SeaWorld vs. Occupational Safety

When animal trainers die on the job, sadness means taking steps to prevent future wrecks. But who is responsible for safety rules? Should the government decide?

Dawn Brancheau, Orlando Sentinel file photo

Dawn Brancheau, a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld’s Orlando park, died during a live performance on Feb. 24, 2010, when a 29-year-old killer whale grabbed her ponytail and pulled her underwater. This tragic accident happened even though SeaWorld was already restricting trainers from swimming with Tilikum, a male who had hurt two trainers and a trespasser.

Now OSHA ruled that trainers at SeaWorld must not touch or swim with any whales, except for medical management. Judge Ken Welsch, an administrative law judge for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, upheld the safety citations issued against SeaWorld. Are images like this relegated to history?

SeaWorld, Dawn Brancheau and Shamu in 1998

Will the future look like this?

Kelly Flaherty Clark, left, the director of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando, and Joe Sanchez, a trainer, worked with killer whales Tilikum, right, and Trua at the theme park in Orlando, Fla. last year.

I’m not disputing the necessity of government oversight for for employment and improvements, for instance SeaWorld will install pool floors which can lift the whales out of the water in an emergency. But is OSHA’s decision too strict? What else will it stifle – not only entertainment, but our learning about the captive animals in our care? Scientists and photographers observing wild animals in the wild? People swimming with wild dolphins? (Not that I think mingling inexperienced people with wild animals is always a good idea.)

Does this OSHA rule mean the next time a horse trainer gets hurt, we won’t be allowed in the same pen with our horses anymore, even with horses who do not have a dangerous history?!

I’m amazed at how few fatalities were caused by animals, whether it’s trespassing on grizzlies, observing gorillas in the mists, or swimming with the killer whales. We would have never known how gentle animals can be, had we never taken the chance to find out — and this is not meant to imply it’s ok to foolishly sneak up on a moose for a snapshot nor is it an endorsement of willy-nilly feeding wildlife. It is just a sense of wonder that some of us can have a special relation with wild or captive wild animals, but it’s not mystical, getting close to animals is something we can learn. It’s about how we do what we do, and how can we do it safer, without legally restricting freedoms.

I bristle at the implication of a rule that, if extended beyond SeaWorld, could restrict close contact with animals. On the other hand, us pet and horse lovers could benefit from reminders that establishing a good relationship with our animals and teaching them to respond to our wishes can happen from behind a barrier. I find myself having to teach horse lovers when not to touch horses, how to maintain a personal safety bubble and when to avoid hand-feeding. Those of us working with animals know that letting one’s focus stray could cause an accident. This holds for our domestic animals, let alone for wild ones. Knowing when to keep a certain physical distance and how to communicate meaningfully with animals from behind a barrier is a skill horse trainers and pet owners might find useful. Many old-fashioned traditions use pain, or the threat of pain, like a sharp bit acting on horse’s sensitive lips and tongue, to accomplish a relatively unsophisticated training step like “stop.” Perhaps if we practiced a “move/stop” command with our horses from a distance without even as much as a threat of pain for non-compliance, we would be better at reliably influencing our horses basic move/stop behaviors when adding the communication by touch that riding allows.

Sadly, one can only speculate what the victim in this accident might have wanted. Ms. Brancheau might have been pleased that Tilikum still performs, with added precautions, to crowds intrigued by the wild power he represents. You can watch a tribute here and The Dawn Brancheau Foundation continues her work on behalf of animals.

Orlando Sentinel series of articles:

For Safety, Ballet Between Human and Killer Whale Loses Some Intimacy
By Lizette Alvarez, June 7, 2012

A trainer narrowly escaped death in a 2006 incident with a whale who had a two-day old calf, from “Death at SeaWorld,” a book by David Kirby


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