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What Does SeaWorld President Jim Atchison’s E-mail Say About SeaWorld’s Plans?

June 4, 2012

SeaWorld Parks And Entertainment President and CEO Jim Atchison

Wow, that was fast. The trainer comment on the OSHA ruling I just posted made mention of an e-mail to employees from SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President and CEO Jim Atchison. And, poof, someone sent me an e-mail to employees from Jim Atchison.

This is not the original e-mail in response to Judge Welsch’s OSHA ruling, mentioned by the current trainer in the previous post, but apparently a follow-up e-mail Atchison sent employees regarding news coverage of the OSHA ruling. If the tone of the original e-mail was similar, you can see why some employees might have got the impression that the OSHA ruling was favorable to SeaWorld. (Side question: Was Atchison simply counting on them not to read Judge Welsch’s decision, or believe the news coverage because he says different?]

As I wrote at Outside Online, Judge Welsch’s decision could sharply limit SeaWorld’s famed Shamu Show by preventing SeaWorld from returning to its most famous show practice: swimming and performing in the water with its killer whales, or waterwork. The decision also limits drywork contact with Tilikum, who was always subject to a waterwork ban due to his involvement in previous deaths, but was a popular star in side shows, such as the Dine With Shamu show which got Brancheau killed. And it similarly restricts close contact with the rest of SeaWorld Florida’s killer whales, even when trainers are on shallow ledges or at poolside, i.e. “drywork.”

But the language of the OSHA citation, which was issued in August 2010, for some reason references “waterwork” and “drywork” performances, as opposed to simply applying to any and all waterwork and drywork killer whale interactions involving close contact. Non-performance waterwork and drywork that occurs during training, exercise and (to an extent) animal care is virtually identical to that which is performed in the shows. And Atchison’s e-mail to SeaWorld employees suggests that SeaWorld may try to exploit that distinction.

Here is the text of Atchison’s internal e-mail (emphasis added):

To: All SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Team Members

You may have seen news coverage over the last 24 hours concerning a ruling on OSHA’s citations against SeaWorld. While there has been much discussion of the implications of the decision, we view it as a positive that both the citation and the related fine were reduced substantially.

It is important to note that the judge agreed that caring for these animals requires contact between trainers and whales.  As the judge indicates in his decision, the ruling applies only to show performances, and not to husbandry, exercise, learning, play and relationship activities.

While we view the overall decision as positive for us, we do disagree with some of the judge’s interpretations.  We have every confidence in the safety of our extraordinary killer whale training program. Protecting the safety of our team members is a core commitment for SeaWorld, and our record in this area is exemplary.

The current show already includes many of the safety enhancements noted in the judge’s report. When we introduced the new “One Ocean” killer whale show, we voluntarily incorporated additional safety enhancements, such as barriers and proximity changes, which have now been in place for more than a year.

Our killer whale program is a model for marine zoological facilities around the world, and the additions we have made in the areas of personal safety, facility design and communication have enhanced this program further still.  In addition to these existing safety measures, we also continue to progress on the development of prototypes such as a lifting pool floor.

I am extremely proud of the many men and women throughout our company who have represented and assisted us in this matter. They have demonstrated an unwavering dedication to safety, animal welfare and upholding our company’s long-standing reputation for excellence.

Jim Atchison

Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez

Apart from the oddity of describing the “overall decision,” which was in essence a denial of the key elements of SeaWorld’s appeal, as “positive for us,” what stands out is Atchison’s language regarding the scope of Welsch’s ruling.

Since Brancheau’s death, and during the lengthy process of appealing the OSHA citation, SeaWorld ceased waterwork at all its parks, and also changed how close trainers could get to killer whales, and how they would interact with them, during drywork (the “barriers” and “proximity changes” that Atchison mentions). But as Atchison notes, Welsch’s decision applies only to performances (following the language of the citation). So SeaWorld could in theory resume waterwork and close contact drywork with its killer whales outside of performances, and be in compliance with Judge Welsch’s decision.

If SeaWorld goes this route, which would help SeaWorld maintain its waterwork training even as it continues to hope to find a way to return waterwork to its shows, there will be risks. While Brancheau was killed while performing with Tilikum, Alexis Martinez was killed by a SeaWorld killer whale at Loro Parque two months earlier during a waterwork training session. So the same risks and dangers to trainers apply regardless of whether there is an audience or not. All that really matters is proximity. And the liability exposure if SeaWorld resumed non-performance waterwork and/or close contact drywork, and another trainer was injured or killed by a killer whale, would presumably be very high.

