SeaWorld Slammed for Role in Whale Trainer Death

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Washington, D.C. -- The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) applauds the finding by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that SeaWorld of Florida LLC willfully violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 in connection with its role in the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who drowned after being pulled into a SeaWorld Orlando aquarium by an orca named Tilikum.

OSHA issued three citations against SeaWorld, after the agency’s exhaustive and lengthy investigation into the February incident turned up evidence that company practices contributed to the death. OSHA also fined SeaWorld a total of $75,000 and required abatement of the hazards that led to the unsafe working conditions. Such abatement methods, according to OSHA, could include not allowing “animal trainers to have any contact with Tilikum unless they are protected by a physical barrier” and, with regard to other orcas, prohibiting contact “unless protected through physical barriers or... controls that provide the same or a greater level of protection for the trainers.”

“OSHA has done both the whales and the handlers a great service in holding SeaWorld accountable,” said Susan Millward, AWI Executive Director. “Orcas are highly intelligent, sentient mammals who, like us, get bored or testy when held in unnatural confinement. While we may never know why Tilikum pulled Ms. Brancheau into the pool that day, it is obvious that SeaWorld’s confinement and handling methods contributed to the tragedy. An outright ban on human-whale interaction at SeaWorld parks would have been preferable, but we hope that SeaWorld will protect its employees from future harm by not allowing them in the water with Tilikum or any other whales.”

Tilikum, like many orcas in U.S. theme parks, was captured from the wild. He was taken from his family pod in an Icelandic fjord in 1983 and has been held captive ever since. “Orcas are not suited to captivity and should never be exploited in this way for profit,” stated Millward. "This tragic incident should convince SeaWorld and others that orcas are wild animals, not robots to be trained to perform on command.”

SeaWorld announced that it will contest the citations. In the meantime, Tilikum languishes in a pool at the Florida facility, his fate undetermined.

“While his long years in captivity likely prevent a successful return to the wild, Tilikum could be provided with a semi-wild retirement in a northern sea-pen, away from the noise and crowds and the demands to perform, to live out his days in peace and safety,” Millward concluded. “We urge SeaWorld to rethink holding orcas and other cetaceans captive for human entertainment and focus instead on increasing their laudable efforts to help sick or injured animals return to the wild. That’s true conservation.”

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Media Contact:
Susan Millward, AWI, (202) 446-2123