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Is This the Beginning of the End for Killer Whale Shows?

August 28, 2010

This past week we have seen a number of developments that may spell the end for the marine mammal park “entertainment” industry as we now know it. SeaWorld, Orlando finds itself under fire from Federal Agencies, former employees and witnesses following the February attack and death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Tilikum, a 13,000 pound orca (killer whale) who has been the main attraction of the theme park’s “Shamu” shows was implicated in the deaths of two other people prior to pulling Dawn Brancheau into her watery grave. The horrifying attack which included dismemberment and scalping of the defenseless trainer was witnessed by unsuspecting park-goers and SeaWorld staff as she struggled to free herself from his powerful jaws. As the details of that fateful day emerge, the public is taking notice and SeaWorld may not escape this latest tragedy without undergoing a transformation leading to the abolishment of orca/trainer interactions which may in turn bring an end to the captivity and confinement of this amazing species.

The fallout began on Monday, August 23 as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations to SeaWorld for apparently placing profit above employee safety. These citations opened the floodgates for further legal action by Dawn’s family, terminated employees and witnesses. It has also sparked a growing number of former SeaWorld employees to speak out about the culture of working with Orcas and the secrecy that shrouds the marine mammal entertainment industry.

Triggering the flurry of claims was the stunning announcement that OSHA fined SeaWorld Orlando $75,000 for safety violations including the maximum $70,000 penalty for the “Willful” act of knowingly placing it’s employees at risk… Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel picks up the story:

“SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals,” Cindy Coe, the OSHA administrator in charge of the Southeastern U.S., said in a prepared statement. “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.” In its written statement, OSHA added that its probe “revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities. Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.”

The agency proposed fines totaling $75,000 for Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks, which generated approximately $1.4 billion in revenue last year.

On the heels of OSHA’s actions, Linda Simons, SeaWorlds former Health and Safety Administrator, spoke out in reports by ABC News and the The New York Daily News with claims she was fired for assisting OSHA in their investigation, a charge SeaWorld denies, but may be faced with legal action should SeaWorld be implicated for impeding the Federal investigation:

Linda Simons is now speaking out on what she calls questionable or even dangerous safety practices at the Florida park that could result in another tragedy. Simons’ lawyer, Maurice Arcadier, said she was prevented from giving all of the documentation she wanted to OSHA for their investigation. He suggested an impartial panel be appointed to investigate separately.

“I want to make sure that it is investigated and that the safety of the team members that remain is not jeopardized,” Simons told “Good Morning America”. “I think that if they’re put into that close proximity [with the whales] it could easily happen again.”

Simons said everyone who came to work at Sea World was given what she called the “Tili talk” — a warning about the killer whale that had killed a Canadian trainer in 1991 and a man who sneaked into his holding area in 1999. “They talk to you about going into the water with Tili,” she said. “That if you go into the water with Tili you would come out as a corpse.”

Simons told the Daily News she was fired for talking too much with the federal investigators who were probing the February drowning of trainer Dawn Brancheau by the killer whale Tilikum. Simons, who started work at SeaWorld in Orlando one week before the drowning, has filed a federal whistleblower complaint.

SeaWorld denies Ms Simons claims. You can be the judge as to where the misconduct lies…

“Linda Simons worked for SeaWorld for only a few weeks and was fired not for the reasons she cites, but rather for poor performance during the OSHA inspection of Dawn Brancheau’s death,” the statement read. ” During those critical weeks, Ms. Simons repeatedly demonstrated an inability to conduct herself to the acceptable standard of competence, transparency, integrity or professionalism demanded of an inspection of this magnitude.”

Another block buster revelation came in the form of an announcement that the family of Dawn Brancheau has retained the services of a law firm specializing in wrongful death suits. SeaWorld has maintained that their relationship with the Brancheau family is amicable, however this action will indeed strain that relationship…

Dan O’Connor, a partner with O’Connor & Nakos, declined to discuss whether his firm will bring a suit against SeaWorld. The law firm says on its website that it represents “injured persons and their families in matters of wrongful death and severe personal injury” and lists scores of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements won on behalf of injured workers and other accident victims.

