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After a fall recess, SeaWorld is back in court to resume its fight against a citation imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which found that the theme park exposed its employees to serious risks after trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by the orca Tilikum last year.
SeaWorld repeatedly tried to prevent the day’s witnesses from testifying. The first witness, Ken Peters, is the assistant curator of animal training at SeaWorld San Diego. During a 1999 show, Peters was attacked by an orca named Kasatka. After the orca tried to grab Peters’ feet and hands, SeaWorld described the near tragedy as an “unfortunate incident” and an “excellent learning tool.” Peters acknowledged a “calculated risk of dying tomorrow”—which almost came true in 2006, when Kasatka, forcibly separated from her baby, grabbed Peters’ foot and repeatedly dragged him underwater for extended periods. All water work with this angry orca stopped because of the “intensity” of the incident.
The next witness, Mike Scarpuzzi, is vice president of zoological operations. Scarpuzzi gave short and evasive answers to the government attorney’s questions and repeatedly stared at the ceiling before responding to even the simplest yes-or-no questions. He was ultimately designated as a hostile witness by the court.
Scarpuzzi 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 Dawn Brancheau’s death. Although SeaWorld attempted to distance itself from this park and attack its credibility, a 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 the three SeaWorld parks and SeaWorld’s corporate headquarters.
Although he was the supervisor, Scarpuzzi testified that he didn’t know (or ask about) the details surrounding Martinez’s death other than being told by Rokeach that he “didn’t make it.” Telling Rokeach to “take care of it,” Scarpuzzi took no other action or offered any measure of support until he arrived on site the next day. He said SeaWorld had concluded that “a combination of relatively commonplace and minor occurrences” caused the trainer’s death. Water work with orcas was suspended for less than a week after Martinez’s death, and no additional protocols or safety measures were adopted.
Rokeach closed out the day’s proceedings by admitting that SeaWorld’s emergency procedures generally are not successful when the killer whales are in an agitated state.
Written by Jennifer O’Connor