SeaWorld’s ‘Experts’ Are Their Own

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3 min read
milan.boers | cc by 2.0

On the final day of SeaWorld’s challenge to its citations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), questions abounded about the qualifications of Jeff Andrews, a 15-year SeaWorld veteran who now works at the San Diego Zoo and whom SeaWorld offered as a witness. Andrews was presented as an expert in animal behavior and training and in working safely with large animals. He testified that he primarily learned on the job at SeaWorld and last worked with orcas there in 2001.

When questioned about what he could offer that would differ from previous SeaWorld employees’ testimony, Andrews responded only his “position in the park” and his post-SeaWorld experience. He stated that he stays informed of what happens at SeaWorld parks and is called if there is an injury at any of them. He also admitted that he relied entirely on Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s corporate curator for zoological operations, for the data and statistics on which he based his opinion.

After a day of direct and cross examination, during which Andrews repeatedly made “expert” statements that were based on others’ opinions, his credibility was shredded. Even SeaWorld did not offer Andrews’ report, which he had prepared for SeaWorld for the purpose of this hearing and which provided written proof of his flawed methodologies, into evidence.

When questioned about aggressive incidents documented in SeaWorld’s monthly recaps, Andrews refused to acknowledge that splitting off routine and thrashing toward a trainer could indicate aggression in Tilikum, laughing at OSHA’s attorney for suggesting the possibility and calling the assertion an “uneducated assessment of behavior.” Despite using the term “aggressive” repeatedly in his direct testimony and his report, when asked how he defines the term, Andrews responded, “I don’t have an operating definition of aggression off the top of my head.”

Andrews dismissed the vast majority of behaviors listed as “aggressive tendencies” on Tilikum’s behavioral profile, including “mouthing the stage, vocalizations, tightening body posture, banging gates” and “a deep fast swim.” Andrews insisted that only lunging toward a trainer could potentially be considered aggressive.

Another notable thing revealed today was an admission by SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services, Dr. Chris Dold, that about 14 of 20 orcas at SeaWorld have had their teeth drilled after breaking them from biting hard surfaces such as the concrete pools, themselves, and other orcas.

The parties will be submitting final briefs in the coming months, after which the judge will make his decision. But one thing became clear during nine days of testimony: Despite all the deaths, injuries, and other serious incidents that have occurred, SeaWorld employees continue to defend the practice of keeping orcas in tanks and forcing them to perform tricks for the public.

Written by Jennifer O’Connor

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