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Investigation Finds Hazardous Chemicals with Killer Whale Food Supply at SeaWorld

February 28, 2012

Recently released photos reveal more damaging evidence into the haphazard management of killer whale care and trainer safety at SeaWorld’s Orlando, Florida theme park.  The Orca Project has obtained photographs from the 2010 OSHA investigation into the death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, which appear to show harmful chemicals stored with the food supply for killer whales at Shamu Stadium.  The placement and storage of the potentially toxic materials are not in compliance with OSHA Standards for employee safety and are clear violations of the Animal Welfare Act, placing the orca’s nutritional supply at risk for contamination.


Two years ago, during her interaction with Tilikum, a 12,000 pound (5,443 kg) killer whale (Orcinus-orca), Mrs. Brancheau was pulled into the water by her arm and brutally killed.  Following the February 24, 2010 tragedy- the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health and Administration (OSHA) investigated the scene at the Florida marine park and later cited SeaWorld for three safety violations including a “willful” violation- OSHA’s most severe, whereas “the employer did not furnish employment and a place of employment which were free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”  The citation went on to say “animal trainers working with Tilikum… were exposed to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.”

Additional citations were also issued for exposing employees to a fall hazard by failing to install a stairway railing system on a bridge at the “Believe” stage and for failing to equip outdoor electrical receptacles with weatherproof enclosures in Shamu Stadium.  SeaWorld contested OSHA’s citations in courtroom hearings that spanned two weeks in September & November, 2011.  A ruling is pending from Administrative Law Judge Ken S. Welsch.

Harmful chemicals: Air Compressor Oil and Bleach stored with boxes of Gelatin at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium ~ OSHA photo

The Discovery:

Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Orca Project acquired 71 photos taken at the scene during OSHA’s investigation (more photos can be seen HERE).  Three of the pictures taken from inside a food storage area of the Fish House at Shamu Stadium depict shelving lined with boxes of Knox brand gelatin, a product widely used for enrichment, supplemental hydration, and for delivery of vitamins and medication to the killer whales.  Stored on the same shelves with the unopened boxes of gelatin appear to be containers of two known harmful chemicals— bleach and a previously opened bottle of compressor oil.

At first sight, the photos seem rather innocuous, but the combination and placement of these three materials in close proximity further evidences the problems with trainer safety at SeaWorld, the harmful effects of orca captivity, and the lack of oversight by our government’s animal welfare agencies.

Trainer Safety Violations:

The first issue lies with trainer safety relating to the storage of chemicals in the Fish House— an enclosed structure where the orcas food (primarily frozen fish), supplements, and medication are stored, prepared and rationed.  In and of themselves, the bleach and compressor oil do not pose a significant risk to employees, however, the problem arises with the storage of these two substances together.

CompAir oil stored on shelf labeled “Jello” ~ OSHA photo

We are all familiar with common bleach, like Clorox (and the generic boxes of bleach shown in the photos), and we’re aware of the hazards, precautions and possible toxicity associated with this common household cleaner/sanitizer.  What is probably less recognizable is the air compressor oil, Comp-Air CS300, which can be seen stored on the shelf labeled “Jello” alongside the cartons of gelatin.  According to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for this synthetic lubricant, a warning specifies— “Do not store or use near any source of ignition or strong oxidizers“.

Hence the danger; bleach is a strong oxidizer, containing Sodium Hypochlorite as a secondary ingredient.  Should the bleach and oil come in contact with one another, the potential exists for a violent reaction which could result in a fire or explosion leading to injury or death of employees.

In addition to the three citations it issued August 23, 2010, OSHA could very well have fined SeaWorld for failing to comply with the employer’s responsibility of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard 29CFR 1910.1200 for storing reactive materials together and mislabeling chemical storage locations.

NOTE: Also seen stored on the shelves in the Fish House are 5-gallon pails of what appears to be a Professional grade of Dawn Detergent, however it is not known what, if anything, is stored in the containers. (Dawn Dish Detergent produces hazardous fumes if it comes in contact with bleach).

Bleach, a strong oxidizer, is stored with reactive oil and Gelatin ~ OSHA photo

Orca Safety Violations:

The containers of oil and bleach should not be stored together for human safety reasons; but the more serious issue here is that neither should be stored on the same shelves, or in the same room, individually or collectively with the gelatin that is fed to the orcas.  Not only does this indicate a the lack of safety precautions and oversight for the welfare of orcas housed at SeaWorld, but they are clear violations of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulation 9 CFR section 3.101 (d) which reads in part:

“Supplies of food must be stored in facilities that adequately protect such supplies from deterioration, spoilage, and vermin or other contamination.  No substances that are known to be or may be toxic or harmful to marine mammals may be stored or maintained in the marine mammal food storage or preparation areas”

Bleach and compressor oil are both known to be harmful.  In addition to being a strong oxidizing agent, Clorox bleach contains Sodium Hypochlorite and Sodium Hydroxide, both listed as hazardous ingredients on the Clorox MSDS.  Bleach is corrosive, may cause severe irritation or damage to eyes and skin, and is harmful if swallowed.

