Vote of the week: Trainers in the water during the Shamu shows

June 8, 2012, 11:51 AM · A judge this week upheld the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's decision that SeaWorld must not allow its trainers in the water with orcas during shows at the company's U.S. theme parks.

Orca encounter
Getting close with Corky the orca, backstage at SeaWorld San Diego

An Orlando Sentinel columnist called that decision "long overdue", while a former SeaWorld employee lamented that physical separation from trainers would be bad for the whales, too.

The judge's decision does not prohibit physical contact with the whales outside show times, which I find ironic because the incident that precipitated all this didn't happen during a show.

So here's my question for you: After reading all the information above, what do you think about SeaWorld ever putting trainers back in the water during its Shamu shows? Should SeaWorld pursue technology that it would allow it to do so? Should it continue to appeal or seek a political solution that would allow the trainers back in the water during shows? Or should it give up that fight, and continue to operate the shows as they have been for the past two years - with trainers out of the water?

As the judge in the case noted, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment enjoyed record revenue and strong attendance last year, with the trainers out of the water, so it's not like the decision has hurt SeaWorld's business. But that doesn't mean that some fans don't continue to miss that iconic moment when a SeaWorld trainer launches from the water and into the air, flying off the nose of a killer whale.

What do you think?

Please keep the discussion going in the comments. And thank you again for reading Theme Park Insider. Have a great weekend! We'll be back on Sunday afternoon with a report from Cars Land at Disney California Adventure.

Replies (26)

June 8, 2012 at 12:27 PM · We saw the Shamu show first in 2008 whilst the trainers were still allowed to perform in the water with the whales. The show was nothing short of breathtaking. It was amazing to see the beautiful creatures perform do lovingly with their trainers. We went back in 2010 and saw the show for the 2nd time, but since that first time, the tragic accident had happened, and now the trainers weren't in the water with the whales. The show was still great to watch but it didn't make me emotional as the first show did. I was not 'amazed' or 'breathtaken' by any aspect and I and my family really felt that a huge part of the show was missing. When we visit Seaworld again in 2014 we may even miss out seein the Shamu show altogether. Accidents happen - planes crash, but we still fly. Cars have accidents but we still drive. We must get the trainers back in the water or I think that in the long run, Seaworld may lose visitors to that particular show.
June 8, 2012 at 12:29 PM · I remember seeing on two separate vacations the Shamu Show and on both occasions was reduced almost to tears as the trainers were lifted into the air on the nose of the whale.It was one of the most jaw-dropping things I have ever seen - genuine holiday magic. I grieve that as things stand I will never see that magic again. The world is a poorer place because of this ruling.
June 8, 2012 at 1:31 PM · This is only setting up a precedence to outlaw any animal act that is out there because every animal has a natural survival instinct, where will it stop, no more rodeos? Outlaw dog shows? Gone with Gatorland? Each of these places and shows deal with animals, many that are just as dangerous to humans, could see their way to ending any animal/human show interaction. All of these trainers know the risk, they make the call to be in the arena with the animals and take the precautions that are necessary.
The law clearly dictates forcing someone or knowingly allowing dangerous conditions to exist. It must be a continuous danger, that being said, would a Rodeo, Horse Race, Animal act, fall into the same scenerio as Sea World is being accused of?
June 8, 2012 at 1:49 PM · I struggle with this sort of ruling on the part of the government. OSHA should be protecting people from dangers that don't have to be inherent in the work being done: using all available safety tech to make mines and oil rigs safe, ensuring that laborers have the proper gear when cleaning up dangerous chemicals, and so on. This ruling sets the precedent that any occupation in which a person who willing participates in a potentially life threatening activity can be shut down by the government. By that precedent, stunt drivers and actors, animal trainers and stage performers with big cats, sky diving instructors, and all the other mass of occupations in which the worker must choose to commit highly dangerous actions can't do there jobs anymore.

I could honestly care less whether the trainers are in the water or not, but it is definitely not the government's job to tell Seaworld their employees, who knowingly and willfully choose this work, may not get in the water. And this is coming from a bleeding heart liberal.

