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SeaWorld trainers: Working with killer whales is a calculated risk

From John Couwels, CNN
updated 5:35 AM EST, Wed November 16, 2011
A killer whale performs at Sea World in Orlando. In February 2010 a killer whale named Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.
A killer whale performs at Sea World in Orlando. In February 2010 a killer whale named Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Employees testify in OSHA hearing into the death of a killer whale's trainer
  • They testified that trainers are taught to recognize signs of aggression
  • OSHA has cited SeaWorld for not having adequate safety precautions
  • In 2010, Dawn Brancheau was pulled underwater by a killer whale and drowned

Sanford, Florida (CNN) -- SeaWorld employees on Tuesday testified at a federal job safety hearing that, while the behavior of killer whales is is extremely predictable, the job of working with a 6-ton marine mammal carries a calculated risk.

The hearing, before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Review Commission, resumed Monday after a two-month hiatus. It was convened to look into the death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, in February 2010.

OSHA attorneys called three witness -- all from SeaWorld San Diego, including the California park's vice president. SeaWorld strongly objected to the California employees being called as witnesses in a case involving only the Florida theme park.

The administrative judge allowed the questioning to go forward, but reiterated his final ruling would only concern the SeaWorld Orlando's operations.

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SeaWorld employees testified that trainers of killer whales are taught to recognize "precursors" -- odd behaviors that could lead to aggression. OSHA attorneys reviewed multiple SeaWorld incident reports in which trainers missed aggressive behaviors.

Tuesday, while testifying about a 1999 incident involving SeaWorld San Diego killer whale Kasatka, trainer Ken Peters testified how the female killer whale grabbed his foot and pulled him underwater.

"Yes, she could have drowned me" if she wanted to, Peters said.

Peters acknowledged the dangers of his job.

"Yes -- it's a calculated risk of dying tomorrow," but trainers can predict killer whale behaviors 99.9% of the time, he said.

OSHA says training alone is not enough to keep trainers safe.

After a lengthy investigation, OSHA cited SeaWorld of Florida, Inc., in August 2010 for willfully endangering employees by not taking proper safety precautions.

The citation said the park allowed its employees to work with Tilikum, a 12,000-pound animal with "known aggressive tendencies" who had previously been involved in the 1991 death of a trainer at a marine park in Vancouver, British Columbia.

OSHA said the SeaWorld Orlando did not provide barriers, decking, oxygen supply systems or other types of protection for the trainers.

In the case of Brancheau's death, the trainer was sitting on the Shamu Stadium's pool edge during a private show when Tilikum pulled her into the water, drowning her.

Since Brancheau's death, SeaWorld has forbidden trainers from entering the water with killer whales.

Trainers are required to sign a document in the standard operating procedure manual that acknowledges the calculated risk -- government attorney John Black called the document, "a release waiver."

Michael Scarauzzi, SeaWorld San Diego's Vice President of Zoological Operations, was deemed a hostile witness by the judge for giving brief and evasive answers, and OSHA's attorneys were allowed to ask more leading questions.

OSHA is expecting to wrap its case on Wednesday. It is unclear how many witnesses SeaWorld will call.

The hearing is schedule to conclude Friday.

After court was adjourned, Dawn Brancheau's family issued a statement through their attorney, saying their "interest in the case is the safety of the current and future SeaWorld employees and their hope (that) no other family will have to suffer like we have had to," said attorney John Mills.

The family has acknowledged that SeaWorld surveillance video showing the trainer's death might be shown during the trial, but they hope it will not be released to the public.

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