Likewise, Comp-Air CS300 air compressor oil has its own precautionary health statements.  Aside from being chemically reactive with bleach, it is a synthetic lubricant containing phthalate diester, synthetic hydrocarbons and additives.  According to the Comp-Air CS300 MSDS:

“Health studies have shown that many petroleum hydrocarbons and synthetic lubricants pose potential human health risks which vary from person to person. As a precaution, exposure to liquids, vapors, mist or fumes should be minimized.”

The oil’s actual ingredients are proprietary, therefore it is difficult to ascertain the true dangers— but it stands to reason that the potential health risks to “human” mammals would equally apply to marine mammals.

You can view the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for Clorox Bleach, CompAir compressor oil (& Dawn detergent) below or by clicking <HERE>:

View this document on Scribd

It is abundantly clear that neither of these chemical formulations should have been stored together or stored with the gelatin that is fed to orcas.  It is illegal by both OSHA and AWA Regulations and SeaWorld’s negligence placed employees and orcas at risk.

What is Knox gelatin? Why is the risk of contamination important?

Gelatin (or gelatine) is a translucent, colorless, brittle (when dry), flavorless solid substance, derived from the collagen inside animals’ skin and bones.  It is commonly used as a gelling agent in food, pharmaceuticals, photography, and cosmetic manufacturing (click HERE to read more about gelatin’s use at marine mammal parks).  In 1890, Charles Knox first introduced the world to pre-granulated unflavored gelatin although many of us may be more familiar with “Jello” brand flavored gelatins.

In 1999 SeaWorld first began experimenting with the use of gelatin as a means of enrichment and “play” activity for their marine mammals.  Later, they evolved its use into a form of supplemental hydration and more recently for the delivery of vitamins and medications.

In the Summer of 2010, Kelly Flaherty-Clark, curator of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando introduced a paper titled Gelatin’s Multiple Applications in Marine Animal Care and Training in the quarterly magazine Soundings published by the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA).  Flaherty-Clark’s 4-page article, co-authored with Cheryl and Doug Messinger (founders of The Dolphin Connection, a swim-with-the-dolphins program in the Florida Keys), touted the many benefits of gelatin:

“Faced with the environmental enrichment device limitations that accompany the power and curiosity of killer whales (Orcinus orca), a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale facility came forward with an idea in September of 1999 that impacted not only the whales, but eventually every species housed in the park.  Unflavored gelatin!  Here was something that could be altered in shape, size, color, and density.  We could freeze it, or not.  Offer it in pieces or whole, with fish in suspension or without.  We could stick it on the animals, their enrichment items, ourselves, let them forage for it, and even share in the fun, and take a bite of gelatin ourselves!  The possibilities were endless and all without the worry of potential complications from ingestion.”

That is of course provided the gelatin remains contaminant-free and the trainers survive the potential exposure risks.  The paper concludes:

“Gelatin, which debuted as an amazing environmental enrichment device, now passively maintains hydration, and the delivery of daily vitamin supplements.  Gelatin enhanced with fish slurry has carried medication, and promisingly, some nutrients to animals unwilling to ingest fish.  Gelatin’s versatility is reinforcing to animals and the people who care for them; as a result, it has great potential, and an encouraging future.”

Also cited in Flaherty-Clark’s paper are instances where gelatin was introduced to ailing, dehydrated killer whales by utilizing up to 8-gallons daily to nurture them back to health.

Dawn Brancheau tosses Gelatin into Tilikum’s waiting mouth just moments before he pulls her into the water ~ Connell Family video

What wasn’t noted is the fact that Tilikum currently receives 10-gallons (approx. 80 lbs) of gelatin daily for hydration.  At the time of his involvement in Dawn Brancheau’s death, it is also known that Tilikum was ill and receiving antibiotics and antifungal drugs to treat an inflammatory issue.  Based on the treatments prescribed for the other animals detailed in the paper, it is reasonable to believe that his intake of gelatin would have increased well beyond 10-gallons per day during this illness.

It is disturbing that what has become an essential means of providing care for captive orcas at SeaWorld is handled recklessly by those responsible for their well-being.  The same negligence also compromises the safety of trainers and staff.

