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SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - SeaWorld has appealed a federal ruling that has kept its trainers from swimming with killer whales during public performances, as the theme park company said on Friday that physical contact between animals and their human minders was essential to its operations.
The ruling followed the 2010 death of Florida trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by the orca Tilikum in front of horrified spectators at a SeaWorld show in Orlando, Florida.
SeaWorld's decision to appeal the ruling is the latest episode in its conflict with federal workplace regulators over the safety of trainers who work with the killer whales. The company, which is owned by private equity firm Blackstone Group, has parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.
SeaWorld said in a statement on Friday that the safety of team members and guests and the welfare of animals remained its "highest priorities."
"We have added numerous safety measures to our already industry-leading killer whale program," the company said. "It should be noted that physical contact and in-water interaction with these animals is a critical component of both husbandry and trainer safety."
In May, Administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch upheld federal safety violations against the company for exposing employees to serious injury or death, saying measures such as physical barriers between whale and trainer, or oxygen tanks for the humans, were feasible solutions.
SeaWorld has not allowed trainers into the water with killer whales during shows since Branchau's death, and that policy has remained in place since the ruling by Welsch.
But the company has sought to win back the ability to put trainers in the water with killer whales in front of spectators.
SeaWorld in July asked the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to reconsider the ruling, but the agency turned down SeaWorld's request later that month.
The appeal was filed on September 7 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and was first reported by the San Diego-Union Tribune this week.
The petition does not specifically cite the restrictions on placing trainers in the water with orcas, but asks for an overall review of Welsch's ruling.
OSHA officials in Florida and Washington were not available to comment late on Friday.
In his ruling in May, Welsch wrote that the restrictions on close contact between orcas and their trainers should be limited to show performances because SeaWorld "has an ethical duty to provide health and medical care" to the animals.
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Cooney