Still image taken from Magnolia Pictures' movie "Blackfish", which explores the practices of capturing orcas and keeping them for entertainment.
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- A federal ban on contact between killer whales and their trainers, imposed after a bull orca drowned a SeaWorld trainer, faces a challenge in federal court Tuesday as the marine park fights to keep its signature attraction.
SeaWorld, famous for its "Shamu" killer whale shows, says the Labor Department judge went too far when he prohibited "close contact" between the killer whales and their keepers after the Feb. 24, 2010, death of veteran SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Brancheau died after Tilikum yanked her from a platform into a pool during the "Dine with Shamu" show and thrashed her until she drowned. The whale held Brancheau in his mouth for nearly 45 minutes before other trainers could extricate her body.
See Also: "Blackfish" documentary takes critical look at SeaWorld
The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration
investigated Brancheau's death and cited SeaWorld for "willfully"
violating federal safety laws that require a workplace to be free from
Tilikum, SeaWorld's largest whale at 12,000
pounds, had killed at least once before coming to SeaWorld. In that
incident at a park in Canada in 1991, a trainer slipped into a pool and
Tilikum pulled her under repeatedly, drowning her. In a second incident,
a man who sneaked into the park after closing was found dead in
The federal government says SeaWorld knows Tilikum
is dangerous and prohibits trainers from working in water more than
knee-deep with the animal. With other whales, trainers can swim in their
pools. SeaWorld's trainers have dozens of close interactions daily with
the park's seven killer whales.
Although Administrative Law Judge
Ken Welsch downgraded the citation from "willful" to "serious," he
fined the marine amusement park $7,000 and barred "close contact"
between SeaWorld staff and killer whales.
The judge found that the "emotions inspired by the grandeur of humans interacting with killer whales" did not justify the risk.
which is represented in court by Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court
Justice Antonin Scalia, argues in a legal brief that human contact with
the killer whales is educational, integral to the care of the whales and
answers "an elemental human desire to know, understand and interact
with the natural world."
Many activities that put humans in
contact with nature, such as mountain climbing or kayaking, carry risk,
SeaWorld argues. The law requires SeaWorld to minimize risks, not
eliminate them, court papers say.
"On rare occasions, killer
whales can be dangerous," Sea World wrote. "Sea World has taken
extraordinary measures to control that risk."
prohibition of interaction between whales and humans at SeaWorld to
barring blocking and tackling in the NFL or posting speed limits on the
NASCAR circuit. Barring close contact would change the nature of
SeaWorld's business, the lawyers say.
"SeaWorld has always made killer whales the centerpiece of its mission," the legal brief said.
for OSHA argue that killer whales' behavior is so unpredictable that
SeaWorld's scientifically unproved training methods are not enough to
mitigate the risks.
The agency cited several "near misses" when
trainers working with killer whales at SeaWorld were injured, including
an incident in 2006 at San Diego SeaWorld during which killer whale
Kasatka grabbed a trainer by the foot and repeatedly dragged him to the
bottom of the pool for eight minutes until the trainer broke free and
swam to safety.
"Forty-plus years of history at the SeaWorld parks
have yielded occasion after occasion where captive killer whales have
not responded as their trainers intended," the attorneys wrote in OSHA's
legal brief. "The hazard in this case was well-known to SeaWorld and
fully capable of being prevented."
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