The seemingly never-ending game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and SeaWorld, where the August 2010 OSHA-issued citation has been challenged by the theme park from the outset, has not yet run its course. Today, OSHA issued yet another citation against SeaWorld. This second citation compounds the official charges against SeaWorld and does not negate the original citation where the park was initially charged with willful violations against worker safety for exposing trainers to struck-by and drowning hazards during unprotected water and dry work during performances, and which is still being contested by SeaWorld through an extended and mediated appeals process. The initial citation stands despite SeaWorld’s attempt to overturn it in court in the fall of 2011, and through several layers of subsequent review and appeals. As a result, nothing has changed SeaWorld’s requirement to abate and mitigate these hazards (contact with a killer whale) that are causing, or likely to cause, death or serious physical injury.
Like the original fine of $75,000 issued after the February 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, this second citation was issued against SeaWorld for continuing violations of close and dangerous contact with orcas during performances. According to both citations, SeaWorld must provide physical barriers or equivalent or greater protection for trainers working with killer whales, or prohibit the trainers from working in close proximity to them altogether. Thus far, that has meant that the trainers are no longer swimming in the water with the whales, but every other interaction seems to have brazenly continued at SeaWorld since the legal action began nearly three years ago.
And like the first citation, the fine attached to this second citation- $38,500- is financially insignificant and means nothing to SeaWorld’s corporate ledger. However, this citation represents much more than the dollar amount attached to these violations. As SeaWorld continues to fight for its right for close interactions between its orcas and trainers, the rest of the world is left shaking its head as to how far they will go to challenge and resist the inevitable: both water work and unprotected dry work pose unacceptable risk to the safety of trainers, and requires nothing short of physical barriers adequate for their protection or the cessation of the activity altogether. Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum during a ‘dry work’ interaction. And as SeaWorld continues this seemingly futile and obstinate march in a battle of its own design, the fact that the corporation has recently ‘gone public’ means that we are all potential shareholders in the future of SeaWorld, and the orcas at their parks are listed as both liabilities and assets–a fact that demands SeaWorld’s ultimate accountability towards both the trainers and the orcas that are part of their commercial bottom line.
I believe the only conclusion in what seems like a perpetual battle of resistance between federal safety regulators and the giant of the captivity industry is for SeaWorld to finally relent and acknowledge that these magnificent beings are not pawns for our entertainment, and that a lifetime of confinement is ethically indefensible. As they continue to exhaust every legal and procedural avenue, it really is time for SeaWorld to stop gambling the lives of its trainers and orcas while pretending it is an acceptable cost of doing business. No safety measures or minimum distance can ever fully mitigate the consequences and depravity of captivity.
Heightened media attention to the controversies upon which the captivity industry is built, including notorious and inhumane captures, unnecessary and premature deaths, and injuries incurred in whale and dolphin interaction programs has had an impact on the public’s perception of marine theme parks. The new documentary Blackfish which begins its premiere in US theaters on July 19th, and has already been screened at some UK theaters, reveals the true story behind these animals in captivity and the industry that exploits both trainers and killer whales. Opinion polls conducted over the past decade reveal waning support for maintaining orcas in captivity, including a recent one by WDC gauging US public opinion that revealed a mere 26% of the US public support keeping killer whales in captivity. Times are changing, and it is time for SeaWorld to embrace a new direction, and one that is literally not built on the backs of its performing orcas.