Their performances are spectacular: killer whales tossing trainers through the air at SeaWorld entertained thousands each day for years.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration stopped these shows after it investigated the February 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando.
Seconds after a performance, a male killer whale named Tilikum grabbed Brancheau, dragged her under and to a brutal death. OSHA said putting trainers in pools with killer whales is too dangerous.
Brancheau’s death inspired this summer’s movie “Blackfish”, which chronicled events leading up to the February 2010 tragedy as well as Tilikum’s history. Much of what was in the movie is what News Channel 8’s Steve Andrews reported in January 1992.
Back then a British Columbia aquarium named Sea Land was moving Tilikum from his pool and flying the animal thousands of miles to SeaWorld Orlando.
The aquarium kept Tilikum in a small medical pool to prevent him from killing a calf. Video smuggled out by animal activists was nicknamed “whale in a jail”. The tank was only 2 feet longer than Tilikum. He continually battered and bruised himself in that environment.
A year earlier in 1991, while at Sea Land, Tilikum and two other whales grabbed 20 year old staff member Keltie Byrne, a champion swimmer, by the foot and pulled her under.
According to witnesses, Tilikum swam around with Keltie Byrne in his mouth.
Sea Land workers retrieved her body 2 and a half hours after she was pulled under.
Still, SeaWorld pursued Tilikum.
In 1992, SeaWorld possessed only one male orca for breeding purposes.
Then-curator Frank Muru told Steve Andrews all precautions would be taken.
“The situation that led to the unfortunate accident up there really related more to their husbandry procedures and their training procedures more than an overly aggressive animal,” Muru said.
Following Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld’s procedures were investigated and called into question.
SeaWorld issued the following statement:”The safety of zoological staff and the welfare of our animals are SeaWorld’s highest priorities. Close contact with these animals is critical to providing a safe environment for our zoological staff and appropriate care for SeaWorld animals.”
What is at stake is the manner in which SeaWorld does business. According to OSHA the “general duty” clause stipulates that every employer shall provide a place of employment free from recognized hazards.
SeaWorld countered in its appellate brief the clause “cannot be used to force a company to change the very product that it offers the public, and the business it is in.”
Related story: SeaWorld to fight killer whale interaction ban
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