Since hearing that SeaWorld will start waterwork desensitization, I’ve been trying to puzzle out SeaWorld’s waterwork gameplan and timeline.
Here is what I have learned so far, and maybe all you smart people out there–regardless of your views on captivity–can help figure out the strategy.
Waterwork desense will officially begin today (Monday) in the med pool at SeaWorld California. I don’t know if the other parks also have whales and trainers lined up to begin desense work, and are also starting today, but it seems likely, given that the SeaWorld parks tend to work in synch with one another on major program changes like this.
Apparently, this commencement of waterwork desense (the first step toward getting trainers and orcas back on track toward full waterwork capability in the big show pools) follows a tour of the parks that SeaWorld’s chief zoological honcho, Brad Andrews, conducted earlier this year. Andrews and a SeaWorld management team met with the Shamu trainers, and showed them a video of the prototype fast-rising floor that has been installed in SeaWorld Florida’s G pool (the Dine With Shamu pool in which Dawn Brancheau was killed). The floor took just under a minute to surface, and Andrews told the trainers that similar rising floors would be installed in the show pools at all the SeaWorld parks, a major construction program that could take something like 12 to 18 months.
In the meantime, Andrews said, waterwork desense would start up in the med pools. Normally, waterwork desense (for an animal that has been removed from waterwork, say for being too aggressive) is initiated in the med pool with the floor raised up high. Trainers work with the animal through a series of behaviors, and with each successful evolution the floor is lowered a bit, until the waterwork is in fact taking place in the water. From there, the desense moves into one of the smaller back pools alongside the med pool. That way, if anything goes wrong nets can be used to try and corral the orca back into the med pool, where the floor can be raised. And if the back pool desense regimen is successful, and the orca consistently executes the behaviors asked, the desense program moves back into the show pool. This process can take a number of months.
With the current desense program, however, Andrews told Shamu trainers that no waterwork would be performed in a pool that does not have a fast-rising floor. So desense will be conducted in the med pool, and then jump directly to the show pools once the floors are installed there (though Florida, with the G pool floor, will presumably have the option of using G pool as a bridge to the show pool). That means that the desense work with the whales and trainers selected, will progress very slowly and carefully in the med pools for a year or more, so that the orcas and trainers are ready to move into the show pools when they have fast-rising floors.
The big question, assuming my information is solid, is what SeaWorld’s waterwork gameplan is. Unless SeaWorld successfully appeals the OSHA ruling (the next step would be to file an appeal with the US Circuit Court Of Appeals), Judge Welsch’s decision means that waterwork is effectively banned from performances at SeaWorld Florida (the park cited by OSHA following Brancheau’s death). If they are successful, then all of SeaWorld’s parks, having desensed selected orcas, will be in a position to resume waterwork.
If the appeal fails (or is not filed), then it gets more complicated. The OSHA ruling applies only to performance waterwork, so SeaWorld is in theory free to resume training waterwork in all its parks whenever it likes. OSHA could, however, conduct a follow-up inspection and try to get the ban on waterwork applied to training as well. That would, no doubt, be a similarly contentious and drawn-out legal process.
But training waterwork does not really get SeaWorld back into show waterwork, which presumably is the goal. So another possibility is that SeaWorld finishes installing the fast-rising floors, and whatever other safety measures SeaWorld hopes will protect trainers (like spare air systems), and then goes before OSHA to argue that these safety innovations “mitigate” the dangers that OSHA identified. The mitigation measures have to provide protection that is equal or greater than maintaining distance between trainers and orcas, or the use of physical barriers between trainers and orcas. So that might be a hard case to make. But just because it is hard does not mean that it is unwinnable. And if SeaWorld succeeds in winning a decision that says the floors, spare air, and any other safety measures, mitigate the dangers, then they are back in the waterwork business.
The final, seemingly problematic, scenario that I can come up with, addresses what happens if SeaWorld DOES NOT win either an appeal, or succeed in an effort to mitigate the dangers with the floors and spare air. In that scenario, SeaWorld could, in theory, simply resume waterwork at the SeaWorld Texas and SeaWorld California parks, since they were not cited by OSHA. That would obviously open SeaWorld up to a massive liability and PR hit if another trainer was injured or killed during waterwork. And OSHA could, and likely would(?), move to try and cite those parks for exposing tariners to dangers as well. So this scenario has lots of problems and risks for SeaWorld, and seems unlikely. But it is at least in theory possible.
So, that’s all my thinking on where this med pool desense work could go. Anyone else out there have thoughts, insights or comments on how this could all play out?