June 8, 2012 at 4:05 PM · People can buy a pet cobra or aligator. It's not up to the law to say if trainers can go into the water with these animals. That said, I don't care. I don't care for the circus acts.
Take dolfins, the show is great but just the viewing area with the dolphins beeing playfull at Dolphin Cove gives me more enjoyment.
The best time for the orca show (for me) is when a calf is born and the show is brought to a minimum to give us the mother and child, priceless and wondefull.
June 8, 2012 at 4:22 PM · I'd say that the shows lost their "wow" factor in terms of entertainment. I agree that the trainers know the dangers like stunt drivers do. It's part of their job. I'd have to say that I've noticed that people that don't care for animals just don't "get it" when it comes to animal-human interaction. But there's also the opposite end of the spectrum where some people put the welfare of animals before the welfare of people. There should be a happy median where maybe the trainers are allowed to do the one launch trick and that's it. Something like that. Not all or nothing.
June 8, 2012 at 5:10 PM · I love Tom Rigg's comment and completely agree (right down to the "bleeding heart liberal" part :-) )

My feelings on this are complicated, 'cause on one hand I'm uncomfortable with wild animals used in show acts, but, on the other hand, these animals -- particularly the ones born in captivity -- are no longer wild and need human interaction to fully stimulate their environment. It's also complicated for me because, for years, being an orca trainer at SeaWorld was my dream job. When most kids my age were papering their walls with pictures of Duran Duran and Wham, my room was wall-to-wall Shamu :-) .

All that being said, I agree with previous posters -- the trainers have signed on to this job knowing full well the risks. There are any number of jobs in this world that are inherently dangerous and can kill you -- i.e., you couldn't pay me enough to work on skyscraper construction, but I'd jump in the water with an orca no questions asked. It's not up to government to regulate this, as long as the parent company is not operating in a woefully negligent manner, which I'm 100% positive SeaWorld wasn't.

I think the trainers should be allowed in the water. And if it's true that the rule only bars them from being in the water during shows, and not during training sessions, then it's stupid anyway.

June 8, 2012 at 5:36 PM · I saw the show last year. The Shamu show wasn't as impressive as the dolphin show. I don't think it is necessary to have trainers in the pool, but they do seem to add interaction with the animals. Maybe the interaction can take place from the pool edge. The problem with the Shamu show is too much splashing from the tail. The whole show is a splash show, which can get old after awhile.

I didn't vote. I thought there could be a middle ground where safety is not compromised during a show. You should add a third choice or fourth choice.

June 8, 2012 at 10:21 PM · Me and my family used to love going to SeaWorld Orlando when on vacation and since the shamu incident we've been back to Florida on 4 separate occasions. And you know what? Since the trainers haven't been allowed to go in the water we have had no interest in going to seaworld which is kind of disappointing. So yes, SeaWorld has lost some business-Ours. Which is a big shame.
June 9, 2012 at 6:25 AM · Tom Riggs writes: "This ruling sets the precedent that any occupation in which a person who willing participates in a potentially life threatening activity can be shut down by the government."

I Respond: I am not so sure that is accurate. If there is a precedent being set by the decision it would be in the event that a performer is killed, the circumstances surrounding that death should be investigated by the enforcing body (in this case OSHA) who would then suggest a course of action. Interested parties (in this case SeaWorld) would then be afforded the opportunity in front of an objective arbitrating body (a courtroom) to advocate their interests. But that's not a precedent. It's standard operating procedures for OSHA.

Futher (as in the case of ALL OSHA regulations) it is the employer's responsibility to provide the safe working environment. In other words, if there had been some sort of administrative or engineered control that could have prevented the death of the trainer, it is the employer who is responsible for identifying and providing that control and not the employee. Now if the employee was acting in a reckless manner or was not following the company's safety policies and procedures, then the employer should not be penalized.

June 9, 2012 at 7:06 AM · From what I recall she was in a wading area, not the water and is was not during a full show. Therefore this rule wouldn't protect the trainer two ways as regards to safety in that instance
June 9, 2012 at 7:35 AM · Robert Morris may well be correct. However, I have no doubt that the trainer's death prompted a complete inquiry of Sea World's safety program which resulted in the ruling.
June 9, 2012 at 9:31 AM · Especially since they are allowed to be in the water non show times, what is the point?

While I think there should be precautions taken so that there isn't an injury or death in the future, I think it should be OK to let them back in the water.

I also think they are (or should be) aware of the risks of their profession. Any physical job, when it comes down to it, does pose hazards.

June 9, 2012 at 11:08 AM · I really think they should either allow the trainers back in the water during shows or ban them from entering the tanks at any time. It doesn't make sense to only keep them out during the show, especially when the incident wasn't related to one of the shows. Besides, I'm guessing there is less of a chance of something happening during the show since the whales are engaged in the performance (although I could be wrong). Finally, the whales are wild animals, and trainers should be well aware that they can be dangerous and know that there are many hazards to the job whenever they are employed. Work safety is not a bad thing, but I don't think it should be necessary to eliminate inherent risks that are required in a particular job.
June 10, 2012 at 12:43 PM · What exactly does this ruling accomplish besides diminishing the quality of the show and wasting valuable taxpayer dollars? They aren't really removing any kind of danger, because the trainers can (and probably will) still be in the water with them backstage. It makes no sense whatsoever.

