SeaWorld: The Beginning of the End for Orca Shows

Part five in a series revisiting human deaths caused by SeaWorld orcas and the OSHA-SeaWorld case. For clarity, please read part one, part twopart three and part four.

At just 29 years old, Alexis Martinez had everything to live for. A trainer at Loro Parque, a Spanish theme park on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Martinez was considered one, if not the, best orca trainer that Loro Parque possessed. Yet, as was the case with Dawn Brancheau, it failed to save his life. On December 24, 2009, just two months before Brancheau was killed by Tilikum in Orlando, Florida, Martinez died following a devastating attack by another SeaWorld orca named Keto. His death barely made the news and yet the incident report clearly defined the scope of the attack; the orca had intended to kill.

Like SeaWorld, Loro Parque’s orcas had a history of aggression towards trainers, and a fatality was just a matter of time. His death failed to derail SeaWorld’s USA-based orca shows. Trainers were pulled from waterwork for two days before jumping right back in again. SeaWorld had learned nothing and just two months later, it would cost Dawn Brancheau her life.

Orcas at Loro Parque, Tenerife. Image: Piotrus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The historical background leading up to these two deaths is both telling and damning. Not only did it form the basis for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s case against SeaWorld, it aided Judge Ken Welsch with his decision to uphold OSHA’s citations against SeaWorld in 2012. As for the park, in appealing the OSHA citations, SeaWorld opened itself up to public scrutiny and tarnished its image forever.

What did we learn?

Between 1988-2009, SeaWorld generated 100 incident reports between its animals and its trainers. Of these, twelve that we know of involved documented injuries. OSHA forced Chuck Tompkins, the former Vice President of Animal Training to admit the park had, “missed a few.” OSHA also shredded Tompkins’ estimates that SeaWorld could predict the behavior of its whales upwards of 98% of the time. Dismissed by the government agency who described it as “questionable data” involving “guesswork and averaging,” the court afforded it little weight. Some of those incidents are contained in the report below:

Incident Reports Between Trainers and Whales at SeaWorld Parks by battwoman on Scribd

Incidents aside, comments from SeaWorld staff made following internal reviews of these incidents were also introduced into the courtroom by OSHA. They clearly highlight the dangers of working with orcas:

Let’s face it, in these types of incidents, I don’t recall any whale responding to any hand slap, food bucket, or any other distraction we tried to implement. — Aug. 04, 2004. Response to an incident at SeaWorld Texas involving Kyuquot and a trainer.

Whales should never be reviewed as routine or predictable. — Aug. 02, 2002

To be honest, it’s great to be able to show people that our killer whales do have the potential of getting nasty. — July 01, 2002

These statements — many made prior to the deaths of Martinez and Brancheau do not need expert analysis. Yet SeaWorld — with all of its claims of expertise, continued to endorse its methods of training as safe. Byrne’s death, Duke’s death, and the death of Martinez, when combined with more than 100 incident reports from across all of its parks, should have been enough. It wasn’t. The park’s willful ignorance was shocking, but Brancheau’s death and SeaWorld’s response to it took things to an entirely new level of incomprehension.

Next time: How SeaWorld dealt with Dawn Brancheau’s death.

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt
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