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Aquatic theme park chain Sea World has begun conditioning its orcas, or killer whales to accept trainers swimming in their tanks, the Orlando Sentinel reports. The move is a first step toward resuming “water work” with the animals since Tilikum, a whale who had previously killed two people, one while in Sea World’s custody, grabbed Orlando, Florida trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail, dragging her underwater and around the tank until she died.

“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,” Sea World says in a release. The company says it needs its trainers to be able to establish a physical presence in the water for medical and other animal husbandry purposes.

Since Brancheau’s death in February of 2010, trainers have been kept out of the water in shows and in backstage activities. David Kirby’s recently released Death at Sea World chronicles the circumstances of the attack and numerous other incidents involving captive orcas, including one involving another trainer death caused by one of Sea World’s whales just months before Brancheau’s. Voice of San Diego’s Randy Dotinga published an interview with Kirby in mid-July.

Since 2010, Sea World has been battling the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has said the company is guilty of willful negligence in allowing its trainers to be in contact with the whales after a long string of safety incidents. The Administration believes that the only way to properly ensure trainers’ safety is to keep them out of the water – but their investigation was limited in scope, focusing only on the “Shamu” shows open to the public, giving the company greater leeway when determining backstage protocols. Sea World has voluntarily kept its trainers out of the water completely for the last two years, while simultaneously challenging the Administration’s findings and arguing that the water work which it has refrained from is critical to the health and well-being of its animals.

The company has been successful in previous scuffles with employee safety organizations. In November 2006 Kasatka, a 7,000 pound female orca, grabbed Sea World San Diego’s most experienced trainer, Ken Peters, by the foot and forced him to the bottom of the tank during a performance, keeping him underwater for 90 seconds and leaving him with a broken foot and puncture wounds from her teeth.

Two weeks earlier another whale, Orkid, had grabbed and forced her trainer underwater for 26 seconds. Orkid had previously grabbed another trainer from outside the pool and forced her in, breaking an arm in the process.

Cal-OSHA, California’s counterpart to the federal Administration, issued a damning report. Among other criticisms was this: “Swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous, and if someone hasn't been killed already, it is only a matter of time before it does happen.”

After Sea World complained, the report was pulled and re-released, heavily redacted. The original report recommended the curtailment of water work while noting its prevalence had increased in recent years – at the time trainers were doing up to 13 stunts such as “surfing” on the orcas’ backs or being propelled while standing on a whale’s rostrum, whereas previous shows averaged around eight water tricks. The revised report did not contain any of the inspector’s findings after Sea World successfully argued that Cal-OSHA had opined beyond its authority.

In the Brancheau case, two former Sea World staffers came forward with claims that they had been pressured by management to hamper OSHA’s investigation by failing to provide requested records and denying regulators access to key witnesses and trainers. After threats from Sea World’s legal team, both recanted their statements.

At this point the company has not clarified whether its “desensitization” training will lead to resumed water work, either in the form of shows or backstage activity, though Sea World says it’s “very likely” that an appeal against the latest OSHA citation is forthcoming.

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