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SeaWorld at Fault in Trainer’s Death

Written by PETA | May 30, 2012

There’s big news today in a case that PETA has been tenaciously pursuing for some time: Consistent with the citations issued against SeaWorld in 2010, Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) found that SeaWorld is culpable for allowing its employees to interact directly with potentially dangerous orcas.


Olivier Bruchez
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SeaWorld Knew the Risks

For years, PETA has implored SeaWorld to transfer the marine mammals it enslaves to transitional coastal sanctuaries because confining animals of such great size to severely inadequate tanks leads to miserable lives of desperation and frustration—and dangerous conditions for SeaWorld staffers.

After one orca, Tilikum, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of horrified visitors at SeaWorld Orlando, PETA urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to pursue a citation against SeaWorld and provided it with compiled research on the history of deaths and injuries at the park and orca aggression in captivity. Today’s OSHRC decision affirms that SeaWorld knew that allowing its employees to interact directly with orcas such as Tilikum could have serious or fatal results.

A History of Irresponsibility

While the judge modified the citation for “willful” violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to “serious,” adjusting the fine accordingly, he found that SeaWorld knew that there was a “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result” from these interactions, yet it continued to allow them. He found SeaWorld’s arguments that it wasn’t aware of these hazards to be implausible and lambasted its corporate culture of placing the blame for dangerous incidents exclusively on trainers and discouraging trainers from stopping a show—even after an attack.

Information that came out of the testimony during a two-week hearing before Judge Welsch, as well as during previous proceedings, includes the following:

  • A senior trainer testified that trainers who work with orcas receive special instruction on Tilikum as well as a “Tilly Talk,” in which they’re informed of Tilikum’s involvement with two previous deaths and that if they enter the water with him, they may not survive. Despite these concerns, trainers were approved to work in close proximity with him and physically touch him at the water’s edge.
  • Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s corporate curator for zoological operations, testified that there are no specific steps for trainers to follow to respond to a life-threatening situation in the water and that their lives are ultimately up to their own “best judgment call.” Tompkins admitted that the park does not even re-evaluate its protocols after an injury or death because it deems the injuries “a result of human error” and insisted that revising safety protocols is unnecessary. He also claimed that SeaWorld has “gotten a whole lot better” with the training process over time, despite, as government attorneys noted, the killing of two trainers in a two-month span.
  • No high-level managers of animal training at SeaWorld are formally trained in animal behavior nor do they have any professional experience with orcas other that what they learned on the job at SeaWorld. In addition, the company has never called on an independent third party to review its incidents, protocols, or safety procedures.
  • Senior SeaWorld employees oversaw orca training at Spain’s Loro Parque theme park when trainer Alexis Martinez was killed after being rammed and dragged underwater by an orca named Keto—just two months before Brancheau’s death. Judge Welsch saw through SeaWorld’s attempt to distance itself from this park, as the killer whales are leased from SeaWorld, SeaWorld trainer Brian Rokeach was stationed at Loro Parque to supervise animal training, and all decisions about animal care and training were made in conjunction with SeaWorld’s corporate headquarters.

While SeaWorld’s own corporate incident log contains reports of more than 100 incidents of orca aggression at its parks, government attorneys brought up incident after incident that were left out of the log, including the attack leading to Brancheau’s death and attacks by an orca who had a penchant for grabbing trainers’ ponytails. Yet despite the premature deaths of four human beings—one from extensive internal bleeding—and more than 20 orcas at SeaWorld’s parks, the company continues to put profits over humane concerns. Dawn Brancheau would be alive today if SeaWorld had heeded PETA’s advice.

How You Can Help Orcas at SeaWorld

Please join PETA in politely asking David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for
occupational safety and health, to prohibit all direct contact with potentially dangerous animals. And, of course, never, ever go to SeaWorld or any other marine-animal park.

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  • poonam says:

    I guess like any other money making business sea world too doesn’t really care about animals or the trainers.After all who cares about whose death. The money is still pouring in!!!!!
    roguenrags

  • Wolf Fan says:

    if you really want to hit sea world in their wallet then don’t stay at Hilton hotels either, they are both owned by the Blackstone group

  • Nigel Greaves says:

    Another case of animal abuse. More and more we hear of instances where captive animals lash out in ‘unpredictable’ ways yet animals continue to be kept captive and proffered as human entertainment.

