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End of the Road? Another legal setback for SeaWorld

WDC welcomes the recent decision by the US Court of Appeals to uphold the original Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citation against SeaWorld and deny their most recent petition for review.  With this decision, SeaWorld’s only option left open to them in their tortuous legal battle to overturn the original citation issued in August 2010 is to appeal to the US Supreme Court. As a result of this final decision, SeaWorld must comply with the original citation requirements to abate and mitigate hazards associated with close contact with the killer whales.

Over the past several years and in response to OSHA’s citation, SeaWorld launched a series of legal challenges seeking judicial review and contesting the decision. The most recent appeal occurred at Georgetown University in November 2013, where SeaWorld argued in federal appellate court that the Labor Department does not have authority to separate its trainers from killer whales following the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau.

SeaWorld was recited by OSHA late last year for an additional fine and continuing violations of close and dangerous contact with orcas during performances. According to the 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 other close interactions have been documented as still occurring at SeaWorld since the legal action began nearly three years ago.

Heightened media attention to the controversies upon which the captivity industry is built, including notorious and inhumane captures, unnecessary and premature deaths, and injuries suffered in whale and dolphin interaction programs has had an impact on the public’s perception of marine theme parks.

If SeaWorld were smart, and acknowledged the writing on the wall, they would adapt. They would work to mold their programs into true conservation and education programs by agreeing not to acquire animals from the wild, phasing out captive breeding, and seeking sanctuary for those individuals that can be retired into more natural sea pens while transitioning their attractions away from a focus on performing whales and dolphins. SeaWorld can profile their rescue work, while enhancing their attractions through innovative technology. Holographic and virtual displays could easily replace archaic circus acts that cause unnecessary suffering to countless whales and dolphins.

Is this the end of the road for SeaWorld’s legal challenges? Times are changing, and so are public attitudes. WDC believes the only conclusion in what seems like a perpetual battle of resistance between the 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. Yet another appeal will only prolong the inevitable. No safety measures or minimum distance can ever fully mitigate the consequences and depravity of captivity.