The Humane Society of the United States is guardedly optimistic about the consequences of a citation issued today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to SeaWorld for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in February.
"Placing trainers in such close contact with any orca, let alone one with a history like Tilikum's, without doubt puts them in harm's way," said Naomi Rose, Ph.D., marine mammal scientist for The HSUS. "Orcas are the ocean's most powerful predator. They are also curious, intelligent, and social, but if they act in a harmful way, there is nothing anyone – including SeaWorld – can do about it. Trainers should never be in a position to be pulled into the water and they certainly shouldn't get in the water for the show."
OSHA has issued one willful citation to SeaWorld for exposing its employees to potentially injurious or fatal hazards when interacting with its captive orcas. The citation includes two instances, one for Tilikum and one for the other orcas at the Orlando, Fla. facility. The agency defines a willful violation as one committed with "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health." The proposed penalty for this violation is $70,000.
Specified corrective action for the first citation is to avoid all "waterwork" with Tilikum (when the trainers enter the water with the animal) and to allow drywork contact (when they work with the whales at poolside) only with a protective barrier. SeaWorld has been following these protocols since the February incident – the citation makes these protocols permanent.
Corrective action for the second instance is to allow contact with the other whales only with a protective barrier or its equivalent. However, it is difficult to understand how the trainers will be provided with protection similar to a drywork barrier once they have entered the water with the animals. The HSUS maintains that it is impossible to provide adequate protection to trainers once they are in the water with the whales.
SeaWorld now has 15 days to comply or contest the citation and penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Orcas are inherently unsuited for captivity. They are large, socially complex, highly intelligent, and long-lived predators, living as long as humans do. To confine them in a space that is, at best, a tiny fraction of the size of their ocean home, depriving them of natural stimulation and social bonds, leads to boredom and, at worst, to poor physical and mental health. Orca mortality rates are almost three times as high in captivity as they are in the wild.
Tilikum is held at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.
On Feb. 24, Tilikum, the largest male orca ever held in captivity (12,000 lbs), pulled his long-time trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the tank and drowned her. Her injuries were massive.
Tilikum had been involved in the deaths of two other people, in 1991 and 1999.
Trainers frequently did in-water work with SeaWorld's orcas, but not with Tilikum, given his history. Since the February death, he has not been used in the show, has not been touched by his trainers (they are using a fire hose to give him "tactile stimulation"), and has had to suffer the loss of his most constant orca companion. Taima, an adult female, died giving birth to his calf (who also died) in June.
Dozens of other orcas have injured trainers, some very seriously, during waterwork in the past 25 years and in December 2009, a trainer was killed by a former SeaWorld whale, Keto, who was transferred to a facility in the Canary Islands in 2006.
Naomi Rose, Ph.D., orca expert and marine mammal scientist for The HSUS, submitted a statement upon request from OSHA, for the investigation file.
Rose testified at a Congressional oversight hearing in the House on marine mammal public display and education on April 27, which also focused on the February tragedy with Tilikum.