or injured?

And the publicity from the trial continues to be very damaging to SeaWorld. Most of the reports focus not only on the human side of things, but on the fact that killer whales like Tilikum simply don’t belong in captivity.

Here’s just one of the many TV news reports – this one from NBC’s Today show this morning:

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Related post: SeaWorld vs. OSHA – Day One