SeaWorld's Appeal Denied by Court: Orca Trainers Must Stay Out of the Water

The U.S. Court of Appeals voted down an appeal by SeaWorld over a ruling by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following the death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld animal trainer who was killed by an orca bull named Tilikum following a show at the park in 2010.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration cited SeaWorld for endangering the safety of its killer whale trainers months following Brancheau's death. In June of 2012, a judge ordered the water park to pay a $7,000 fine, and ordered SeaWorld to keep its trainers behind a barrier away from the orcas, as recommended by OSHA.

Friday's ruling means trainers cannot interact with orcas during shows.

See also: Could SeaWorld Orlando Be Affected by California's Orca Ban Bill?

Brancheau's death was highlighted in the documentary Blackfish, a film which exposes the abuse killer whales endure in captivity, specifically at SeaWorld,

The movie interviewed several former SeaWorld trainers and focuses on Brancheau's February 2010 death after the 12,000-pound bull orcaTilikum pulled her into the water and drowned her.

Blackfish also chronicles other attacks by Tilikum on another trainer years prior to his attack on Brancheau, and reveals the time a homeless man snuck into SeaWorld overnight and was found dead on top of of the orca the following morning.

The abuse and captivity, the film suggests, may have pushed Tilikum to the edge, causing him to snap on several occasions, with fatal and tragic results.

During the appeals process, SeaWorld admitted to certain risks with killer whales. But, they said, the risks had been minimized since the Brancheau incident with specific and comprehensive training programs and protocols. SeaWorld also argued that there were no ongoing hazards, and that there was a resolution to potential problems.

SeaWorld attorney Eugene Scalia -- the son of U.S. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court -- had argued that trainer contact with whales was critical to SeaWorld's core business.

The ban on trainer contact with orcas, Scalia argued, boiled down to the government undermining the marine water park's business model. Seeing orcas interact with trainers, the argument went, was necessary to educate audiences.

After Friday's ruling, SeaWorld might take their petition to the Supreme Court, though they've not announced their intentions to do so just yet.

The ruling has been met with excitement by animal-rights advocates. Particularly, PETA, who sent out a press release immediately following the court's decision.

"The D.C. Circuit's decision today to the effect that SeaWorld must keep trainers out of the water signals an end to the days of trainers standing and riding on orcas for human amusement at SeaWorld," read a statement by PETA. "With the life-threatening dangers to trainers and the detrimental effects of enslaving intelligent, social, and far-ranging orcas and confining them to concrete tanks, SeaWorld's tawdry shows will soon be a thing of the past."

And now that SeaWorld has been denied their petition, the question becomes what happens with the Seaquarium in Miami, which still holds shows with killer whale Lolita.

"If orcas are dangerous in Orlando, they're dangerous in Miami too," dolphin activist, Russ Rector, told New Times in response to Friday's ruling.

The freedom of orcas from captivity remains a cloudy and complicated struggle. But Friday's ruling seems to be something of a victory for the proponents of orca rights.