Lawyers for the federal government said Monday that SeaWorld animal trainers cannot safely work in close contact with killer whales, as they opened what is expected to be a weeklong legal hearing that could ultimately determine the future of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s world-famous Shamu shows.
“Killer whales are large, powerful and non-domesticated animals. They have the potential to cause serious physical harm or death to people who get near them,” John Black, a U.S. Department of Labor attorney, said during opening arguments in the case, which pits SeaWorld against the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“SeaWorld’s killer-whale training program doesn’t change the essential facts that harm or death to people is possible,” Black said. “Their program doesn’t eliminate what SeaWorld itself recognizes as a calculated risk.”
The case was triggered by the Feb. 24, 2010, death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled underwater and killed by a six-ton killer whale named Tilikum. OSHA, which spent six months investigating the tragedy, has accused SeaWorld of not adequately protecting its trainers and has recommended that trainers never again be permitted to have close contact with the animals without a physical barrier or an equivalent level of protection — essentially making it impossible for trainers to get in the water with the animals.
But SeaWorld characterized Brancheau’s death as an isolated tragedy that shouldn’t overshadow the numerous safety precautions the company and its trainers take while working with the world’s largest marine predator.