SeaWorld’s Killer Whale Safety Protocols Withheld as Trade Secret
Since the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010—the third death involving the orca Tilikum—SeaWorld has instituted new safety protocols recommended by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). SeaWorld officials have attempted to keep the protocols secret, arguing that they are proprietary business records. Despite a court order requiring their release, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has refused to make the protocols public, believing they may be criminally liable for releasing SeaWorld trade secrets.
The new safety protocols require a physical barrier between killer whales and their trainers, as well as a minimum distance between trainers and the whale. In August, Judge Ken Welsch denied SeaWorld’s request to keep the protocols secret stating, “An observer knowledgeable in the behavior and training of killer whales could likely ascertain the information contained in the written protocols by watching the trainers interact with the killer whales.” This coming almost a year after Judge Welsch’s ruling that requiring physical barriers between trainers and whales is a viable means of preventing hazardous conditions for workers.
In the August court order, Judge Welsch gave OSHA until the end of September to make the protocols public. Almost a month after the deadline, the agency has still not complied. Agency spokesman Melik Ahmir-abdul has stated, “A few of the lawyers here were concerned about whether the agency could potentially be held liable for releasing the protocols.” The Associated Press has since filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
SeaWorld has featured killer whales, or orcas, in their theme parks since Shamu was brought to SeaWorld San Diego in the 1960s. There are currently 22 killer whales between SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego. The captivity of these highly intelligent and sentient creatures has been the subject of protest for years with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) being the most obvious proponent against their continued confinement.
The 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum has been the subject of most protests. He has been involved in the deaths of three people since 1991, including 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau who was dragged under and drowned by Tilikum in 2010. Tilikum is the subject of the documentary film Blackfish, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. Tilikum, SeaWorld’s most successful sire, was still performing as of spring of last year.