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State to rewrite whale report

After SeaWorld protests, officials agree to stick only to the facts of a case in which an orca dragged a trainer to the bottom of a pool.

March 03, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — After a second day of discussions with SeaWorld officials, Cal/OSHA on Friday agreed to withdraw a report that predicted that a trainer at the park will someday be killed by a killer whale.

The agency agreed to rewrite it's investigators' report to stick to only the facts of a Nov. 29 incident in which a whale dragged a trainer to the bottom of the pool at Shamu Stadium several times before he escaped.

The report, issued this week, contained "expressions of opinion and other statements" about animal behavior that Cal/OSHA does not have the expertise to determine, the agency said in a statement late Friday.

"This error is being addressed and Cal/OSHA regrets the difficulties it may have caused SeaWorld, its staff, and its patrons," the statement said.

SeaWorld had protested that the report on the incident was "riddled" with inaccuracies, particularly in its conclusion that said it was "only a matter of time" before a killer whale killed a trainer.

On Thursday, SeaWorld officials had discussed their displeasure with the district manager of Cal/OSHA in San Diego. On Friday, SeaWorld officials expressed their concerns to Cal/OSHA officials in Sacramento during a telephone conference.

In a statement SeaWorld released after that conference, park officials expressed satisfaction with the agency's decision and repeated their accusation that the report was "riddled with inaccuracies, speculation and superficial suppositions, information unrelated to the investigation, and unsubstantiated and overreaching conclusions."

The conclusion that rankled SeaWorld the most said that despite their training, trainers at SeaWorld can expect a deadly attack someday. The report recommended that SeaWorld be prepared to kill a killer whale to save the life of a trainer.

Mike Scarpuzzi, SeaWorld vice president and a former whale trainer, said the state investigators had misquoted the trainers. "We are the experts on whale behavior," he said. "We know it is safe here." He said the name "killer whale" comes from the animals' behavior in the wild seeking their prey and does not reflect their behavior in captivity. "They are gentle, social animals," he said.

The report was prompted by an incident in which a trainer was dragged to the bottom of the 36-foot-deep pool by a 7,000-pound killer whale named Kasatka during a show at Shamu Stadium.

One dispute is whether the trainer, Kenneth Peters, 39, the park's most experienced whale trainer, escaped solely through his own efforts or whether SeaWorld's emergency procedures worked. The report said all the procedures had failed; Scarpuzzi said Peters had escaped through his own efforts and because other trainers threw a net over the water.

SeaWorld, the most popular tourist attraction in San Diego, has seven killer whales -- Orcinus orca -- that perform in its shows. The whales perform a series of spectacular tricks at the command of their trainers, routinely splashing patrons sitting in the front rows.

The report concluded that SeaWorld had done a good job in training its employees who work with the large mammals and that no major safety violations occurred in the incident.

Kasatka, a 17-foot-long female, was captured off Iceland when she was 1 year old and has been a star during her 27 years at SeaWorld. She has not been used in shows or worked with a trainer since the incident.

Peters escaped with puncture wounds and a broken foot after he calmed the whale by stroking it. According to the report, Kasatka had twice before made threatening moves at Peters, in 1993 when she came at him "as if to grab him" and in 1999 when she "came at him in the water and showed him her teeth."

In a section titled "Employer's Responsibility for Safety and Health," the report said that killer whales are the largest carnivore kept at any zoo or park and that, "despite our close associations with these creatures, they are not domesticated in any sense of the word."

Although zookeepers deal with wild and dangerous animals, the report said, they do not perform tricks with them. "The humans that swim with and perform with orcas in this setting are putting their lives in danger every time they jump into the pool," it concluded.

SeaWorld has long been criticized by conservation and animal rights groups for keeping orcas in captivity. The state report had brought immediate support from such groups in the United States and abroad.

Andrina Murrell, an official with the London-based Marine Connection, said the Nov. 29 incident was a sign of the stress that the whales suffer by living in a pool much smaller than their natural range.

"Captive killer whales are simply a caricature, a Disney character which bears no relation to their wild counterparts, nullifying any educational benefit," she said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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