SeaWorld asked a panel of federal appeals judges Tuesday to lift the ban on contact between killer whales and their trainers that was instituted after an orca drowned a woman at the Orlando theme park in 2010.
Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau died in February 2010 when Tilikum, one of the seven killer whales at the park, knocked her into the pool during a "Dine With Shamu" show and held her underwater in his mouth for nearly 45 minutes in front of a horrified audience.
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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration slapped SeaWorld with a $75,000 fine for "willfully" violating three clauses of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that require a workplace to be free from "recognized hazards."
Tilikum, OHSA argued, had killed before and SeaWorld still allowed its trainers to have contact with the whale.
According to CNN, SeaWorld appealed the decision and the citation was downgraded
from "willfully" to "seriously." The $75,000 fine was knocked down to $12,000, but the judge upheld a contact ban between animals and trainers when there are not physical barriers in place.
Now, SeaWorld is challenging the ban, arguing that the interaction between its employees and the animals is an integral part of its appeal to park-goers.
"SeaWorld offers the public an opportunity to observe humans' interaction with killer whales," the park claims in court documents. "This brings profound public educational benefit, is integral to SeaWorld's care of the whales, and responds to an elemental human desire to know, understand, and interact with the natural world."
But OHSA said that the contact ban, which has been in place since 2010, has clearly not deterred people from visiting SeaWorld at all.
"It is clear from SeaWorld's adoption of these measures that close contact of the kind that resulted in Dawn Brancheau's death is not essential to SeaWorld's ability to draw visitors to its parks, to practice behaviors during shows, or to care for its whales," the agency argued.
It's not clear when a decision on the matter will be handed down.
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