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Labor Department Fires Warning Shot At Animal Entertainment Industry

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Following last week's landmark ruling against SeaWorld in the death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, the Obama Administration has put the entire animal entertainment industry on notice: Step-up safety measures for employees or face stiff legal and monetary sanctions.

The decision in Secretary of Labor v SeaWorld of Florida LLC could permanently change the way animals and humans interact in shows at amusement parks, zoos and aquariums across the country.

After the 2010 death and dismemberment of Brancheau by the 12,000-pound orca Tilikum in Orlando, the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) slapped SeaWorld with a damning "willful" violation and demanded a raft of intensive new measures to protect the life and limb of employees. Faced with a likely ban on trainers performing in the water with killer whales, SeaWorld took the Feds to court to overturn the violation and vacate the safety measures.

The marine "parks and entertainment" franchise lost on both counts. Now, the Department of Labor has come out swinging at the entire multibillion dollar animal show-business industry.

"The Labor Department's actions in this case were carried out to achieve a single goal -- protecting the workers at SeaWorld and other parks like it," (emphasis added) assistant secretary David Michaels wrote in the department's official blog, "Work in Progress."

"The decision should send a strong message to SeaWorld that the health and safety of its workers must always be a top priority," Michaels added, "and that workers who interact with large and unpredictable animals deserve no less protection than anyone else."

During the two-week trial in Orlando last fall, Les Grove, head of OSHA's Tampa office, issued a warning that all animal-entertainment enterprises should heed when he testified that "any responsible employer" who was aware of animal-human interaction hazards in the workplace "should take action" as soon as possible.

Clearly, OSHA and the Labor Department feel emboldened by the SeaWorld victory and now seem ready to redouble efforts to prevent other animal-on-trainer attacks like the one that transpired in Orlando, which Michaels rightly labeled as "gruesome."

"I can scarcely imagine what it was like to witness such a scene," the assistant secretary wrote. "A crowd of park visitors helplessly watched as the life of a smart, talented, athletic young woman was snatched away in the jaws of a massive predator."

Michaels was confident that "anyone who was in Shamu Stadium on that terrible day would agree with the judge that, indeed, these animals are recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

The hazards were clearly known by all. As the judge in the case noted, "to date, killer whales have been implicated in four known human deaths worldwide. Tilikum was in the pool with the decedents for three of those deaths."

And yet, almost incredibly, SeaWorld tried to argue at trial that, because its orcas were well-trained, they posed no hazard to trainers and "therefore nothing needs to be done to protect the workers in the future," Michaels wrote. "This inattention to obvious workplace hazards is dangerous for workers, and does nothing to lessen a company's legal obligation to provide safe and healthful workplaces."

Companies DO have a legal obligation to provide safe workplaces for all employees, whether they are working with dangerous chemicals, machinery -- or animals. At least 15% of the killer whales owned by SeaWorld have been involved in serious aggression against their trainers over the years, a dismal safety record that would never be tolerated in other industries.

There have been many highly publicized attacks by other supposedly "well-trained" animals on human trainers, and a simple Google search shows how prevalent these preventable tragedies are. Workers have been whacked, dunked, clawed, scratched and mauled - all in the name of amusing tourists and boosting ticket sales.

Animal entertainment, of course, is also tough on animals, especially large, free-ranging, highly intelligent creatures that form lifelong bonds with family members. Does captivity drive these sentient beings to unspeakable acts of aggression against their captors? Many people believe that it does (for example, no serious attack by an orca has ever been recorded in the wild).

But whatever motivates a performing animal to turn on humans -- stress, boredom, revenge -- the potential for more worker injury and death continues. OSHA's obligation is to protect all employees against any unnecessary risks. And if that means putting a physical barrier between human workers and potentially lethal animals, the Feds are saying so be it.

Otherwise, it's only a matter of time before the next show-business killing occurs.

David Kirby's third book, Death at SeaWorld - Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, will be released by St. Martins Press on July 17, 2012. More information is at the DASW Facebook Page.