The violations included one that OSHA deemed “willful” — its most severe category, reserved for businesses that OSHA says demonstrate “plain indifference to or intentional disregard for” worker safety — because the agency said SeaWorld routinely exposed its trainers to the threat of attacks from killer whales without adequate safeguards in place. OSHA proposed $75,000 in fines.

OSHA was especially critical of SeaWorld for allowing trainers to work in close contact with Tilikum, who is about twice as large as any other orca at SeaWorld Orlando and who was involved in a separate drowning of a trainer at a Canadian marine park nearly 20 years ago. OSHA said the orca had “known aggressive tendencies.”

O’Connor said Scott Brancheau’s lawyers are analyzing OSHA’s materials.

“It’s not every day that OSHA issues a willful citation for plain indifference or intentional disregard for human life,” O’Connor said. “It is clear, after reviewing the willful finding, that more of the true facts will be brought out regarding the fatal attack upon Dawn.”

Adding to the mounting actions against SeaWorld, the Connell family, who witnessed the horrific attack and filmed the final moments of Dawn and Tilikum’s interaction in their now infamous recording, are seeking unspecified damages for the trauma they and their 10year old son endured. The New York Daily News reports:

Todd and Suzanne Connell, who took their son Bobby to Florida in February to celebrate his 10th birthday, say the boy looked straight into Dawn Brancheau‘s eyes as the doomed trainer briefly freed herself from the orca’s jaws.

Bobby Connell “saw the look of horror and desperation on Dawn’s face as she was swimming for her life,” the complaint reads. “He then saw Tilikum violently yank her down again to the depths of the pool.”

The boy, who became hysterical as Brancheau’s broken body was dragged around the tank, has been plagued by gruesome nightmares ever since, the family says.

The media spotlight continues to shine and expose these revelations as additional witnesses, former employees, Marine Mammal Professionals and Animal Rights Organizations speak out. The facts, as they are revealed, will continue to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes and what future actions and/or inaction may mean for the safety of trainers and the captivity of orcas. It is The Orca Projects’ view that these developments WILL lead to major changes in the captive orca programs and eventually phase out that portion of the marine mammal entertainment business.

Is this the beginning of the end for the Killer Whale Shows? Tell us what you think.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. joseph davidovic permalink
    July 1, 2016 10:54 pm

    I do believe that little by little there is progress in banning animals from shows.

  2. Sally Ackley permalink
    March 20, 2016 12:06 am

    Where is tillicum the whale today 3/19/16 ? Still in isolation in a small sea world pen?

  3. joseph davidovic permalink
    February 9, 2011 12:57 pm

    These types of shows, including bullfights are disgusting and should be banned.

  4. Kim permalink
    November 8, 2010 3:47 am

    When I was little, I visited Sea world, because I didn’t know any better. Now I do. I’ve done a lot of research, and learned many things about these beautiful creatures. I’d much rather see them on TV or on a boat then in a small tank. I am so saddened by the recent orca deaths at Sea World, and the recent orca birth as well. That poor little baby will just be another money maker for Sea World. It’s time to end the show. Put the whales in protected sea pens where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace.

  5. Vicki Sawyer permalink
    August 31, 2010 9:49 am

    Orcas are wild, are “born to be wild”, and they will be wild. The sooner these greedy people understand that, the better we will all be, humans and wild animals alike!

  6. Dianne permalink
    August 31, 2010 12:35 am

    No one who loves animals and appreciates the beauty and magic of seeing them in their natural habitats (including whales and dolphins), would ever pay a dime to see them in captivity!

  7. lynn permalink
    August 30, 2010 4:19 pm

    Okay, ignore any care at all about this ORCA species. If you go to Seaworld page, you see an endless parade of very innocent children entranced with the hope of one day becoming a “whale trainer”. How is this false and dangerous “career” fair to be dangled in the face and hopes of naive children? How can they understand that the only thing the whale is being “trained” to do is to succomb to submissive entrapment if the aquatic mammal seeks survival. It is cruel to expose humans to animals that are far too large to be mentally or physically provided for in a small human sized swimming pool. It is spitting in the face of Dawn’s professional expertise. By continuing to subjugate orcas and humans to this travesty, marine parks are creating momuments to man’s worst most barbaric quests for GREED. Greed at the cost of the sea’s most evolved mammals. Shame on you.

