SeaWorld begins acclimating killer whales to trainers

ORLANDO, Fla. — SeaWorld has begun conditioning its killer whales to accept trainers in their pools, the first step toward resuming “water work” with the giant marine mammals more than two years after a trainer was killed in Orlando.

Animal trainers at SeaWorld marine parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio began “water desensitization training” Monday with the company’s killer-whale collection — the process by which the animals are acclimated to humans’ presence in the water.

The process is expected to move slowly. SeaWorld hasn’t allowed trainers in the water with whales since Feb. 24, 2010, the day SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by the 6-ton whale Tilikum.

SeaWorld said the training that began Monday is designed to prepare whales for “the close interaction required for veterinary care and husbandry.” The company says it also improves worker safety by ensuring that whales do not respond unpredictably should a trainer accidentally fall into their tank.

“This well-established process is intended to reduce the novelty of trainers and other caretakers working in close proximity to the animals, which contributes to team member safety and proper care for our killer whales,” the company said in a written statement. “It is a lengthy process that involves progressively increasing the degree and type of contact between human caretakers and whales. The safety of SeaWorld team members and the welfare of animals are our highest priorities.”

The goal of water desensitization is to teach killer whales to respond “appropriately” to people in the water. For example, SeaWorld trainers try to teach the whales to ignore someone who jumps or falls into a pool and to instead seek out a trainer working from a dry deck.

SeaWorld executives had said as far back as February 2011 that they were preparing to resume “de-sense” training. But those plans were delayed as the company continued to battle the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which spent six months investigating SeaWorld’s killer whale program after Brancheau’s death.

The decision to resume the training now comes just two weeks after the independent U.S. Occupational Safety and Review Commission upheld most of OSHA’s citation.

Among other findings, OSHA said SeaWorld trainers should never again be allowed to have close contact with killer whales unless protected by a physical barrier or some other mechanism providing the same level of safety. Legal experts say it is such a strict standard that it could make it impossible for SeaWorld to reinstate water work without exposing itself to enormous potential liability.

But the review commission also ruled that OSHA’s citation was limited to work done with whales during public performances, giving the company greater flexibility to allow contact outside of shows, such as during medical procedures or “relationship-building” sessions.

SeaWorld says it has not yet decided whether it will resume any form of water work — either during shows or outside of them — once its whales are desensitized. A spokesman for the Orlando-based company also said it is “very likely” that it will appeal OSHA’s citation in federal court.

SeaWorld also is spending tens of millions of dollars to design and install new safety features, such as a fast-rising lift floor that has been installed in the “G pool” of SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu Stadium Complex. That is the pool Brancheau was in when she was pulled into the water by Tilikum.

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