Killer whale proximity to trainer key to shows, SeaWorld tells court

Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:27pm EST
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By Lacey Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Putting killer whales and their trainers together in close proximity is an important part of SeaWorld's shows, the marine park operator said on Tuesday in asking a federal court to overturn an order to put more space between orcas and humans.

The case resulted from the February 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old marine life trainer at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc's Orlando park, and a U.S. Labor Department safety order that came after that tragedy.

Brancheau drowned when a 12,000-pound (5,440-kg) bull killer whale, or orca, named Tilikum pulled her into a pool.

Close interaction between whales and humans is "the premise of SeaWorld's entertainment," the company's attorney, Eugene Scalia, told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Labor Department order is like the "government came in and told the NFL (National Football League) that close contact on the football field would have to end" for safety reasons, said Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Six months after Brancheau's death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said SeaWorld had exposed its trainers to a hazardous environment, violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act's "general duty" clause.

OSHA, part of the Labor Department, ordered SeaWorld to make changes, including physically separating trainers and orcas during performances.

OSHA also fined SeaWorld $75,000 for three safety violations. An administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission reduced the fine last year to $12,000 after downgrading one of the violations.   Continued...