As SeaWorld and OSHA continue their backroom and courtroom dealings over what sort of interactions SeaWorld trainers should be allowed to have with SeaWorld’s killer whales, the question of the risks inherent in drywork is central.
“Drywork” is when trainers interact with the killer whales on slideouts, stages, and shallow ledges. That is in contrast to waterwork, which is interactions in which trainers are in the pools with the killer whales. SeaWorld stopped performing waterwork after Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum (even though Brancheau was in fact doing drywork according to SeaWorld’s definition). Given the OSHA citations and court rulings so far, it doesn’t seem likely that SeaWorld will feature waterwork again anytime soon.
However, SeaWorld, it appears, would like to work out a deal that would modify OSHA’s stipulation that trainers maintain a minimum distance or work from behind a barrier, and allow SeaWorld trainers during shows to have close contact with killer whales when the trainer (and often the killer whale, too) is out of the water on the stage or a slideout.
I think that we can stipulate that a trainer in the water with a killer whale is much more vulnerable than a trainer out of the water. But even if that is so, OSHA’s main concern has to be what sort of risks to trainers exist during drywork. OSHA’s expert witness when it faced off against SeaWorld in court in 2011, Dr. David Duffus (who also features in Blackfish) has long been of the view that a killer whale’s speed, power and intelligence means that the risks to trainers are inversely correlated to the distance that exists between a trainer and a killer whale. No distance = higher risk. Greater distance = lower risk.
As OSHA ponders how much risk there is in trainers getting close to killer whales, I thought I would ask an expert, John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld senior trainer with long experience at both the SeaWorld California and SeaWorld Texas parks.
Hargrove told me that the risk for trainers who are out of the water “is low.” But he also made clear that risks remain, and “that we have documented past incidents which prove trainers can be struck.”
He cited as an example an incident at SeaWorld California in which Orkid broke off a requested behavior underwater and instead came up on the stage and struck a trainer, sending her tumbling, and putting her in the hospital. “Orkid intentionally slid out and struck her,” Hargrove says, noting that any time a whale is sliding across the stage–which is a popular behavior–it has the opportunity to strike trainers. “The only safe place to be during a stage slide is far stage right or left, in a place where there is no set blocking the trainer from jumping back. Anywhere else the whale can crush you if they want to.”
Another time, during a sonogram, Orkid came up out of the water and struck that same trainer as she stood poolside, knocking her over a wall. The trainer landed on her head, and lost consciousness. That incident also ended with the trainer in a hospital.
Hargrove added that there have also been incidents in which killer whales in a line-up at the stage have come up out of the water and struck a trainer (SeaWorld requires any instance in which a killer whale comes out at a poolside trainer past its pectoral flippers be reported as an “incident,” regardless of whether the killer whale makes contact with the trainer).
Regarding drywork, Hargrove concludes: “The potential is still there. You are reducing the likelihood of anything happening but you are not eliminating it. If your goal is to eliminate all the risk, then maintaining an 18-inch separation (a protocol SeaWorld implemented after Dawn Brancheau died) is not sufficient, and allowing contact with the whales on a slideout is not sufficient. At some point you are going to get popped. As long as you have hands on the whale, or are as close as 18 inches, the only way you can safely get out of the way is if you have picked up on precursors and know it will happen.”
Lest anyone be tempted to think that on a pool deck, with the killer whale out of its element, a human is faster, Hargove is here to tell you otherwise. “If a whale has already started to slide out, no way. You are not going to beat a killer whale. You are not going to out-react a killer whale that has made a decision to slide out at you.”
To illustrate this point, Hargrove told me a story, from his SeaWorld California days. Following a show in which he had performed waterwork with Corky, and after the whales had been gated into the back pools, Hargrove and Amy Peters (another trainer and sister of Ken Peters of Kasatka fame) decided to go back out to one of the partially submerged slideovers between the show pool and the back pools to cool off. As they were relaxing, Ken Peters told them he was going to bring Corky and Splash back out into the front pool. For safety, Hargrove and Amy started to stand up to leave, but Ken told them it was okay for them to stay since that would help desensitize Corky and Splash further to the presence of trainers around the pool.
Peters pointed Corky and Splash into the show pool, they swam past Hargrove and Amy, and chinned up perfectly at the stage, where Ken met them. Suddenly, Hargrove and Amy saw Corky split from the stage. They immediately reacted, jumping to their feet to get off the slideover. It was just three quick steps to safety. But the 8200 pound Corky was way too fast. Hargrove says he had barely taken one step when Corky shot up onto the slideover between him and Amy, flicked her head and turned her body to corral Hargrove, and slid back into the water pulling Hargrove with her.
Hargrove stayed calm and gave Corky a neutral response. Ken Peters immediately started an emergency recall, while Corky–her rostrum against Hargrove’s chest–pushed Hargrove around the perimeter of the pool. Eventually, she responded to the call back and left him.
Hargrove says Corky never had her mouth open. But “for a whale to do something like that you have to call it aggressive, taking possession of a trainer is not okay,” Hargrove says. “She went and got me and seized me.” [Interesting OSHA/SeaWorld postscript: this incident with Corky was never recorded in a formal SeaWorld incident report].
Hargrove is a pretty cool customer, but he admits that the incident unnerved him. And the thing that sticks with him is the mindblowing speed a killer whale is capable of. “What you see in the show is nothing to how fast they are when they are pissed, or really want something. It’s really belittling because you see how insignificant you are. To think you are physically quick enough and strong enough in comparison to them is a mistake,” he says.
Following that incident, Hargrove once heard a young, overconfident, trainer claim that if he fell in the pool he would be able to climb out before a killer whale elsewhere in the pool could get to him. Hargrove pulled him aside, and set him straight in no uncertain terms.
Hargrove says that drywork incidents are rare. But he carries that healthy respect for the speed and power of killer whales into any conversation about about minimum working distances and whether there are certain drywork positions in which it is safe for a trainer to have hands on a whale. “It means nothing if those whales make the decision that they are going to seize you or strike you. The only way to escape is if you see the precursor and predict they will come at you,” he says. “If they make the decision and you do not predict it you are toast.”
This underscores something I have always believed. There really is no way to make killer whale training completely safe. You need to have enough respect for the supreme capabilities of an amazing animal to say that, depending on how you choose to interact with a killer whale, there is more risk and there is less risk. What there isn’t is no risk.