In addition, OSHA would be very unlikely to stand by if SeaWorld resumed the very practices–albeit not during performances–that OSHA deemed dangerous when it cited SeaWorld Florida in the first place. Les Grove, Area Director of OSHA’s Tampa Area Office, which issued the original citation, addressed this potential performance loophole during the hearings before Judge Welsch, when pressed by SeaWorld’s lawyer on whether the citation applied to non-performance waterwork and drywork, or just performances. Grove said that the citation applied only to performances, and added “But as a responsible employer, if you are aware of other interactions, where they’re exposed to the hazard, you should look at that and take action to materially reduce the hazard.”

In other words, if SeaWorld resumed waterwork and close contact drywork in exercise, play, and relationship-buuilding sessions that take place outside of performances, OSHA would view that as a danger to employees, and would almost certainly conduct a follow-up inspection that could result in another round of citations for endangerment of employees. SeaWorld, of course, could appeal those citations as well, which presumably would mean another lengthy legal proceeding.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, and how SeaWorld in the end chooses to address Judge Welsch’s decision. Atchison also mentions safety enhancements, including the fast-lifting pool floor that SeaWorld Florida is prototyping (which in theory could be used to beach a killer whale acting aggressively or attacking a trainer). The OSHA citation says that SeaWorld can abate the dangers cited through safety modifications, as long as the modifications “provide the same or a greater level of portection for the trainers” as avoiding close contact or staying out of the water. That is a very high standard, but SeaWorld has invested millions in developing the lifting pool floor, and has also been working on, and practicing with, personal air supply systems that trainers could wear in the pools. Making those investments doesn’t make much sense if SeaWorld doesn’t have plans to try and put trainers back in the water one way or another.

To close, here’s Atchison discussing SeaWorld’s plans, and press coverage, in the immediate aftermath of Dawn Brancheau’s death, just as the OSHA investigation was about to start. Amazing what a long and winding road has been traveled since then:

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2012 6:57 pm

    Hello Tim, i havent read yet the 47 pages of the judge decision yet, but when Grove say that it applys only to “performances” does it says performances during public shows? because when the animal is being trained by the trainer, that to me is a performance as well. The animal is performing an excercise or a trick or whatever. i guess the animals before the show, perform and reharse the same show….i dont get it.

    • June 4, 2012 7:34 pm

      During the OSHA hearings, “performance” was generally defined as when an audience is present. But I could forsee plenty of potential hairsplitting over the definition. For example, if SeaWorld resumes non-show waterwork training, is it a “performance” if a backstage tour sees the training?

  2. Kelsey permalink
    June 6, 2012 12:57 am

    Seaworld will claim the shows as “Husbandry” and waterwork will resume. The Judge left a MAJOR Loophole….and sadly OSHA nor The judge can prove that its not Husbandry as either party has the” knowledge”. Be assured SeaWorld will find a way to put in Waterwork again. They don’t care.

  3. Celine permalink
    August 13, 2013 3:15 am

    Fuck you seaworld!! Release the whales! Whales aren’t meant to be held in captivity in a tiny tank, swimming in circles and, taught to do tricks for the rest of their life. You guys deserve to be locked in a jail cell and see how you like it, you’re lucky you’re not forced to do tricks everyday or starved …These poor whales, breaks my heart </3

    I can't wait for Blackfish documentary to expose you delusional dirtbags. All you care about is money, how do you live with yourself knowing the whales are injured in the pools, separated at birth from their mothers and killing trainers due to captivity-induced stress….you wonder why they go crazy. You would too if you were forced to face such conditions.

    • October 27, 2013 10:01 pm

      THANKYOU THANKYOU! You have said EVERYTHING I FEEL! I just watched ‘Blackfish’ and HAVE REFUSED to go to Marine Parks and Zoos because of seeing mammals and animals in captivity….I have been donating $$$ to WSPA and read PETA sites BUT WHERE ARE THEY HELPING Tilikum and the whales in captivity??? This brought tears to my eyes especiallhy seeing the mummy cry for her baby….. Lets hope that MURDEROUS Park gets closed.

