On Feb. 24, Tilikum, the largest orca ever held in captivity, killed his long-time trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. Tilikum deliberately pulled Dawn into the water, prevented her from leaving the tank, shook her violently, and held her under. The official cause of death was determined to be drowning and blunt trauma.
On Monday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released the findings from its mandatory investigation of the incident. OSHA issued three safety violations to SeaWorld, including one willful citation—for exposing its employees to potentially injurious or fatal hazards by allowing them to interact with its captive orcas without sufficient protection. The agency defines a willful violation as one committed with “plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.”
Photo taken at SeaWorld Orlando's captive orca show.
According to an OSHA statement, the investigation "revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities, including its location in Orlando. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees."
The citation entails a fine of $75,000 and a recommendation that SeaWorld trainers be prohibited from entering the water with the orcas unless the trainers are protected “through the use of physical barriers, or through the use of decking systems, oxygen supply systems or other engineering or administrative controls.”
I’ve asked Naomi Rose, Ph.D., The HSUS’s expert on marine mammal issues, to further explain the results.
SeaWorld would have had us believe that Dawn Brancheau’s death was an “accident,” or the result of trainer error, but the investigation undertaken by OSHA has determined otherwise.
The investigation involved six months of extensive interviews with trainers, witnesses, and orca experts within and outside of the public display industry. Investigators examined the many previous incidents of human injuries and fatalities when handling or interacting with orcas. They reviewed a recording of the February incident from one of SeaWorld’s own underwater video cameras. They also considered the circumstances of the two previous deaths in which Tilikum was implicated and the killing of a trainer in December 2009 by a former SeaWorld whale in a Canary Islands facility.
OSHA’s conclusion: It is unnecessarily dangerous to allow trainers into the water with the greatest predator in the world. According to Cindy Coe, OSHA's regional administrator, "SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals. Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."
For decades SeaWorld has allowed this and visitors have paid to see it. No human being has ever been seriously injured or killed by an orca in the wild, but four people have died and dozens have been injured, some very seriously, by captive orcas.
SeaWorld sells a false image of orcas. Whenever trainers “dance” with the orcas in the water, this magnificent species is reduced to a cartoon. Then, when a serious injury or a death occurs, the company is quick to blame bad luck or the trainer herself for making some kind of mistake. But the only mistake here was SeaWorld’s, for refusing to protect its employees from an obvious risk of injury and death.
OSHA saw through SeaWorld’s propaganda and placed the responsibility for this tragedy firmly where it belongs, and this week’s decision brought some common sense to the show. The best outcome of this tragedy would be if we all realized how grossly inappropriate it is to keep such a large, intelligent creature in small pools for our entertainment. We have to stop buying the false image—we have to stop making the orcas pay for our amusement, and stop putting them into positions where they can injure or kill their trainers.
Tilikum is still being held in a back tank at SeaWorld, no longer allowed to perform in the show. The HSUS has asked SeaWorld to consider retiring Tilikum to a sea pen, to allow him more room, more choices, more stimulation than he is getting in a barren concrete tank. His best friend Taima, an adult female, died in June while giving birth to his calf. He is more isolated than ever. His situation is grim and it will only improve if the public demands it.