OSHA: SeaWorld has Incomplete Whale Behavior Files

September 23, 2011

Government attorneys defending job safety citations against SeaWorld said Wednesday that the theme park kept incomplete records of whale behavior that posed threats to trainers.

The theme park is appealing the three citations and a $75,000 fine issued after a trainer’s death last year. Wednesday was the third day of a weeklong hearing before an administrative law judge.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration attorney John Black questioned SeaWorld’s head of animal training Charles Tompkins about past interactions during which whales acted aggressively. The SeaWorld records describe 100 incidents, but Black said they are incomplete. He noted that trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in February 2010 was missing from the records. She was pulled underwater by a male orca, Tilikum, and drowned.

Tompkins answered that the death was not included in the log because a report was not complete.

Tompkins explained that what one trainer considers a sign of aggression might not be considered a sign of aggression by another trainer. He added that trainers maintain an ongoing dialogue on animals’ behavior. Trainers receive vigorous instruction on how to recognize signs of possible aggression, and behavior that is considered a precursor to aggression does not always lead to aggression, he said.

He said he did not consider Tilikum’s initial action of pulling Brancheau underwater as aggressive. Black followed up with a question about whether the whale showed aggression by continuing to hold her underwater, eventually drowning her.

“Yes,” Tompkins said.

Black asked Tompkins about two other cases during which humans died after interacting with Tilikum. In 1991, a trainer in British Columbia who fell into a whale pool with Tilikum and two other orcas was forcibly submerged. In 1999, a man sneaked by security at SeaWorld Orlando and was found draped over Tilikum. The man either jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was bruised and scratched.

Tompkins said he did not consider these as examples of aggressive behavior because the details are not known.

“We don’t have those specifics. We don’t know,” he said. “I would tell you right now I think I would be very careful saying those are known examples of aggression. We don’t know that.”

Black showed a video of a previous incident involving a different whale in Ohio that held a trainer underwater for an extended period of time. The video showed the man dangling underwater from the whale’s mouth by his foot. When the whale finally brought the trainer up to the side of the pool the man aggressively swam away, climbed up on a watery platform and tried to run before collapsing. He suffered broken bones in his foot.

The Spanish government conducted its own investigation after an incident at Loro Parque, a Canary Islands facility that houses some of SeaWorld’s whales. The investigation found that being in the water with the whales was inherently dangerous, Black said. Tompkins said he was not aware of the report.

“The way we deal with that park, it wasn’t my responsibility to look into their paperwork or their legal efforts with their government,” Tompkins said.

The judge isn’t expected to issue a ruling until at least 10 days after the end of the hearing. A ruling against SeaWorld could force park officials to change how trainers interact with whales.

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