SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - The SeaWorld killer whale that drowned its trainer in 2010 gave no sign tragedy was about to occur, a theme park director testified at a federal hearing on Monday
“Tilikum did not show any precursors to aggression,” said Kelly Flaherty Clarke, curator of animal training at the theme park, who investigated the drowning.
The testimony came during SeaWorld’s challenge of federal safety charges that stem from the drowning of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau.
She was pulled underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound bull orca, who grabbed her by her ponytail in front of park guests.
Federal lawyer John Black said in his opening statement that SeaWorld’s primary method of protecting its trainers from killer whales was to teach the trainers how to recognize visual cues that an animal might turn aggressive.
“Relying primarily on training the trainers to be careful leaves gaps,” Black told administrative judge Ken Welsch, presiding over the hearing.
Brancheau’s widower, Scott Brancheau, and sister, Debbie Frogameni, attended the hearing. Their attorney, Jon Mills, also was present, trying to ensure SeaWorld security video showing Brancheau’s death is not released publicly.
After court adjourned, Mills made a brief statement on the family’s behalf, saying their interest also is in the safety and protection of all current and future SeaWorld employees.
“They hope there will be a future where no other family has to suffer and endure the pain they have,” Mills said.
SeaWorld faces a $75,000 fine for three safety violations found during an investigation by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
In addition, rectifying the safety conditions cited by OSHA would require SeaWorld to cease further physical contact between humans and killer whales, lawyer Carla Gunnin said in her opening statement.
Prior to Brancheau’s death, performances at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium featured moments when trainers surfed on the backs of killer whales and were launched off their snouts.
The most serious charge leveled by OSHA is classified as a “willful violation,” meaning SeaWorld showed “plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health.”
During much of her approximately five hours on the witness stand, Clark described intensive training both trainers and whales undergo before making physical contact with each other.
She said trainers working with killer whales need to be constantly aware of the whale’s disposition as well as the presence and activities of other whales in the pool and even the weather, which can impact a whale’s behavior.
“Ms. Brancheau was one of my most experienced, capable trainers,” said Clark, who broke down briefly while recalling the day Brancheau died. That day, Clark said, “Brancheau made appropriate behavioral decisions.”
Tilikum had been in the pool on two other occasions when other people died, and was managed by different protocols than most whales, Clark testified. However, she said nothing in Tilikum’s history predicted his actions that day.
Black said in his opening statement that SeaWorld accepted a “calculated risk” for trainers in allowing them to swim with killer whales at Shamu Stadium. He said trainers are required to sign what he called a “waiver” stating they recognize that “their own skills are key to being safe.”
SeaWorld trainers have not performed or interacted in the water with killer whales since Brancheau’s death, with one exception in a medical emergency, Gunnin said.
The administrative hearing is being held in Sanford, outside of Orlando. It is expected to last a week, and a final ruling could be months away.
Watching the hearing was Naomi Rose, a senior scientist for the national and international branches of the Humane Society, which calls for a phase-out of captive killer whales.
The organization released a report on Monday saying scientific evidence shows captivity causes early death. The report states four people have been killed by captive killer whales, while there is no report of a killer whale in the wild causing the death of a human.
Outside the courthouse, seven protesters with the animal rights group PETA held signs that read “Throw the book at SeaWorld” and “Stop imprisoning orcas.”
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton