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Court Ruling A Severe Blow To SeaWorld Captivity Shows

WDCS welcomes the long-awaited verdict delivered in the past 24 hours which could mark the  permanent end to trainers at SeaWorld in the US being able to work with orcas in the water ever again.
The court decision in the hearing between the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and SeaWorld could fundamentally change the cruel captivity industry forever, and follows SeaWorld contesting the citation issued by OSHA in November last year which was issued in response to the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. Although the judge’s verdict, released late Wednesday afternoon, downgrades the category of the violation and associated fine from ‘willful’ to ‘serious,’ it upholds the original citation against SeaWorld and requires those outlined safety measures be implemented within 10 days of the verdict becoming final.  
WDCS applauds the diligent efforts of the investigators and attorneys that have persevered against the fraudulent claims of SeaWorld that close interaction with orcas is both safe and predictable.  More importantly, the OSHA team has successfully revealed the truth behind orcas in captivity that may forever change how orcas in captivity are viewed not only by regulatory authorities concerned with worker safety, but by the general public concerned with the ethics of keeping orcas in captivity.

“WDCS has anxiously awaited this decision, hoping for a day of reckoning for the many lives lost to captivity, both human and orca, and is heartened by Judge Welsch’s verdict that upholds the original intent and seriousness of OSHA’s citations and required abatement measures,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDCS.  “We commend OSHA for seeking and exposing the truths behind orca programs at SeaWorld and in consideration of the long history of injuries and accidents that preceded Ms. Brancheau’s unfortunate death.”

Two important issues addressed by the verdict and contested at the hearing included whether SeaWorld was aware of the risks and hazards associated with in-water work with orcas at their park and ‘drywork’ interactions with Tilikum (the captive orca involved in the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau); and whether the abatement measures recommended by OSHA in its citation were a feasible means of reducing these hazards.  The judge ruled affirmatively on both counts, supporting OSHA’s original citation requiring physical barriers between Tilikum and trainers during drywork sessions, and prohibiting water work with all other orcas unless protected by physical barriers or decking systems that provide a similar level of protection.
According to SeaWorld, trainer Dawn Brancheau was engaged in unprotected ‘drywork’ with Tilikum when she was killed, and although in-water work was never allowed with Tilikum, it was allowed with other killer whales at their parks.
During the hearing, which WDCS attended, SeaWorld made every attempt to avoid responsibility, downplaying the hundreds of incidents and injuries involving trainers and killer whales, and blaming trainer error for mistakes that SeaWorld claimed were avoidable in what they insist is a very predictable and controlled environment.
SeaWorld can choose to appeal this decision to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission in Washington, DC for further review and thereafter to the U.S. Court of Appeals if it so chooses. Similarly, OSHA could also request the case be reviewed by the Commission, for instance to challenge the downlisting of the citation.
However, skepticism has been leveled at SeaWorld’s proposed safety measures to protect trainers interacting with orcas, such as spare air and lift-bottom pool floors, which are reported to be unworkable but are currently being installed at SeaWorld’s Orlando location.  It is doubtful that these measures will be deemed adequate by OSHA, and this ruling could be the end of in-water performances with orcas at all SeaWorld parks.
WDCS is calling for much stricter regulation and governmental oversight of the captivity industry in the United States and elsewhere and campaigns against capture, trade and confinement of all whales, dolphins and porpoises. Their physical, social and mental needs cannot be met in captivity and the public display industry is a threat to populations in the wild that are targeted by live capture operations used to supply dolphin display and swim with programs worldwide.

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