  8. August 30, 2010 1:44 pm

    We can only hope that enough media is generated and that enough people pressure these establishments to end their “circus” acts with these very intelligent animals.

  9. Dolores206 permalink
    August 30, 2010 8:37 am

    I am so sorry for these families that have lost love ones. I hope it will never happen again. The public needs to wake up and stop patronizing these parks. This business isn’t good for the animals or the workers. These are highly social animals that need to be with their own kind. Animals be come disfuctional when taken away from the natural world. I visualize all of orcas free to be with thier own. The parks would be better suited for rehab centers for the injured and cleaning of animals of oil spills.

  10. Diane McNally permalink
    August 30, 2010 2:39 am

    I hope this is the end of captive breeding and artificial insemination. Tillikum is owed a return to his home waters in a sea pen with whatever support he requires, for the rest of his life. It’s the least we can do after stealing his youth and wrecking his mind. Tillikum is used for artificial insemination, and I mean used, and has been “in training” since he was a young teen. (Use your imagination.) Tillikum was taken as a baby of two years old from his family, has been moved around arbitrarily, and has had had his mind continually subject to behaviour modification schedules to get him to perform mindless routines for dead fish and fake affection in “relationship sessions”. Orcas’ life span and reproductive lives are similar to ours. The science is in: they are highly intelligent, have language, culture, and are highly family bonded, cooperating in raising the babies. For more info on orcas, visit orcanetwork.org. Until they are banned, please boycott orca shows (and all cetacean based “entertainment”.)

  11. Sherri O permalink
    August 30, 2010 2:29 am

    This is a really good encapsulation of these recent events concerning the the Dawn Brancheau death and subsequent OSHA investigation. When you read it from top to bottom, it is very obvious that Seaworld is hiding a lot and only concerned with their image and maintaining the “Shamu” brand they created. As the cascade of information starts coming out, along with the new awareness of the intelligence and social structures of whales and dolphins (many thanks to ‘The Cove’), the Shamu brand of cute lovable creatures that enjoy spending their lives swimming in chemically treated concrete tanks, being masturbated by trainers for semen samples, deprived of food when they do not perform a “behavior”, are over-bred at a young age multiple times until their uterus basically breaks down until their death is going to end. It is only a matter of time.

  12. Ally permalink
    August 30, 2010 1:28 am

    I’m so glad they are ending the use of whale/dolphins as entertainment — took them long enough!!

  13. Niki permalink
    August 30, 2010 1:02 am

    This, plus “The Cove”, showing on Animal Planet tonight! The Cove is an Oscar-winning documentary about the cruelty of marine mammal captivity/captures and the dolphin slaughter in Japan — which Sea World fully supported in the late 80s and mid 90s!
    Captive dolphins and orcas are kept in small, barren, concrete tanks, and often are separated from their family members. They generally die prematurely, as in the case of Taima, a Sea World orca that just died!

    Boycott marine parks if you really love these beautiful, intelligent beings!

  14. Dawn Deveraux permalink
    August 29, 2010 9:41 pm

    These beautiful whales, as well as dolphins and other marine life, should not EVER be kept in captivity. These orca whales and dolphins swim hundreds of miles a day! To be kept in captivity like this is the equivalent of a human being kept in solitary confinement for the rest of its life. SeaWorld has been through four shamus because they die in their captivity or go insane as has happened with this poor whale Tillicum. If you want to see a whle, go see one in its natural environment! It’s disgusting to go see them in SeaWorld becuase you’re contributing to their death and insanity!

  15. August 29, 2010 1:50 pm

    I sure hope this is the beginning of the end. I just viewed a public catalogue of orca teeth… It was depressing. Until now, I was mostly unaware of the cost of captivity. Thank you for this information.

    • lynne zonies permalink
      August 29, 2010 5:41 pm

      This is so important. I hope any people who have not yet seen the film: THE COVE will watch it tonight on animal channel.

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