'Death at SeaWorld': Book Slams Popular Theme Park

SeaWorld trainers criticize safety, treatment of whales.

July 17, 2012, 3:41 PM

July 19, 2012 — -- More than two years after the horrific death of a SeaWorld killer whale trainer, former trainers from the popular Orlando, Fla., theme park have taken it to task for its safety record and its treatment of killer whales, also known as orcas, in the new book, "Death at Sea World."

In February 2010, a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau under water to her death. Tilikum was also linked to two other deaths -- that of another trainer in 1991 and of a man who snuck into Tilikum's tank in 1999.

"SeaWorld can make the environment safe, according to them, 98 percent of the time. But what happens when the world's top predator decides to go off behavior?" former trainer Jeffrey Ventre asked in an interview with "20/20."

In a statement emailed to ABC News, SeaWorld called its killer whale program "a model for marine zoological facilities around the world" and said that in the last two years, additions "in the areas of personal safety, facility design and communication have enhanced this program further still."

Ventre was one of four former SeaWorld trainers interviewed by "Death at Sea World" author David Kirby. Ventre was fired from SeaWorld in 1995 because, he claimed, he had voiced his concerns about the treatment of whales there. (In his book, Kirby reports that Ventre was fired after a week after kissing a whale's tongue, in violation of park rules. Ventre said in the book that many had violated the so-called "tongue-tacticle" rule but were not disciplined and called his firing "total bull****.")

Click Here to Read SeaWorld's Full Statement.

SeaWorld declined to comment on Ventre's history with the park but issued the following statement on Kirby's book: "While we have not yet been given the opportunity to read Mr. Kirby's book, we are familiar with his articles and blog posts on SeaWorld and the issues of marine mammal display."

Kirby, the park said, "has been very candid about his personal opposition to SeaWorld's killer whale program and we anticipate that his book will expand on those themes. We disagree with Kirby's positions on marine mammal display and hope that he, unlike others who engage in the debate over these issues, confines his arguments to matters of fact."

In his book, Kirby wrote that there are no records of orcas in the wild attacking humans but, in captivity, aggression against trainers is not uncommon.

Kirby also noted that it may not just be the trainers who suffer: Killer whales in captivity have a mortality rate of 2.5 times higher than those living in the Pacific Northwest, Kirby wrote, citing a paper by marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society.

Trainers interviewed by Kirby spoke of whales breaking their teeth on metal gates and having broken teeth removed with power drills, mother whales going into mourning after being separated from their offspring, and trainers being instructed to "masturbate" Tilikum -- the whale later blamed for Brancheau's death -- to collect semen for an artificial insemination program.

Former trainer John Jett said in the book that trainers were routinely kept in the dark about safety problems related to killer whale work.

"A lack of detailed information was the norm whenever accidents happened at other parks," he said. "I remember one incident when all of us were pulled from water work for a short time. To this day, I don't know what happened."

Kirby reported that after a San Diego SeaWorld trainer nearly drowned in 2006, an initial report from California Occupational Safety and Health Program stated, "If someone hasn't been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen."

Kirby wrote that SeaWorld exerted political influence to have the warning redacted from a final report issued in 2007.

Messages to the California Department of Industrial Relations, which administers the California Occupational Safety and Health Program, were not immediately returned.

The book comes some two months after a ruling by a federal judge affirming two safety citations against SeaWorld by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration. In May, Ken S. Welsch, a federal administrative law judge for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, downgraded one of the violations cited by OSHA and reduced the fines SeaWorld was facing by tens of thousands of dollars.

The judge wrote that OSHA "failed to establish Sea World manifested plain indifference to employee safety. On the contrary, the record demonstrates Sea World constantly emphasized safety training and was continuously refining its safety program." He called SeaWorld a "safety-conscious" employer.

But Welsch also issued his own criticism of Sea World and its emphasis on the whale training and emergency procedures that failed to save Brancheau's life.

"Sea World holds trainers to a near-impossible standard set by upper management, who engage in a form of Monday morning quarterbacking," Welsch said in his opinion. "Once a trainer is in the water with a killer whale that chooses to engage in undesirable behavior, the trainer is at the whale's mercy. All of the emergency procedures, nets, underwater signals and hand slaps are useless if the whale chooses to ignore them."

In a written statement, SeaWorld said the following about the ruling: "While the company views it as a positive that both the classification of the violation, and the accompanying fine, were reduced substantially, we do disagree with some of the judge's interpretations. Our zoological staff is among the world's finest animal trainers, and the safety of our employees is a core value for SeaWorld and an area in which we never compromise." (Read the full statement here.)

SeaWorld has appealed the judge's decision to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, but the commission did not take action.

SeaWorld said that it would decide in the next 60 days whether it would appeal to the United States Court of Appeals and that the park "remains dedicated to the safety of its employees and well being of its animals."

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