  • melissa says:

    I hate seaworld Not only am I for animal rights but come on they addmited that they dont care about the safety of there employees and that they give them no training on what to do in a crises also they’ve done nothing to help the employees after injuries I mean I would never work with a animal like that but seaworld needs to think of the animals the employees and stop thinking about how to cut budget to line there pockets with cash!!

  • Lynne May says:

    dear Lord!!! can’t these people understand that dressing in wet suits makes them look like seals…the orcas food supply???? also, the above article mentions one orca’s penchant for grabbing trainer’s ponytails!! hellooooooo…a ponytail in the water spreads out to look like squid!!!! tasty treat for orcas!!!!!

  • Laurel says:

    I totally agree in animal rights, but seriously, people are making it way to dramatic. It was the employee’s choice to get in the tub with the whale.

  • Michelle says:

    @Ewa Baranowska: Riding a racehorse, or treating an animal to save its life is a little bit different to forcing killer whales to perform tricks and getting up near their teeth when they don’t know that you aren’t food. It’s cruel.

  • Paul Towers says:

    It doesnt matter whether Sea World has appropriate OH&S policies. This would never have happened if we just left the whales alone. They are meant to live in the ocean, not giant tanks for our amusement. Howfully this case leads to all the whales being freed at some point in the near future. It is not entertainment and it is not fun to see animals housed in such conditions. We as humans to not own them. They should be FREE.

  • Lisa says:

    I’m sorry, but N, seriously? ” If Sea World knew their staffers could be killed by orcas…” Who is dumb enough to think they could go in with one and it wouldn’t try to kill them! Sometimes people are just idiots! You can’t think that because an animal is around people a lot that they’re tame!

  • Ewa Baranowska says:

    I don’t see where exactly is the parks’ fault. Everyone who works with animals (horses, cows, wildlife, even dogs) should understand that they are unpredictable and dangerous. If you go into the water with a killer whale you can get killed but it is your choice, I’m sure trainers are aware of that, just as jokeys, farm workers and vets are.

  • N says:

    I’m not so big on Animal Rights, but this takes the cake. If SeaWorld knew that their staffers could be killed by the orca’s, they should’ve stopped allowing direct training with them. Imagine how you would feel if your Mom died because of this.

  • Lottie Knauss says:

    Imagine living in your bathtub year after year. Sounds silly but that is what these marine mammals have to endure day after day for the duration of their miserable lives. This condition ensures depression, which could lead to hostility and anger. They deserve to live free; able to enjoy all the social interactions desperately needed; to procreate and ensure the future of their species. Anyone who “enjoys” watching this trauma unfold in “theme parks,” needs to be educated to the real facts. We as humans, demand freedom…we fight and die for this right. It is time to ensure this right to all orcas and indeed to all “caged and condined animals/mammals.”

  • Linda Price says:

    Please bring our knowlede of these wonderful creatures into the 21st century, and free them from slavery. Today. For God’s sake.

  • Amy says:

    Shame in you SeaWorld. I have two teenage daughters who have been raised to show respect to ANY living creature. We as a family go to shelters and walk dogs, bring supplies, toys and most of all our LOVE! I truly believe that our children need to be educated in the school systems early on about animals and how we as humans need to show compassion! My children do not go to circus, Seaworld, Pet Stores that have puppies. Come on already we are human beings we are supposed to have and show love and compassion. Our government holds the key to stop abuse….it’s called PRISON!

  • Recoules says:

    DE TOUTES LES CREATURES,L’HOMME EST LA PLUS DETESTABLE! “Quelle pitié,quelle pauvreté d’avoir dit que les bêtes sont des machines privées de connaissance et de sentiment” Voltaire

  • Krystie says:

    They’re caged natural killers that have been put into a totally unnatural environment, of course they’re not happy. We don’t see attacks happening with wild orcas but we do with those who are captive. Tilikum was upset and he took out his frustration of life on Dawn. He was already upset earlier that day but Sea World forced him to perform when he didn’t want to and he took it out on her. As punishment Sea World cruelly isolated Tilikum from the other orcas to live in solitude. Orcas are social animals that live in family groups (pods); he’s probably the loneliest whale in the world, if he was a human he’d be messed up mentally due to what happened to him when he was a calf and then the constant forcing to perform silly tricks over and over and over and over again. It’s not right! They’re smart animals, tilikum may not have wanted to kill Dawn, but he was playing around throwing her about like we see wild orcas throw penguins or seals around; as a game. He had had enough and he decided, he made a choice to do what he did and this act is his way of showing us he’s had enough! And unless you want more people to die through their stupidity you had better heed his warning.

  • Lorna says:

    Orca’s should be free. If there is a plus to any of this we were just at Sea World San Diego on 5/24/2012 and the trainers are no longer in the water with the Orca’s. So it’s a step in the right direction. Thank you PETA!

  • Lorna says:

    Orca’s should be free. If there is a plus to any of this we were just at Sea World San Diego on 5/24/2012 and the trainers are no longer in the water with the Orca’s. So it’s a step in the right direction. Thank you PETA!

  • RichardR says:

    Uhhh…has anyone else ever heard orcas referred to as a “KILLER Whales?” I mean, people are aware that orcas actually EAT things just about our size, weight and shape…yes?

  • Pamela Susan Smith says:

    The main reason sea world continues to function is that people go there & give them money to exploit these aquatic beings. We need to take EVERY chance we get to tell others how horrible it is to patronize sea world, just as we would speak up & out about a cockfight, dogfight or especially a circus. Older people are hard to sway. We MUST tell the children about animal cruely and how assholes veil this suffering as a show. SPEAK UP & OUT!!!

  • Pamela Susan Smith says:

    The main reason sea world continues to function is that people go there & give them money to exploit these aquatic beings. We need to take EVERY chance we get to tell others how horrible it is to patronize sea world, just as we would speak up & out about a cockfight, dogfight or especially a circus. Older people are hard to sway. We MUST tell the children about animal cruely and how assholes veil this suffering as a show. SPEAK UP & OUT!!!

  • Dagmar says:

    As bad as it is, that this trainer died, he must have known the risk he was going to take. Like Genny said, anyone with half a brain cell knows that an orca, especially in confinement, can kill him. I wish they would close all these marine parks, where animals suffer and die just for money. “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creatures that cannot.” ~Mark Twain, What Is Man, 1906

  • Vana Tsouprakakou says:

    Free them now!!

  • Tricha says:

    I want to help God’s creatures!

  • Guvana says:

    $eaWorld SUCKS! The Orcas deserve to be FREE! What a monstrous species we are. Please, never ever go to $eaWorld !!

    Shame on you $eaWorld!!!!!

  • Nick Bendall says:

    animal slavery has to stop!

  • Carrie says:

    Animals are not clowns, they all should be free and not being used for entertainment. I would never go to such jails where animals suffer while they earn lots of money.

  • Christine Thurner says:

    Please people who are resonsible, don’t allow to keep these magnificent orcas imprisoned in such tiny tanks! They deserve a much better life, namely in freedom in the oceans with their families! Please be human, and free these orcas into the ocean! Show a heart for the orcas in imprisonement, and don’t think first of the profit you make with them! Thank you. Christine Thurner

  • Ching says:

    Congrats on the win PETA this is great news for mistreated animals in captivity

  • Anna says:

    Dear Mr Michaels Please ban Seaworld and other marine parks. When I read my PETA newsletter that Tilikum, an intelligent animal who is suffering immensely from captivity, his SeaWorld captors punished the massive orca with a year of total isolation in an even tinier tank. For some of that time, Tilikum languished in a concrete tank just 2 feet longer than his own body, due to killing his trainer. How cruel can one be? He’s gone crazy being kept confined in such a small space and for what, some stupid tricks. We know whales, dolphins and other animals are smart, why entrap them in such an inhumane way. They can’t talk but I can. HOW DARE THEY PUNISH HIM LIKE THAT. I’m sure the trainer would be appalled. Kind regards Anna L

  • Bridget Stein says:

    I don’t understand why Barnaby Bailey Circuses are still performing due to the abuse of Elephants,etc.. that was shown on a video ???????????? What more proof due you need ?????? This is RIDICULOUS !!!!!!!

  • Renee Madera says:

    Orcas should live free lives.

  • Diane C. Dean says:

    It is the height of irresponsibility for Sea World to continue its inhumane treatment of both the orcas and the human trainers it employs. It is time for such parks and for people who go there for their “entertainment” to wake up to the horrors that occur there. We need strong legislation to lobby for the animals–human and otherwise!

  • Scott says:

    Its ironic that Sea World does rescue work for marine mammals but still enslaves them for $$$. They would be better served making $$$ by taking people on trips to see them in the wild. These are social creatures who live in pods (families). How would you feel if someone took you away from your family and forced you to do tricks and live in a small room? Hmmmm?

