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SeaWorld Back on Trial

Hearings resume over ‘willful’ violation of safety standards

SeaWorld is back in court today to defend itself against charges of “willful” neglect by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau by orca Tilikum.

“Willful” violation of safety standards is the strongest charge that OSHA can level against a company. And while the relatively small fine of $75,000 is pocket change to SeaWorld, the real danger it faces is the OSHA recommendation that SeaWorld trainers never again be allowed in close contact with killer whales unless they are shielded by a physical barrier or other form of protection. This would essentially mean no more crowd-pleasing tricks like dancing on the noses of whales.

(SeaWorld hates the use of the word “tricks.” On the witness stand today, trainer Ken Peters bristled when questioned about teaching tricks to orcas. “It’s a behavior,” he insisted.)

SeaWorld argues that “water work” – having trainers the water with the whales – is an indispensable part of providing veterinary and other care for the animals. To avoid that debate, OSHA is focusing its case only on what happens during the actual shows.

The hearings are expected to continue all week. OSHA is still presenting its case, and SeaWorld has not yet begun its defense.