SeaWorld: Record Earnings Despite Orca Controversy

Categories: Animal Planet

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Flickr cc/ Stig Nygaard
SeaWorld reported its quarterly earnings Wednesday -- and they were at a record high, according to the Orlando Sentinel, which reported that the company's "quarterly profit ballooned 30 percent from the same period a year ago, from $92 million to $120 million. Total revenue rose 3 percent, to $538 million."

That's a lot of $82 admission tickets and plush Shamu dolls.

We reported Tuesday on how SeaWorld went public this April and has made millions in profits so far for investment firms. This despite growing backlash prompted largely by trainer deaths and Blackfish, a documentary that's been airing on CNN.

Several trainer deaths have been linked to killer whales, which are unpredictable.

After trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca in 2010, federal authorities ordered that SeaWorld could not have its trainers in the water with the animals because it was not providing a safe workplace. Tuesday, SeaWorld went to a federal appeals court in Washington asking for a reversal of that decision.

Court documents prepared for that hearing are revealing.

For instance, they say that the killer whales are trained to do gymnastic maneuvers with ridiculous names like "hula rides" and "rocket hop" --

SeaWorld divides trainers' physical interactions with whales into two types: "waterwork" and "drywork." "Waterwork" is defined as an interaction with a killer whale where the trainer is in water higher than knee-deep, including swimming with whales in pools more than twenty-five feet deep. Tr. 124, 747. "Drywork" -- which is something of a misnomer -- is any interaction where the trainer is out of the water entirely or in water less than knee-deep. Tr. 128. Killer whales are trained to perform a large repertoire of both drywork and waterwork behaviors. Tr. 287, 325-26; Ex. C-1 at 76-88. Waterwork behaviors range from the "basic" -- including "hula rides" and "standing mans" -- to the "advanced," including "hydro hop" and "rocket hop with trainer 1½ flip."

-- and that SeaWorld has no written protocols for training orcas:

The types of positive reinforcement SeaWorld trainers provide to the killer whales include food -- primarily fish -- as well as various touches, rubs, hugs, kisses, and other "tactile" that SeaWorld believes the whales find rewarding. Tr. 837, 1053, 1361, 1519; Ex. R-4. SeaWorld has no written protocol for how to train killer whales.

Instead, the company relies on a sort of oral tradition wherein newer trainers learn from more experienced trainers. Tr. 86-87, 115, 362, 469. Operant conditioning also functions as SeaWorld's safety program. Trainers are expected to recognize "precursors" to aggressive behavior. Tr. 116, 508. At the hearing, Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator in charge of animal training, listed about twenty precursors that trainers must recognize, including "any time a killer whale puts their head down," "opening their eyes wider, opening their mouth towards another animal," "pulling back," and "a tightening in their body... SeaWorld trainers are taught signals that are supposed to "call back" a whale to trainer control, such as slapping the surface of the pool or sounding a tone beneath the water. However, these callback signals are not always effective. In fact, SeaWorld acknowledges that callbacks are particularly ineffective when a whale is doing something undesirable. Tr. 190, 1220-21. Callback signals were attempted to no avail in two trainer deaths as well as two dramatic submerging incidents"

SeaWorld, however, argued that trainers know and accept the risks when taking the job, and that inherent risk is no different than a NASCAR racer or football player. Animal advocates said it is different, however, because the whales, unlike people in the NFL or NASCAR, didn't consent to participation.

The court will offer its decision in the coming months.

Send story tips to Deirdra.Funcheon@BrowardPalmBeach.com

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