SeaWorld of Florida has begun a challenge to charges stemming from the death of killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, drowned by a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum in front of park visitors in 2010.
A federal hearing is being held this week at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Florida, to determine whether SeaWorld should be charged with a willful violation, meaning the theme park showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health," according to Reuters
Brancheau, 40, had been sitting on the edge of the Shamu Stadium pool during a show Feb. 24, when Tilikum — the largest killer whale in captivity — grabbed her hair and violently dragged her underwater. The medical examiner said she drowned and suffered traumatic injuries, The Washington Post reports.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the federal agency that works to prevent workplace injuries — issued the violation in August 2010 after a lengthy investigation.
"SeaWorld recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals," CNN cited Cindy Coe, OSHA's Atlanta regional administrator, as saying in a statement. "Nonetheless, it required its employees to work within the pool wall, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by the animals."
The park also was fined $75,000.
SeaWorld trainers have not performed in the water with killer whales since Brancheau's death.
A ruling against SeaWorld could force park officials to change how trainers interact with the whales.
SeaWorld argued during the hearing that three safety citations against the theme park are unfounded.
SeaWorld lawyer Carla Gunnin told an administrative law judge Ken Welsch that the resort has a history of rescuing marine animals and is a leader in marine mammal research, the Washington Post reports.
The OSHA says the citations should apply to performances, but Reuters reports that:
Gunnin insisted on Monday that trainers in shows perform the same interactions with killer whales that are required behind the scenes to provide good animal care.
The only difference is the addition of lights, music and an audience, she said.
Meanwhile, it's unclear whether video of Brancheau's death will be shown at this week's hearing as Brancheau’s husband was attending accompanied by attorneys.
Although a federal judge last week ruled that OSHA may use the images at the hearing if attorneys choose to do so, Brancheau’s family has argued that showing them would be a violation of privacy.
Meanwhile, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, demonstrated outside the courthouse, CNN reports.
Protesters held signs saying “Throw the Book at SeaWorld” and “Stop Imprisoning Orcas.”