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Sea World Told HBJ in July About Fears Over Rising Injuries

December 03, 1987|GREG JOHNSON and CHRIS KRAUL | Times Staff Writers

Sea World officials expressed concern in July about an increase in injuries to animal trainers and submitted a "white paper" to higher corporate officials after a particularly severe injury, an industry source said Wednesday.

The report, an in-depth study of training methods used at the park, was read by William Jovanovich, chairman of Sea World's corporate parent, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the source said. The report concluded that it was probably impossible to prevent all injuries to trainers.

Trainers continued to perform alongside Sea World's killer whales until a highly publicized Nov. 21 accident seriously injured trainer John Sillick.

Injuries Hard to Control

On Tuesday, HBJ announced that, to "avoid the recurrence of the kind of accident that took place . . . Nov. 21," Sea World trainers will no longer perform in the tanks with the whales.

Sea World's July report indicated that injuries were hard to control "because of the gymnastics, mistakes by trainers and the aggressive nature of the animals themselves," according to one aquatic-park industry source who saw the report.

Word of the "white paper" on escalating trainer injuries came as HBJ continued to maintain a wall of silence around the firing Tuesday of Sea World President Jan Schultz and the reported firings of three other employees, apparently as a result of the trainer injuries. The other three are chief trainer David Butcher, zoological director Lanny Cornell and public relations chief Jackie Hill.

Restricting its comments to a two-page statement issued Tuesday in which it said only that "certain" employees had been suspended, HBJ and Sea World executives refused Wednesday to confirm Schultz's claim that he had been fired by HBJ Parks division President Jack Snyder. In an interview, Schultz said he had been made a "scapegoat" by William Jovanovich.

In a brief interview Wednesday, HBJ Executive Vice President Peter Jovanovich declined to comment on the Sea World issue.

'Just a Book Publisher'

"I'm just a book publisher," said Jovanovich, a San Diego resident and son of William Jovanovich. The younger Jovanovich runs HBJ's San Diego-based publishing operation.

In a related development, a Sea World spokeswoman in Orlando, Fla., said Wednesday that Robert Galt, the president of Sea World's park there, temporarily has taken over day-to-day operations at the San Diego tourist attraction, now enjoying its best attendance year ever. Galt began his Sea World career in San Diego several years ago and earlier served as president of Sea World's Ohio park.

The top management shuffle was "a very radical action," according to Bert L. Boksen, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based industry analyst who follows HBJ. "It indicates more than just one (injury) incident."

Boksen suggested that Sea World's attendance probably would not suffer if trainers remained out of the water because "the whales are the main attraction."

However, Sea World--which will open its fourth park in May in San Antonio and has been trying to develop Shamu as a cartoon character for a television show--"doesn't need this (kind of publicity) now," Boksen said.

Officials at Watson General, a La Jolla-based film producer that has signed a deal to produce the cartoons plus a feature-length film featuring Shamu, said their plans have not been affected by the adverse publicity.

Too Many Serious Injuries

The current controversy centers on what several industry sources have described as an abnormally high incidence of serious injuries during the last year or so at the San Diego park. Sea World's Orlando and Ohio parks, however, have remained free of serious injuries, sources said.

The recent injuries included "four or five pretty heavy injuries" prior to Sillick's Nov. 21 accident, which has left him with severe injuries to his ribs, pelvis and leg after one of the huge mammals landed on him as he rode on another whale. Sillick remains in fair condition at UC San Diego Medical Center.

Several sources said accidents increased after two killer whales were imported from Marineland, the now-defunct Rancho Palos Verdes theme park that HBJ acquired in late 1986.

Whale experts have offered several general explanations for why whales might become aggressive. The introduction of new whales, or a variety of other everyday occurrences, can turn a normally playful animal into one that had best not perform, said Sonny Allen, director of marine mammal training at Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo.

Some problems, such as diet, can be relatively straightforward and easy to adjust, Allen said. Others, such as the introduction of new animals into a relatively stable population, the sudden disappearance of a known trainer, or an increase in sexual tensions among whales can cause short- and long-term problems that can result in injuries to trainers, Allen said.

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