SeaWorld Florida has, once again, come under fire for their policies regarding orca whale trainers and their interactions with the whales. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), SeaWorld is being fined again for failing to comply with a federal court order and for continuing to “run a workplace with recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” Speculation into SeaWorld’s practices began in 2010 when an orca trainer was killed during a show with guests present. Even after the death of a top trainer and a pending wrongful death lawsuit, SeaWorld continued to use the whale in their shows.
The orca whale obtained by SeaWorld named Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 when he was approximately two years old. Orcas in the wild live with their families for their entire lives, but this orca (Tilikum) had been taken from his family to be used at a marine park. Capturing orca whales for this purpose seems to be common practice in the industry. Once Tilikum was captured, he was moved to a holding tank in Iceland before he was transported to a park in Canada. Once he arrived at the park, he was placed in his new home: a 35-foot pool. Keep in mind that Tilikum is a 12,000-pound whale. As a training technique, food was withheld from the whale and he was made to perform shows eight times per day, every single day. As Tilikum was not the only orca at the marine park, once the day was over, three orcas would have to share a small metal tank until the next day when the park would reopen. According to staff members, Tilikum was not treated very well by his tank-mates at night. He would even have long rake marks all over his body from being bullied by the two other whales. Over time, this understandably caused tension between the animals and caused Tilikum and other whales to act out.
In 1991, a trainer named Keltie Byrne was walking around the pool where the three whales were swimming. She accidentally slipped into the pool, which should have been a small mistake, but it actually turned deadly. When she fell in, Tilikum grabbed her to the bottom of the pool and the two other whales joined in to “toss her around.” Byrne ultimately drowned and it took two hours to try to retrieve Byrne’s body from the whales. Little did anyone know that this would be the first of three tragedies caused by an over-stressed and over-worked animal. Not long after her death, the Canadian marine park closed down and Tilikum was put up for sale.
Once SeaWorld found out that he was for sale, and that he was the largest orca in captivity, they quickly purchased him with the intent of using him for breeding purposes. SeaWorld was made aware that the whale had been involved in a fatal incident when they purchased Tilikum. Even with his aggressive behavior, SeaWorld continued use him in their breeding program and today, 54 percent of the orcas held there have Tilikum’s genes. Then, eight years after Tilikum’s initial signs of aggression towards humans, another trainer was attacked and killed. In 1999, Daniel Dukes, a South Carolina man, had climbed into the tank with Tilikum after the park had closed. No one really knows what happened to Dukes, however, the next morning when staff arrived at the park, they found Dukes dead, naked and draped over the whales back as he swam around the tank. Somehow, SeaWorld thought it best to tell the public that the man must have been under the influence and that he died of hypothermia. Injuries listed on Dukes’ autopsy report point lead us to believe otherwise.
SeaWorld pushed on, though. Despite the killings, they released statements that the incidents were not the whale’s fault and that the whales kept in captivity are very well behaved and friendly. So, years later in 2010, Tilikum struck again. This time, the attack was against top trainer Dawn Brancheau, and again, in front of a live audience. Dawn was doing a show with Tilikum, but something went wrong when he failed to receive a reward for doing a trick. Dawn had no idea that because the treat was not given, Tilikum was about to pull her under, scalp and dismember her body. After this occurred, SeaWorld decided that Tilikum needed to be kept in a smaller enclosure that did not allow him to swim as usual and did not allow him to communicate with other orcas or humans. Reportedly, he was seen just floating for hours at a time. This behavior has never been witnessed in wild orca whales. He stayed in isolation for a year, then returned to performing.
SeaWorld’s records indicate that Tilikum isn’t the only aggressive whale held there. The park has more than 600 pages of incident reports related to “dangerous and unanticipated orca behavior with trainers.” What research shows us is that aggression towards humans by orca whales does not happen in the wild, and neither does collapsed dorsal fins. In fact, less than 1 percent of orcas in the wild have a collapsed dorsal fin. Research also shows us that orca whales have an expected lifespan similar to humans. To the contrary, if you ask SeaWorld staff, they will tell you that orcas only live to be about 35 years old and that a collapsed dorsal fin is seen in the wild very frequently. They will also give any and every excuse as to why these whales are not responsible for any deaths. That may be true; maybe SeaWorld is entirely responsible. With all the knowledge of the aggression towards humans, why continue to allow trainers to swim with them? Even further, why would SeaWorld Florida continue to willfully violate occupational and safety health standards, even after being fined twice? Today, OSHA is fighting to keep trainers safely distanced from the whales during training and shows. It appears that SeaWorld is fighting this because keeping the trainers out of the water during live shows would potentially decrease the show’s appeal. They released a statement, wherein they exclaimed that “the safety of guests and employees and the welfare of animals are SeaWorld’s highest priorities. OSHA’s enforcement activities and the new citation demonstrate the agency’s continued and fundamental misunderstanding of how to properly and safely care for and work around these animals.” It is clear that SeaWorld did recognize the inherent risk, but still required its employees to work with the orcas within pool walls where they may have been subject to dangerous behavior.
If someone you know was injured or killed while working in conditions that are known to be dangerous, call a wrongful death attorney in your area to discuss your case. Following your free consultation, should the wrongful death attorney find that your case has merit, work will begin immediately on your case so that you may receive the compensation and justice that is deserved for your injury or loss. The attorney will also fully investigate the incident, visit the scene of the incident and interview witnesses for your case.
If you or someone you know would like to file a wrongful death lawsuit, you will need to speak with a good wrongful death lawyer in your area. Call an experienced South Carolina wrongful death lawyer at The Mace Firm to schedule your free consultation. One of The Mace Firm’s injury attorneys is ready to speak with you about your case.