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SeaWorld defends protocols in face of federal safety charges

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - A SeaWorld Orlando training official testified on Wednesday that neither she nor the theme park company had intentionally disregarded the safety of trainers who work with the killer whales that have, in fact, killed or injured several employees.

"Absolutely not," said Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator of animal training. "I know I did not disregard the safety of my trainers."

SeaWorld is fighting federal safety charges that stem from the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, dragged into a pool and drowned by the 12,000-pound bull orca Tilikum at the Florida park.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld with workplace safety violations including one classified as a "willful violation," meaning the company showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."

If a judge upholds the charges, SeaWorld faces a potential $75,000 fine. SeaWorld lawyer Carla Gunnin said the park also might be forced to end close physical interaction between the whales and trainers, the traditional highlight of performances in Shamu Stadium.

SeaWorld has kept trainers out of the killer whale pools since Brancheau's death.

Administrative Judge Ken Welsch refused SeaWorld's request on Wednesday to have the charges dismissed.

STACKS OF REPORTS

Gunnin argued that SeaWorld demonstrated its commitment to safety by having trainers document incidents of undesirable behavior in whales and then making changes in safety protocols as needed.

Stacks of incident reports have been admitted as evidence and discussed by witnesses during the hearing, which began in September and reconvened this week.

"Rather than being willful, that is the company showing care," Gunnin said.

But government lawyer Tremelle Howard-Fishburne argued the incident reports prove just the opposite.

"With all this information, SeaWorld turned a blind eye and allowed these trainers to be in harm's way for a show," Howard-Fishburne said.

SeaWorld opened its defense with testimony from Jennifer Mairot, a SeaWorld Orlando supervisor of animal training who described the 40-year-old Brancheau as one of the company's most skilled trainers.

Mairot testified Brancheau was working within special company-handling instructions for Tilikum when she was killed. Trainers were prohibited from getting into the pool with Tilikum because two people on separate occasions died after doing so.

Mairot attributed the first two deaths to the fact that Tilikum, who spent his early years in a Canadian park, had not been trained to accept close interaction with humans. At SeaWorld, trainers were routinely warned that if they fell into the water with Tilikum, they wouldn't survive.

Mairot said she considered Tilikum the most congenial, easy-going and predictable of the three adult male killer whales she worked with. The whale's yanking of Brancheau off a pool ledge was unexpected, she said.

"I never thought Tilly would do that," Mairot said. "Pulling objects and people in was not part of his repertoire."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)

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