  4. Andrew permalink
    September 5, 2013 4:07 pm

    I would like you to reconsider your position regarding your killer whales.

    I understand there are many economic barriers. However, I am sure an
    intelligent group such as yours can devise a way to turn this into a
    financial and public relations win. Certainly, you understand he (Tili) is more
    than a fish and that captivity in an isolated cell is cruel. Without any
    scientific training, anyone can observe he is behaving in a sick way.

    I hope a successful man, such as yourself, does not want to leave behind
    this legacy.

    Seaworld does many useful things for the public. You and your team are better than this behavior.

    PS. I remember going to Seaworld 30 years ago with my father and younger
    brother. I (we) had an incredible time. Your park offers much more than
    Killer whales and trained animals.

  5. Vivian McDowell permalink
    November 8, 2013 5:17 pm

    I, too, spent many enjoyable times with my son at Seaworld, who is now 40! We are taking our grandchildren to Orlando this December. I was quite excited about seeing the penguin exhibit. However, sadly, I cannot bring myself to spend one dime there ever again. The bottom line is always money and for years I deluded myself into thinking Seaworld loved the marine life as much as I did. I know many of the trainers love these animals, but, only management has a say and the movie Blackfish exposed your cynical remarks in respnse to trainer’s concerns. I am disgusted with the lot of you!

  6. Llee0123 permalink
    December 2, 2013 12:10 pm

    Ive lived in Orlando my entire life, I had a SeaWorld pass and attended summer camp. I fell in love with the animals, especially the orcas. One time, while viewing Tilly in his underwater jail cell, I did a few hand gestures and twirled around, making faces in the glass to him. And he was right there on the other side reacting to each move I made, more aware than any animal I’ve ever seen. Thats when I realized (at age 14) that this was so very wrong, that this thing is smarter than you and I, and he’s confined to a tank 0.0001% his natural environment. Not to mention all alone.
    SeaWorld doesn’t provide any conservation efforts to animals. Hubbs-Seaworld does, but this isn’t a group SeaWorld pays for out of pocket. This conservation group receives government grants to help rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles and manatees. SeaWorld captures, inbreeds and tortures their orcas, their most intelligent and self aware creature there.
    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

    Jim Atchison and other SeaWorld CEOs who make immense profit off of such a travesty will more than likely get what they deserve. Maybe we should take their families away from them and put them in concrete pools to see if they become aggressive and unresponsive.

  7. Burn in hell Jim permalink
    December 5, 2013 7:22 pm

    Someone should subject Jim Atchison to the same treatment killer whales receive for the rest of his life.

  8. Elizabeth Withers permalink
    December 28, 2013 2:01 pm

    Mr. Jim Atchison, do you have a family? I have a daughter and I had a son that was taken away from me by a car accident. Do you have any idea what that feels like to have someone taken away from you. After seeing the dvd I was so mad and hurt to think that this could be going on. I can’t believe that you can live your life everyday happy with yourself. Listen to what everybody is saying and step up to the plate and let the past go and please put an end to Sea World.

  9. Benza permalink
    February 15, 2014 11:24 pm

    No whale should be in captivity!! This is seaworlds problem not the trainers! I will never come to any of your facilities! My heart breaks for the whales and those who lost there lives. I’m disgusted!

  10. Kirsty permalink
    April 20, 2014 9:42 pm

    I watched Blackfish last night, I am disgusted, angered and have been very emotional during and after watching it. I hope this cruely stops and all whales are put back where they came from.

  11. April 29, 2014 5:02 pm

    I watched Blackfish and thought it was very compelling. In my opinion, all captive animals around the world should be set free. At least the healthy ones that stand a chance for survival in the natural world. The human species is a disgrace to the planet. People are too motivated by money and greed. Keep in mind folks, Sea World Entertainment is a publicly traded company which means the shareholders own the company not douche bag Jim Atchinson and the like. Approximately, 63% of Sea World’s total revenue is from admissions (23.4 million guests in 2013) and approximately 37% from food, merchandise, and other revenue. This means that stupid people who take their stupid kids to the stupid theme parks every year are to blame for the captivity and treatment of these mammals. Stop going to Sea World and spending your stupid money on your stupid kids for your stupid pleasure. I’d rather you drill a hole in your genitals and then set yourself on fire. Now that’s entertainment I’d pay to see.

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