There’s big news today in a case that PETA has been 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 to blame for allowing its employees to interact directly with potentially dangerous orcas.

Orcas at SeaWorld

Photo: Shawn Bannon 

SeaWorld Knew the Risks

For years, PETA has asked SeaWorld to transfer the marine mammals it enslaves to transitional coastal sanctuaries because confining animals to tanks equivalent to the size of a bathtub for them leads to misery and frustration—and dangerous conditions for SeaWorld staffers.

PETA had urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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. The OSHRC decision affirms that SeaWorld knew that allowing its employees—like Dawn Brancheau—to interact directly with orcas such as Tilikum could have serious or fatal results.

A History of Irresponsibility

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 in which they’re informed 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 blames them on “human error” and insisted that revising safety protocols is unnecessary.
  • 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.

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. Despite the premature deaths of four human beings and more than 20 orcas at SeaWorld’s parks, the company continues to put profits over lives.

How You Can Help Orcas at SeaWorld