A new book examining the dark side of keeping killer whales in captivity has slammed SeaWorld for its treatment of the enormous beasts and for massive safety failings which still haunt the world famous marine parks.
Claiming that the 12,000 pound animals are self harming and that staff are inadequately prepared for another killer whale attack incident, Death at SeaWorld
has been published two-and-a-half years after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando.
A new book has produced a damning verdict on SeaWorld and the future of keeping killer whales in captivity in the wake of trainer Dawn Brancheau's death at the hands of Tilikum (pictured) in 2010.
Brutally butchered in February 2010 by a killer whale named Tilikum, the book states that such an event was inevitable and that these kinds of tragic occurrences will continue if the animals continue to be treated in the same way.
Written by New York City reporter David Kirby, Death at SeaWorld
claims that killer whales kept in captivity suffer immense emotional and psychological trauma and spoke to former trainers and campaigning animal rights advocates to present his damning case.
Staff interviewed by Kirby told him of killer whales destroying their teeth on metal gates and then subsequently having those teeth removed by staff wielding power drills.
In addition, he claims that calves are separated from their mothers causing both parent and child massive distress and in one instance almost leading to a fatality as an irate mother took out her anger on a trainer at SeaWorld's San Diego headquarters.
Killer: The six-ton whale was is allowed limited appearances in SeaWorld shows and it is alleged that he is being used as a semen donor for the park's artificial insemination program.
Furthermore, Kirby claims that staff are instructed to get Tilikum to come out of the water and roll and then masturbate him with a gloved hand, collecting the semen for the park's artificial insemination program.
Backing up his claims that captive killer whales or orcas are being maltreated by being taken out of their natural environment, Kirby points to life expectancy statistics.
Killer whales in captivity have a mortality rate two-and-a-half times higher than those living in the Pacific Northwest, according to figures produced by marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society.
© Barcroft Media
Dead: Tilikum is seen with trainer Dawn Brancheau. The whale dragged her into the pool by her pony tail and then thrashed her while she was in the water. Dawn can be seen kissing the animal's tongue. A banned and dangerous action.
In addition, there are no known records of killer whales attacking humans in the wild, while even mild aggression towards trainers at close quarters is not uncommon.
One staff member that Kirby spoke to is called Jeffrey Ventre and he was fired from the park in 1995 for his expressive views on the treatment of the animals.
'SeaWorld can make the environment safe, according to them, 98 percent of the times,' said Ventre to ABC's 20/20.
'But what happens when the world's top predator decides to go off behaviour?'
Let go from SeaWorld for kissing a killer whale's tongue, a banned action, Ventrea said that most staff members violated the so called 'tongue-tacticle' rule and were not fired.
Deadly: Trainers like Dawn Brancheau, who died after Tilikum dragged her into a pool, were warned that if they fell into the water with him they might not survive.
Operating in San Antonio, San Diego and Orlando, all SeaWorld's killer whales are called 'Shamus' in honour of the park's original animal and up until the Brancheau incident would perform spectacular acrobatic displays with their human trainer's in enormous pools.
Attracting up to 12 million visitors a year across the three locations, SeaWorld was rocked by Brancheau's death after Tilikum dragged her by her ponytail into the water, scalped her and dismembered her.
One former trainer, John Jett, told Kirby that trainers were not fully aware of the safety problems related to killer whale work, however one senior trainer told a court investigating Brancheau's death that SeaWorld staff were told they may not survive falling in the water with Tilikum.
'A lack of detailed information was the norm whenever accidents happened at other parks,' said Jett.
'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.'
An initial report after a trainer narrowly survived being killed by a killer whale named Kasatka in 2006 made for shocking reading.
'If someone hasn't been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen,' said the California Occupational Safety and Health Program.
However, this line was not added to the final report and Kirby believes that SeaWorld pressured for it to be removed.
Now after federal rulings which keep trainers out of the water with killer whales, SeaWorld has a specific emergency procedure should someone fall into the water.
© Getty Images
Flawless performance: Tilikum returned to the water last year and is now kept away from direct human contact.
'Assuming there's an emergency where someone does get pulled into the water, an employee sounds the alarm, which triggers a park-wide emergency alert system,' said Kirby to the Voice of SanDiego
'That lets people know something went wrong in Shamu Stadium.
'I believe that ever since Tilikum, there's always somebody on stage with their finger on the button during a performance.
'People are trained to come running. Everyone is supposed to have a role. Some people are in charge of distracting the whale, try to call it back under control, using signals, underwater tones, food, hand-slapping on the water.
'A certain number of people are employed to unfurl the nets, designed to separate the trainer from the whale, or try to get it to go into a different pool.
'And others are there to try to use shepherd's hooks, floatation devices and what are called pony bottles of air for the trainer.
'The main task is to separate the whale from the human who's in trouble.'
However, despite this, Kirby is adamant that SeaWorld was responsible for Brancheau's death.
'If anybody's at fault, it's SeaWorld,' said Kirby.
'It basically relied on the trainer's own judgement and ability to recognise precursors to aggression in a killer whale.
Trainers work with killer whales Tilikum, left and Trua, right, during a training session at SeaWorld in Orlando.
'It was their own skill that was supposed to save their skin.
'But I'm not a judge and I'm not a lawyer.'
In May, a federal administrative law judge for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission downgraded one of SeaWorld's violations given by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
'OSHA failed to establish SeaWorld manifested plain indifference to employee safety,' said Ken S. Welsch.
'On the contrary, the record demonstrates SeaWorld constantly emphasised safety training and was continuously refining its safety program.'
However, he was critical of the pressure on staff to always be prepared to implement these safety protocols.
'SeaWorld holds trainers to a near-impossible standard set by upper management, who engage in a form of Monday morning quarterbacking,' said Welsch.
'Once a trainer is in the water with a killer whale that chooses to engage in undesirable behaviour, the trainer is at the whale's mercy.
'All the emergency procedures, nets, underwater signals and hand slaps are useless if the whale chooses to ignore them.'
While SeaWorld is still hopeful that it can return its staff into the water with the killer whales, it has stated that it 'remains dedicated to the safety of its employees and well being of its animals.'
Indeed, in reply to the allegations made by Kirby, the park is adamant that it is 'a model for marine zoological facilities around the world' and that additions 'in the areas of personal safety, facility design and communication have enhanced this program further still.'
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