After SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a Killer Whale in 2010, OSHA banned trainers from being in the water or having physical contact with the whales used in their shows. SeaWorld argues that the accident was an isolated incident and not a result of physical contact between trainers and whales.
The company is asking a panel of three judges on a federal appeals court to overturn the ban and allow the trainers to swim with the whales again. SeaWorld was known for its shows where trainers and whales performed in the water together. The whales would do tricks based on signals from the trainers and were rewarded by being hand-fed fish and other treats. The trainers would even ride the whales and allow them to toss them in the air.
Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the water by a whale named Tilikum who pulled her to the bottom of his tank and killed her in front of a terrified audience. There have been similar incidents involving whales and trainers over the years and OSHA claimed that SeaWorld exposed its workers to a known hazard in the workplace. They applied the no contact ban and fined the park $75,000 shortly after Brancheau’s death.
SeaWorld claimed in a court document that there has always been a risk involved with swimming in a tank with Killer Whales but OSHA was not concerned until after the death of the trainer and never bothered to investigate the “known hazard” beforehand saying, “During this time, OSHA could have opened an investigation at any time if it believed that close contact presented a recognized hazard.”
If SeaWorld in unable to get the contact ban lifted, the parks may be forced to shut down. Park owners and whale experts worry that taking away the only contact the whales have known over the years, could be harming them emotionally. Park employees say it is hard to even feed the whales because of the ban. While many people would be sad to see SeaWorld shut down, others believe it would be in the best interest of the whales for them to do so.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.