In a well-orchestrated announcement, released just hours before the 1-year anniversary of the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, SeaWorld says they are spending tens of millions of dollars to outfit their performance pools and trainers with “safety” devices intended to prevent loss of life should another attack occur.
The PR move, designed to divert attention away from this tragedy, was reported last week by the Orlando Sentinel and the CBS Early Show (see videos below) as SeaWorld plans to resume “waterwork” in their killer whale performances at all three of its U.S.-based theme parks. This announcement comes despite the unresolved conclusions of the upcoming OSHA vs. SeaWorld hearings where it is anticipated that SeaWorld will ask a judge to seal the details from the public as SeaWorld challenges OSHA’s citation for willfully placing their employees at risk.
On Saturday, February 26, 2011 author and journalist, David Kirby, appeared on Fox News to discuss these issues as well as the negative effects of orca captivity:
The above video can also be viewed on the Fox News website HERE.
As the details of the tragic incident on February 24, 2010 continue to unfold, it increasingly appears that Dawn’s death was a calculated risk the marine park was willing to take in the preservation of their signature “Shamu” shows, which are at the core of the theme park’s multi-billion-dollar entertainment business. But former SeaWorld trainers continue to come forward and speak out about the safety deficiencies, the negative effects of killer whale (orca) captivity and the details surrounding the tragic, yet avoidable loss of Mrs. Brancheau.
While graphic and painful, these details need to be brought to light in order to avoid future tragedies and to expose the exploitation of killer whales and trainers alike. On a date that should have been reserved as a day of reflection and remembrance, SeaWorld instead chose to use this sad anniversary as another opportunity to promote themselves as a caring, responsible institution with the best interest of the orcas, trainers and the public in mind. With SeaWorld’s lack of discretion, it was necessary for the ugly truth to be made public, mindful of the grief and pain the family and friends of Dawn must feel. By revealing these disturbing facts, it is hoped that another unfortunate incident can be averted and is not intended to add to their sorrow. Our hearts truly go out to all who knew Dawn, especially her family, friends and coworkers during this upsetting and difficult time.
In the video below from the CBS Early Show, February 24, 2011, former SeaWorld trainer Dr Jeffrey Ventre explains why SeaWorld wants to keep the facts about orca captivity and Dawn’s death from public examination. Again, although graphic in nature, it is important that the public is aware of the truth:
Click on image above to watch Dr Jeff Ventre on the CBS Early Show- “Former SeaWorld trainer: Details of co-worker’s death horrific” (opens in new window)
Among the proposed “safety improvements” unveiled by SeaWorld, the marine park says it has designed rising pool floors that can lift killer whales out of the water in perhaps less than a minute’s time.
“Upon initiation, it would immediately release and rise to the surface, lifting multiple killer whales, and then obviously could support multiple individuals,” said John Linn, SeaWorld Parks’ senior director of engineering services.
In addition, SeaWorld said it intends to eventually outfit its trainers with emergency air supplies, initially designed for the U.S. military, that will feature automated breathing regulators and provide two-to-five minutes of air for a trainer trapped under water. The Orca Project reported on this false solution dubbed “Spare-Air” in August, 2010 and several former SeaWorld trainers offered their perspective:
~Dr. John Jett: “The scuba bottle solution… represents, in practical terms, nothing. In other words, this is a false solution”
~Samantha Berg: “I think spare air or any kind of SCUBA gear that a trainer has to be wearing would likely CAUSE more problems than it prevents.”
~Carol Ray: “This is NOT a solution, and would not have prevented Dawn’s recent death or the majority of injuries that have occurred as a result of the recent incidents we are aware of.
You can also read another report on Spare-Air here: SeaWorld Former Trainers Tell OSHA Spare Air Is No Solution
And the company says designers are researching rapidly expanding mechanisms that trainers could use in an attempt to quickly pry open a whale’s jaws in an emergency. Last year it was necessary to pry open Tilikum’s mouth during recovery operations.
The company also intends to employ underwater vehicles that could be used to distract an out-of-control killer whale with pulsing lights and whale vocalizations… essentially an “underwater robotic rodeo clown”.
These proposed changes are on top of other inadequate safety improvements SeaWorld has made in recent months, including installing removable guardrails around stage ledges (see photo below) and “net boxes” that reportedly deploy quickly in an emergency (read more about the new net device HERE). However, none of these proposed safety measures will sufficiently ensure the safety of its trainers. In fact, many are viewed as increased risks as more and more of these devices are introduced into the killer whales’ existing unnatural habitat.
And according to Dan Spitz, a forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy at the request of NBC News, there was little that could have been done to save Brancheau’s life once the whale had her. “Had she been able to be pulled from the whale early on, she did sustain severe injuries, and even with fairly immediate medical attention, it would be difficult for her to survive.” You can watch the full report on NBC’s TODAY Show HERE.
For the full story on SeaWorld’s safety announcement, including interviews with former trainers Drs John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre, watch the video below from the CBS Early Show:
Click on image above to watch Drs John Jett and Jeff Ventre on the CBS Early Show- “Sea World trainers to return to the water” (opens in new window)
Due to limited space requirements, the Orlando Sentinel published SeaWorld’s proposed safety solution announcement on the evening of February 23, foregoing responses to questions asked of former SeaWorld trainer Dr. Jeffrey Ventre (and others). Therefore, the story was released without the opposing views of SeaWorld’s statements. The Orca Project has published the Q & A with Dr. Ventre below:
Orlando Sentinel (OS): SeaWorld maintains that it wouldn’t be proceeding with water work unless it was certain that its trainers’ jobs have been made as safe as possible. Do you believe that it is at all possible for a trainer to safely work with a killer whale in the water?
Dr. Jeff Ventre (JV): Yes, most of the time, but not all of the time. A year later, it’s clear that the 3 former trainers that died from captive orcas, Keltie Byrne, Alexis Martinez, and Dawn Brancheau were killed by free-thinking whales that broke from control and decided to hurt them. These facilities, SeaLand of the Pacific, Loro Parque, and SeaWorld, all have a vested interest in presenting these events as tragic accidents. That is why at the very first press conference, SeaWorld announced that Dawn had “slipped and fell and drowned.” What is concerning is that they came up with that fabrication after a closed-door session. Then they fed it to the Orange County Sheriff, who announced it to the world via press conference. The “pony tail” pull-in was likely another tall tale. The evidence suggests that Tilikum used a counterclockwise roll move and arm-barred Dawn over the top and into the water. The details of the ensuing struggle and the extent of the massive injuries sustained challenge the claims put forth that this was simply an accidental drowning caused by an overzealous whale.
OS: Do you believe there is any way SeaWorld can adequately prepare for situations where whales break control?
The new “safety rails” are put into practice during a December 2010 Believe Show performance~ photo courtesy John Kielty
JV: Preparation, for anything, is important. However, in real situations, like with Dawn, Keltie, or Alexis, things break down rapidly. It’s like in medicine when a “code” is called. It’s nice to have a pre-determined instruction manual, but many times the manual gets tossed out the window when you’re trying to save a life. My understanding is that in all 3 trainer deaths, efforts to save these young people were “thwarted” by the whales, which out-maneuvered the teams of trainers trying to lend aid to their fallen colleagues. In all cases the trainers were either pulled back into the water, or prevented from leaving the pool. Additionally, life rings and hooks were avoided or pushed out of range. Call back slaps and underwater tones failed. These animals likely don’t feel guilt the way we do and made powerful statements.
OS: Do you believe that some of these safety solutions – particularly the lifting floor concept – will genuinely improve safety?
JV: No. These gestures are designed to be expensive gadgets that “prove” that SW is making things safer. There are no lifting floors or counter-measures available to kayakers, boaters and divers that interact with orcas in the wild, yet not one person in a kayak has ever been hurt. The obvious conclusion is that the stress associated with captivity makes them less predictable, and sometimes dangerous. These animals are not dogs. They have large brains and think for themselves. The irony here is that these counter-measures prove that the whales are not completely safe, and help demonstrate OSHA’s case.
For more information and exclusive content, visit Jeffrey Ventre’s page HERE at Voice of the Orcas, a new website created by four former SeaWorld trainers, sharing a common philosophy to provide a voice to those without.
Meanwhile, the killer whales themselves are gradually being re-trained through a process SeaWorld calls “water desensitization training” where orcas will presumably be desensitized to the presence of a trainer in the water. They eventually plan to put all of their killer whales through this behavioral training except for one- Tilikum, the large whale that killed Brancheau. The adult male is considered especially dangerous because he has been involved in three deaths over 20 years and is by far the biggest orca in SeaWorld’s collection.
According to SeaWorld Animal Curator Chuck Tompkins, Tilikum had been put through “some very basic sessions of water desense” before Brancheau’s death and will undergo some further limited work… but trainers will not get into the water with him at all.
Tilikum remains isolated from other orcas and out of public view as seen in this February 23, 2011 photo, courtesy of Colleen Gorman
Reportedly, trainers have begun working with Tilikum on behaviors to be used in a new killer-whale show that will debut in SeaWorld’s marine parks this spring. That show, at least for the foreseeable future, will be conducted entirely by trainers working from the stage. Since Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld has kept Tilikum out of all performances and isolated him from the other 6 orcas in the pool complex, akin to a sentence of “solitary confinement” for his actions of last year. Recently, Tilikum’s living conditions and access have been further restricted due to the ongoing construction to incorporate the new “safety” measures. He is now confined to a shallow pool, not as deep as he is long. A rather cruel and unusual punishment for one of the world’s most complex, intelligent, social beings that are known to travel up to 100 miles a day in the wild. Therefore, Tilikum’s exact fate, and his future, remains quite uncertain.
Stay tuned to The Orca Project for continuing developments.