  • Florence Eaise says:

    I absolutely HATE ALL aquariums and zoos! animels were and are meant to be in the wild on land or in the sea! To keep them prisoner in a tank is INHUMANE!!!

  • C Quast says:

    I was at Sea World in Florida back in 1979 when Shamu acted up & the show was stopped. In today’s times I think the almighty dollar speaks & that’s why trainers are reprimanded for making decisions that go against corporate headquarters. I can understand the stress & frustration these magnicifent creatures have being subjected to the small areas that are called home. Orcas were meant to roam the seas as they are known as the wolves of the sea.

  • Katherine Meals says:

    Why don’t we just observe them in their natural habitats? Is there a way to do this? I am looking for ideas…anyone? If there were cages open to the ocean, I mean cages that they could come in and swim around in, but go back to the ocean when they want to, maybe we could put some natural food in there for them to feed on, and they would come and let us see them. Could that be done? If not, why not? I think somehow the water pressure could be worked on by some engineers and it could be controlled in some way…if not, why not? Couldn’t that be very possible?

  • Laurie says:

    When people who work at Sea World are asked about this, each and everyone gives the same “company line”…that Orca was “saved” by them and is “lucky to still be alive.” It’s so sad that they are lying to the public about this. My Senior Class students cancelled their trip to Sea World to protest this, and none of us will visit again.

  • Tucker says:

    SEA WORLD DOES SUCK!! THEY ONLY CARE ABOUT THEIR SELVES,NOT THE ANIMALS!! MAKES ME SICK, ALL THEY THINK ABOUT IS ALL THE MONEY THEY GET BY KEEPING ANIMALS CAPTIVE AND MAKING THEM DO TRICKS!! IT REALLY,REALLY SICKENS ME TO KNOW END!! SEA WORLD NEEDS TO BE “SEA YA!!” SHUT DOWN FOR GOOD!! NOW!!

  • jennifer imholt says:

    Orcas, like many intelligent, social animals DO NOT BELONG IN CAPTIVITY, “performing” tricks for our “entertainment”. Clearly, Seaworld only cares about making money by exploiting these beautiful creatureS, AS DO ALL COMPANIES WHO ENSLAVE ANIMALS FOR PROFIT! Wake up people, DO NOT EVER VISIT ANY CIRCUS OR SEAWORLD EVER! IF WE DON’T GO, THEY WILL HAVE TO SHUT DOWN! How many deaths does it take? You don’t care, GREED DRIVES YOU!

  • Luke says:

    This behavior is NOT in-humane. From what I have gathered during my 29 years of lie, this sort of treatment is quite typical of humans. We have, throughout the course of history, always preyed on the defenseless and exterminated those that tried to defend themselves, be it human or other species. We should be asking the true predators to be more animal rather than more human.

  • helga guillen says:

    i am sad for the orcas , they deserve to be free, after a orca kill a trainer they punish them and put them in a smaller tank, humans are really cruel, the orcas became dangerous but the ones to blame is not the orcas is us humans ,please let tillyku free to a sanctuary, please peta ask seaworld to release the orcas they deserve a better life,orcas travel thousans of kilometres in the sea,to be for 30 years in a tank is horrible shame on Seaworld. i will sign or send a message to seaworld to release all orcas.

  • Shaheena Dax says:

    Dear Sir, It is time for humans to realise that we cannot keep these complex creatures in cages. Please do your best to try and prohibit all contact with these beautiful and wild creatures and perhaps help bring awareness to the fact that seaworld should just not exist. Kind regards, Shaheena Dax

  • Romina says:

    Those big animals are not for keeping in smalls stupids pools! I know all is about money but please its time to be more human

  • Suzanne Johnson says:

    Dear Mr. Michaels, Please do not allow employees of animal parks to have direct contact with potentially dangerous animals. I hope to never hear of another unnecessary fatality. Thank you, Suzanne Johnson

  • Genny says:

    Well to be fair to sea world, the trainers do know what they’re getting into, anyone with half a brain cell knows that clearly an orca has the potential to kill you. But just as you wouldn’t stop people doing dangerous sports, you shouldn’t stop trainers doing what they love because its dangerous for them. I think PETA should be careful to keep trainer safety issues and orca welfare issues separate.

  • Domcia x says:

    SEA WORLD SUCKS !