This is where the argument of what the government's role in business should be starts. Once again they've intervened, gotten nothing done, and wasted our and Sea World's money...all in the name of politics. To me there was no precedent set here, other than the government thinking that it knew more about Sea World's business than Sea World did.

June 11, 2012 at 5:54 AM · At the moment Seaworld have put on the best show they possibly can with no trainers in the water with One Ocean.
When I saw the show last year I was pretty impressed, as were those around me who it seemed had never seen the previous shows before the accident.
However, I couldnt help but think of how amazed those people would be to see the leaps and the interactions of old.
It made a part of me feel really very sad.

I agree whole heartedly that the trainers chose their job as their field and went into it knowing full well the risks...but I bet the thought of flying through the air and plunging the depths with an orca outweighed those fears for them.

I hope with all my heart that this will be revised and an 11 year old girl sat in Shamu Stadium for the first time can feel the way I did when I first saw it back then - awed and astounded.

June 11, 2012 at 7:41 AM · The problem with more rules and regulations are you follow the rules and then something else happens. You can't keep saying people will be safe from the rules when the rules won't prevent accidents, unexpected situations, and operator error.

Accidents = It happened from no fault of me.

Unexpected Situations = It happened from the fault of others.

Operator Error = It happened and its my fault, but it wasn't intentional.

I guess OSHA is doing what it does best. It created a new rule based on nothing.

June 11, 2012 at 9:45 AM · OSHA did not "create a new rule." They followed an established process. Someone died. They investigated the incident -- which includes a review of the company's safety program from top to bottom. They evaluated the situation and made recommendations. Sea World was given a chance to question those recommendations in front of a judge and (I assume) has a right to either appeal the decision or to adjust their safety programs and then request that OSHA (or another judge) reconsider the ruling.

I do not claim to be an expert on all things OSHA (let alone the way they handle shows featuring predatory animals). But I have completed OSHA 30-hour, OSHA 510 and OSHA 500 coursework and I recognize what OSHA is doing is NOT creating new rules, but evaluating a workplace environment and following a process to make recommendations.

And please understand OSHA does NOT benefit from this ruling either way.

Also let's make sure we are all on the same page about something. The occupational hazard being discussed is HIGHLY UNUSUAL, volatile and dynamic. Orcas were not made to be held in tanks where they frolic with humans. That's not a PETA argument it's a logistical argument. Further, throw a VERY DEEP tank full of water into the mix and suddenly every show (regardless of the safety plans) becomes a dangerous situation.

My local economy's cornerstone is tourism. I want fantastic shows that keep parks full. If trainers in the water sell more tickets then I support trainers in the water.

Unless it means someone gets killed.

June 11, 2012 at 10:52 AM · But trainers are still going to be in contact with the whales...just not during the show. The danger that this ruling claims to prevent is still there. If someone gets killed in the tank, what difference does it make if they get killed during the show or behind the scenes, other than a crowd being spared a horrific sight.

The outcome of this makes no sense, other than to justify their involvement. If they make no ruling, then they are perceived as ineffective or weak. If they go all the way and ban trainers from the water completely, they are seen as business killers and do major damage to Sea World because trainers have to get close and make contact with the whales (and other animals) in order to train them. It might not have much to do with politics at the inspection level, but at the top it has a lot to do with politics. A high profile case such as this tends to put people and organizations in the spotlight.

There's always been a certain amount of danger for workers in this industry. There's heavy machinery, high voltage, wild animals, heights, speed...etc etc, and some have died over the years caring for these places. Workers know the risks, accept them, and take them, and parks do their best to ensure worker safety. If we stopped doing things because of danger, there would be no theme park industry at all

June 11, 2012 at 11:40 AM · Mr. Potter writes: But trainers are still going to be in contact with the whales...just not during the show. The danger that this ruling claims to prevent is still there.

I Respond: In a different tank, under different circumstances. The trainers are not necessarily maintaining the same contact (For example not being launched off the whales' noses). There has to be a report from OSHA. Without knowing what is contained in that report or the details associated with what OSHA contends is an unacceptable hazard it's hard to assess its credibility.

Mr. Potter writes: Workers know the risks, accept them, and take them, and parks do their best to ensure worker safety.

I Respond: How exactly do you know this? How do you know that "parks do their best to ensure worker safety?" What is Sea World's specific safety plan? What are their administrative controls? What are their engineered controls? Knowledge of these things is required before making any assessment of either Sea World's program or OSHA's conclusions.

