SeaWorld got away with it once, using political bullying to force California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) not only to back down from its prediction that it was "only a matter of time" before a trainer would be killed by an orca, but also to grovel and apologize for the inconvenience. That's perhaps why SeaWorld thought it could bully OSHA again last year when trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled underwater by the orca Tilikum and savaged so badly -- her scalp was peeled back, a limb was severed, and more -- that her family is fighting to stop the video, the one considered "too disturbing" to show on TV, from being released, ever. Rather than quietly accepting the penalty that it was assessed, SeaWorld has been defiant despite massive public condemnation, and last week it was in court fighting a charge levied by OSHA that it exposed its employees to the risk of death or serious physical harm. Given the ghastly details of Brancheau's final 45 minutes being beaten to death by Tilikum -- on top of the 100-plus other incidents that have occurred at SeaWorld parks -- SeaWorld is likely to go under itself if it doesn't change the kinds of shows it puts on, meaning, if it doesn't dispense with captive marine mammals and put on the kind of show kids today want to see: electronic.
Common sense and marine experts, including some who worked at SeaWorld, tell us that Tilikum knew exactly what he was doing. Having seen the tiny concrete-tank prison that he lives in -- if you can call it living -- and knowing that he was willfully deprived of life with his pod, his family, in the vast oceans from which he was seized as a tot, it's not hard to comprehend the depths of his despair and frustration.
Tilikum is now 33 years old. When he was just 2 years old, he was seized in the open waters off Iceland by marine profiteers who kidnap dolphins and orcas to sell to other profiteers like SeaWorld. It is not hard to imagine the panic and grief of his mother and others who were around him. For bringing millions of dollars into SeaWorld, via the stupid tricks that he was taught to perform and his sperm, which is used to produce more orcas for other shows, he is left to float like a living corpse in his tiny pool. His only "stimulation" is when he is "milked" for that sperm. Otherwise, no friends, no ocean current, no view, no swimming freely, no travel, no life.
Tilikum had already killed twice before he took out his rage on Ms. Brancheau, and despite a decades-long history of incidents in which trainers were killed, hospitalized and otherwise injured, SeaWorld's attorney had the gall to describe Brancheau's death as an "unfortunate event." Testimony also revealed that there are no specific steps for a trainer to follow to respond to a life-threatening situation in the water and that trainers' lives ultimately depend on their own "best judgment call." SeaWorld's corporate curator for zoological operations for all SeaWorld parks admitted that the park does not even reevaluate its protocols after an injury or death because it deems the injuries that occur "a result of human error" and insisted that revising safety protocols is unnecessary.
A senior trainer testified that trainers who work with orcas receive special instruction on Tilikum and a "Tilly Talk," in which they're informed of Tilikum's deadly history and that if they enter the water with him, they may not survive. Despite these concerns, SeaWorld approved trainers -- including Brancheau -- to work in close contact with Tilikum. In other words, they risked their trainers' lives as if they were as expendable as they think Tilikum's right to his own life in the deep is.
SeaWorld's appeal has been adjourned until November. I hope SeaWorld is exploring how, like Ringling, it can get out of the wild animal business.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 1536 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; www.PETA.org. Her latest books are The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights, and The Compassionate Cook.