At the SeaWorld vs. OSHA hearings, Flaherty-Clark, the veteran manager at the Central Florida marine park testified at length in defense of SeaWorld’s killer whale/trainer safety programs in place at the time of Dawn’s death.  Her testimony attempted to refute OSHA’s assertion that SeaWorld acted “with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health” even though three violations were clearly present and properly cited by OSHA.  In addition to these willful, serious, and other-than-serious citations, the chemical storage violations also existed.  The result: one young woman is dead, many others were put at risk… and the welfare and lives of captive killer whales continue to be threatened every day.

OSHA’s doing its job.  But what’s being done for orca safety?:

Aside from OSHA, what isn’t widely known is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) also performed their own inspection and investigation at SeaWorld following Dawn’s death.  APHIS is charged with oversight and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) for marine mammals in captivity.

“APHIS’ goal is for all AWA-regulated facilities to be in full compliance every day.  Inspectors are trained to identify and document all non-compliant items on the inspection reports.” ~ USDA/APHIS document

No fewer than three APHIS officials visited and inspected Shamu Stadium and the events surrounding Dawn’s death yet the chemicals stored in the Fish House went unnoticed and unreported.  This despite APHIS calling in some of their top experts to investigate including APHIS Field Specialist for Big Cats and Marine Mammals, Dr. Laurie Gage, DVM.

Prior to joining APHIS, Dr. Gage spent 23 years as the director of veterinary services for Six Flags Marine World (formerly Marine World Africa USA and now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom— home of the lone orca Shouka) and has provided services for zoos, circuses, aquaria, and rehabilitation and rescue centers in the U.S. and abroad.

Also on scene to investigate the death at SeaWorld were APHIS Supervisory Animal Care Specialist Dr. Gregory Gaj, DVM and APHIS Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES) Investigator Dale Boyles.  Their findings of “No non-compliant items” are not available on the APHIS website and are not readily accessible to the public.  However, The Orca Project acquired the documents from their investigation which can be seen below or by clicking <HERE>.

View this document on Scribd

On November 25, 2011 APHIS received a formal complaint filed by The Orca Project for SeaWorld’s AWA violation of storing chemicals with the orca’s food supply.  The report of non-compliance of AWA regulation 9 CFR Sec. 3.101 included the 3 photographs provided by OSHA as well as information contained in the Material Safety Data Sheets.

As is customary (and apparently APHIS policy), no response or reply is ever sent by APHIS following the submission of a complaint.  Instead, one must wait to see if APHIS conducts an inspection and then wait for inspection results to post on their website, which could take 30 days or more.  As two months have passed, it is assumed APHIS did not follow-up or investigate the OSHA discovery photos and our subsequent report of non-compliance.

The typical results of an APHIS inspection at a marine mammal park ~ APHIS- SeaWorld Orlando

In fact, it has been more than a year since APHIS last conducted an inspection at SeaWorld Orlando with the last coming on February 15, 2011.  According to the APHIS website, since August of 2007 only five inspections have been conducted at Shamu Stadium.  Some of these were of limited scope (water quality only) despite numerous reports of non-compliance of AWA regulations, by us and others, and the fact that more than 25% of their orcas died in 2010 alone.

In the past 5 years, only a single inspector, Robert Brandes, DVM has performed a total of 8 inspections at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment’s three Orlando facilities— SeaWorld, Aquatica, and Discovery Cove.  Combined, these marine parks house some 250 marine mammals. Every one of his inspections has concluded: “No non-compliant items identified during this inspection”.

Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando. Often isolated and unprotected from the tropical Florida sun

By comparison, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California, which typically houses fewer than 40 marine mammals (1 orca), has been inspected 21 times in the same time period and has been cited for 10 indirect non-compliant AWA issues.  Among them included a contamination risk in the food storage area of their marine research center.  Additionally, Six Flags was cited for violations that also exist at SeaWorld Orlando and have been reported to APHIS/AC East— such as separation issues (orcas housed alone) and failures to provide adequate shelter and protection from the sun for orcas.  For the most part, due to the citations, these deficiencies have been corrected at Six Flags, yet here in the east things remain the same.

How is it that casual observers, those without unfettered access and now another Federal agency (OSHA) can witness and accurately document non-compliant AWA issues at SeaWorld Orlando yet not a single violation has been observed, verified, or addressed by APHIS staff?

Unfortunately, none of this comes as a surprise to those of us who have attempted to cross this bridge with APHIS Animal Care (AC)— particularly when it comes to marine mammals in captivity here on the east coast.  It also should come as no surprise to the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) who has been very critical in the past concerning mismanagement at APHIS and the failures to properly conduct inspections and compliance of AWA regulations.

