ORLANDO (CBS4) – The SeaWorld hearing in Orlando will last longer than expected. An administrative law judge will eventually decide whether the theme park should be forced to pay $75,000 in fines for three citations it received after the death of a killer whale trainer.
The weeklong hearing in Sanford was supposed to wrap up Friday. But not all the witnesses have been called, and the judge overseeing the case said lawyers for SeaWorld and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration likely will reconvene next month to continue the hearing.
SeaWorld says three safety citations, issued by OSHA after an investigation into trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death, are unfounded.
Brancheau died Feb. 24, 2010, when a killer whale named Tilikum grabbed her and dragged her underwater violently.
Thursday, trainer Shana Groves gave some damaging testimony. She said Tilikum was possessive of objects and trainers were
given grave warnings about working with him.
Groves said Thursday that trainers were told that if they fell in the water with Tilikum they might not survive. They also were taught never to turn their backs on any animal during a show.
Later in the day, a senior animal trainer who was hosting the Shamu show on the day of the accident gave a graphic description of Brancheau’s death. After the show ended, Jan Topoleski said, Brancheau was lying on her back on a concrete slab beside the pool. He said the whale mimicked her behavior and flipped belly side up while she held his flipper.
“She was not asking the whale for anything,” said Topoleski, referring to the moments leading up to Tilikum grabbing Brancheau. “It was considered relationship building and was nothing out of the ordinary.”
He said he saw Brancheau rise to her knees and then grasp her ponytail.
“The last image I had was that she couldn’t break free and was pulled into the water,” said Topoleski.
SeaWorld and several witnesses have said previously that Brancheau was pulled in by her hair, though an employee said this week that it looked like the whale grabbed her arm.
Topoleski immediately hit the alarm before grabbing oxygen and reeling out the emergency net. He said that it took 40 to 45 minutes before Brancheau’s body was pulled from the water.
Tremelle Howard-Fishburne, an attorney for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asked Topoleski if Tilikum responded to his slapping the water to get his attention after Brancheau went in. He said the whale did not respond and agreed that the rescue procedures SeaWorld had in place did not work that day.
Attorneys spent two hours arguing over whether OSHA could present David Duffus, an associate professor at the University of Victoria, as an expert witness. Duffus did his doctorate studies on whale management and is the founding director of the university’s WhaleLab.
SeaWorld Attorney Carla Gunnin argued that Duffus works with whales in the wild and has no experience with marine mammals in captivity. Judge Ken Welsch allowed him to testify.
Duffus compared similar behaviors in wild whales with Tilikum’s interaction with Brancheau. He said killer whales will take a seal or porpoise underwater, and then release it. In the video of the accident, Tilikum pulled Brancheau into the water, released her and then recovered her body, he said.
“It looks like a large predatory animal took a behavior seen in the wild and it ended in a catastrophic conclusion,” said Duffus who added that SeaWorld should not have been shocked by the death.
Duffus said Sea World employees were told about the whale’s history and were warned not to get close to Tilikum. In 1991, a trainer in British Columbia who fell into a whale pool with Tilikum and two other orcas was forcibly submerged. In 1999, a man sneaked by security at SeaWorld Orlando and was found draped over Tilikum. The man jumped, fell or was pulled into the frigid water and died of hypothermia, though he was bruised and scratched.
“Everyone knew not to test him and they knew he was possessive and would not return objects,” Duffus said.
The professor said he does not allow his students to get close to killer whales in the wild and SeaWorld should not put their trainers in potential danger by their close proximity to a predatory animal at the top of the food chain.
The judge isn’t expected to rule until at least October.
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