Trainer Corner: John Hargrove On “Drywork” Risk

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.

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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. Continue reading “Trainer Corner: John Hargrove On “Drywork” Risk”

Is Orca “Drywork” Risky

I’ve said before that I don’t have a problem with trainers taking risks, including waterwork, as long as SeaWorld is honest and transparent with trainers regarding the risks and the aggression history of any given killer whale.

But how much risk attaches to “drywork” is a big question as SeaWorld continues to try to reach a settlement with OSHA on what sort of close contact between killer whales and trainers should be allowed in shows.

I’ll have a few things to say next week about what orcas are capable of even if a trainer is out of the pool. But in the meantime, here’s a (somewhat in jest) reminder that while waterwork definitely puts trainers at greater wisk, the stuff that happens out of the water doesn’t always go as intended.

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