In a 2005 audit of APHIS Animal Care, the OIG found:

“Due to a lack of clear National guidance, AC’s Eastern Region is not aggressively pursuing enforcement actions against violators of the AWA.” ~ USDA Office of the Inspector General

Apparently nothing has changed since then.  We chronicled these challenges with the USDA, APHIS and the OIG in a detailed report HERE when faced with the violations present at Miami Seaquarium.

Last week, The Orca Project again contacted APHIS as well as the Office of Inspector General regarding this chemical storage issue as well as previous reports of non-compliance.  As of the date of this publication, neither has responded.

What’s next?:

We are very fortunate and grateful that OSHA has remained steadfast in their resolve to improve and enforce trainer safety— shrugging off attempts by Florida lawmakers to intervene on SeaWorld’s behalf.  OSHA has done an amazing job in their investigation and presentation of their case against SeaWorld and in the end, the resulting trainer safety improvements may ultimately trickle down to improve the lives for killer whales by forcing changes within the entire captive marine mammal industry.

Wild transient orcas off the Alaskan coast ~ NOAA Wikimedia

However, much still needs to be done on the animal welfare side.  Despite industry claims of advancements in veterinary care, nutrition, and husbandry techniques— life expectancies of killer whales in captivity are well below those of their wild counterparts.  Chronic stress, infection, poor dental health, and the confinement, constrictions and adverse exposures of the captive environment itself contribute to shorter life spans.

Captive female orcas give birth too young, too often, and behave abnormally toward their calves.  Orcas in captivity are more aggressive toward each other than in the wild and have seriously threatened the lives and safety of dozens of people.  Four people have been killed by orcas in marine parks, however, wild orcas have injured only a handful of people (none seriously) and there are no records, at any time in history, of them killing anyone.

Fortunately, the truth about orca captivity is being told and catching-on in the media… and in public perception.  It’s now up to our lawmakers and the marine park industry to also take notice of this shift— and know that we will not rest until the exploitation ceases and these intelligent, highly social, amazing beings are afforded the life they deserve.

“The debate on captive orca welfare has been going on for more than 30 years and that’s far too long.  The science is in and we should realize that nothing – not profit, not education, not conservation – can justify keeping this large, social, intelligent predator in a small box.” ~ Naomi Rose, Ph.D., senior scientist for Humane Society International

But taking on a multibillion-dollar conglomerate such as SeaWorld and their owners the Blackstone Group is no easy task— especially since they have ramped up their efforts to secure favors from lawmakers in Washington.  And the public should not have to police these facilities to ensure compliance. That is why we have laws, regulations and government oversight agencies in place.  Unfortunately, those responsible for overseeing the welfare of captive marine mammals are not doing their job and the marine parks are permitted to continue their negligent and exploitive practices.  It’s time for them to be held accountable.

What you can do:

Tell the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General that APHIS Animal Care is failing to act in the best interest marine mammals in captivity, they are not meeting the objectives of their mission statement, and they are NOT enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.  Demand that action be taken, inspections performed and laws enforced.  The OIG has a “Hotline” for reporting violations related to USDA programs such as employee misconduct and mismanagement, both of which are widespread at APHIS/AC East.  The hotline tips can be submitted online, by email, by phone, or mail.  You may remain anonymous if you wish.  Here’s the link to the OIG’s hotline:

What else you can do:

Tell your friends and families not to visit or support Marine Mammal Parks like SeaWorld, Miami Seaquarium and Six Flags. There is a better way to see orcas.

Contact your Congressman and elected officials and tell them not to support marine mammal captivity and to do everything within their power to ensure current animal welfare laws are enforced.  To locate your government officials, click <HERE>.

Help support our efforts at The Orca Project.  Click <HERE> to learn how your generous contribution can help us in our fight for captive orcas and marine mammals.  Giving is quick, simple and safe… and no donation is too small.  Every little bit helps.

On behalf of these amazing beings, thank you for your support.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2012 1:49 am

    This comes as no surprise. Shame on the cetacean captivity industry and its supporters. It is an expiriment gone wrong!

  2. Diane McNally permalink
    March 3, 2012 12:18 am

    Have ordered 2 copies of Death at Sea World from local indie book store and will give one away at my annual August 8 demo / info and leafleting event for Lolita Tokitae and all the captives, downtown.

  3. Diane McNally permalink
    March 3, 2012 12:17 am

    I don’t get here as often as I used to because of political commitments aka meetings and research.Thank you for staying the course, OP.


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