For over the past two years now, SeaWorld Orlando has been locked in a battle against OSHA fines and regulations. After OSHA banned SeaWorld from allowing trainers back in the water with its whales during performances, they ruled at the end of May that they must be separated by a physical barrier. SeaWorld, displeased with the ruling, appealed the decision to an independent review commission in Washington. According to a report from the Orlando Sentinel, the commission rejected SeaWorld’s appeal to try and overturn this ruling.
The ordeal started back on Feb 24, 2010, when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled under water by the park’s largest, six-ton killer whale, Tilikum, and drowned. After OSHA’s investigation, they cited SeaWorld with over $75,000 in “willful” safety violations and barred SeaWorld from allowing trainers close contact with the bigger whales. After much deliberation, OSHA dropped the “willful” classification from its fines, its most severe classification/violation, but conceded nothing more.
SeaWorld made many changes at their parks, including false-bottom floors in their show tanks, locations underwater for oxygen equipment, and even water vehicles which could distract whales should one find themselves in trouble. It wasn’t enough for OSHA, and as things progressed, their restrictions became more severe, culminating in May’s ruling that they must be protected by a physical barrier from the animals. The only concession made by OSHA in that ruling is that it limited the separation to performances only, since veterinary care and training itself requires close contact with the whales.
At this point, SeaWorld can appeal the judge’s order in a US appellate court in either Washington or Atlanta. Though they have announced no plans, since day one, the park has been fighting a ruling which they feel “contained errors in fact and the law,” as reported by the Orlando Sentinel. Throughout the cases over the past two years, SeaWorld’s trainers themselves have been fighting in favor of SeaWorld, despite the fact that it was one the death of one of their own that lead to the entire ordeal. Whatever SeaWorld decides, they will do so within the next 60 days, but it seems likely they will go to the US Court of Appeals.
The worry outside of SeaWorld is the impact the ruling may have elsewhere. It is possible that OSHA could begin enforcing this ruling across other various shows which put trainers in the same enclosure as larger or more dangerous animals, such as shows involving lions, elephants, wolves, etc. After two years of hard fighting, it is likely SeaWorld has not given up yet, and will continue to appeal the decision to the highest level possible.