In fact if the parks did (using your words) "their best to ensure worker safety," the trainers would NEVER be in the water in any tank. That action would absolutely assure there would be no life ending accidents related to the animals. That would be the parks doing "their best to ensure worker safety."

June 11, 2012 at 1:38 PM · OSHA followed their process to create a new rule that didn't reflect the reality of the situation. The trainer was killed after the show. OSHA reacted in the only way they could. They found discrepancies in how SeaWorld may anticipate the reactions of their whales (see article). So SeaWorld is found to be using faulty data or something else. SeaWorld can't explain it or couldn't explain it. Instead of addressing the issue, OSHA decided to do the next best thing. It separated the trainers from the whales during a show. Duh...

After a show, if the trainer is engaged in a relationship building exercise with the whale and there's no barrier, will OSHA be there to explain how their new rule didn't protect the trainer?

June 11, 2012 at 2:18 PM · Anon Mouse: "After a show, if the trainer is engaged in a relationship building exercise with the whale and there's no barrier, will OSHA be there to explain how their new rule didn't protect the trainer?"

I Respond: Or ... If Sea World's attorney stood up in court and contended their procedures were creating a safe workplace ... if the trainer is engaged in a relationship building exercise with the whale and there's no barrier, will Sea World be there to explain how their safety program didn't protect the trainer?

June 11, 2012 at 2:30 PM · "Or ... If Sea World's attorney stood up in court and contended their procedures were creating a safe workplace ... if the trainer is engaged in a relationship building exercise with the whale and there's no barrier, will Sea World be there to explain how their safety program didn't protect the trainer?"

Hmmm... We are well past this point. SeaWorld is following OSHA with court enforcement. There is a clear gap in the rule with regard with the relationship building exercises so SeaWorld will be blamed regardless. Or maybe the next time, OSHA will wake up and create another rule to address the gap. However, since these incidences are actually quite rare, I don't expect the gap to be addressed for another 10 to 20 years.

June 12, 2012 at 12:34 PM · From what I've read, coming into close contact with the animals is at the very heart of the training. Maybe not jumping off their nose, but feeding them, petting them, and other kinds of positive reinforcement is how they are taught. If you want Sea World and the shows to exist, they have to have contact with the animals in order to train them, at least until they can develop a system that has zero human contact, if that's even possible. Perhaps you should revisit the actual case, which is that an experienced trainer was pulled into the tank while giving the whale a post show rubdown.

TH your whole argument here is based on a classic assumption made by government and OSHA....that they are the real experts in marine biology, animal training, and the business of running Sea World. It assumes that the knowledge and years of research by their scientists and the expertise of their management mean nothing. It assumes that the trainers and workers are idiots and don't know what they are doing.

It also assumes that management doesn't have the utmost regard for the safety of it's workers, which is an absurd notion. Do you really think that in this litigious society with high insurance costs, red tape, unions, and gasp...perhaps a little human compassion, management doesn't emphasize safety? Sure there are accidents, but how much of it really is company negligence.

As for "utmost safety", there's going to be risk in anything. If the industry (or all other industries as well) practiced your brand of safety and removed all risk from everything, there would be no industry at all. There wouldn't be roller coasters or other rides, because there's a hazard in building them and inspecting them. There wouldn't be zoos, because for all the safety precautions, there's still a risk of attack. There wouldn't be stunt shows or dance shows, because there's always a chance of injury. Hell, we couldn't even drive to the park, because that's dangerous too.

All of this debate about a rule that doesn't even address what really happened, which is that a trainer was pulled into the water backstage while giving the whale a post show rubdown. According to the ruling, it would appear that they can still do that.

June 12, 2012 at 1:21 PM · Mr. Potter: "It assumes that the knowledge and years of research by their scientists and the expertise of their management mean nothing."

I Rspond: All those years of research and expertise did not prevent a trainer from getting killed.

Mr. Potter: "As for "utmost safety", there's going to be risk in anything."

I Respond: Which does not mean that management and governing bodies should not act to minimize this risk as much as possible. If keeping the trainers out of the water results in the safest possible environment, then so be it. If the entertainment value of a theme park show is the only price that's paid ... well, that does not seem to be too much of a sacrifice.

June 14, 2012 at 3:53 AM · I guess that the risks involved are the same with other shows (flight shows,...) and sports (F1, Diving, ...). It's up to the trainers if they would like to be in the water with the Shamu's. And yes, there are risks involved, bus as stated, that applies to many other shows.

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