Is settlement with Calif. OSHA a small victory for SeaWorld?

SeaWorld has reached a deal with the state workplace safety agency to dismiss citations in exchange for altered safety requirements following the 2010 death of an orca trainer.

Chris Park/AP/File
People watch through glass as a killer whale swims by in a display tank at SeaWorld in San Diego, Nov. 30, 2006.

SeaWorld may have a political victory in its ongoing efforts to restore good faith in its orca program, although it probably won't halt criticism on other fronts.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment reached a deal with the state of California on Tuesday, pending approval by the state's Occupational Safety & Health Appeals (OSHA) Board. The settlement would dismiss the four citations against SeaWorld in exchange for the park adjusting its guidelines on whale operations, Lori Weisberg reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

According to the deal, trainers can no longer "surf" on the orcas or swim beneath them, and the deal lays out criteria for when they can touch the whales. The state agency will conduct several unannounced inspections of the whale's marine area over the next two years, and SeaWorld must report any accidents with the animals to the state. 

The deal does not resolve the issue of breeding the killer whales, nor does it address the concerns of animal advocates who say SeaWorld is imprisoning the killer whales, but it represents a victory for the water park in the form of removing four citations and $26,000 in fines. 

SeaWorld is happy with the deal overall, as it is based largely on the de facto current standards, spokesman Dave Koontz said in a statement.

"This decision will allow SeaWorld to continue our critical animal care practices and trainer safety training methods," Mr. Koontz said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The changes will not impact the presentation of the trademark Shamu shows because SeaWorld had already altered safety codes for trainers drastically after trainer Dawn Brancheau died in an orca attack in 2010.

Since SeaWorld made these changes of its own accord, without coercion from OSHA, SeaWorld's real issue might be a shift in perception of animals among some members of the public, especially as a CNN documentary on the subject, "Blackfish" has impacted SeaWorld profits and led to cancellations of sponsorships amid public outcry, as Gloria Goodale reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

From the circus to the grocery store, Americans are increasingly using their wallets to protest what they view as unfair treatment of animals. The heightened consumer pressure comes amid a shift in understanding among scientists and the general public about animals' level of consciousness....

Societal attitudes towards animals are changing across the board, agrees Sarah Cunningham, a professor in the Captive Wildlife Care and Education program at Unity College in Maine. Ironically, though, she points out that “part of the reason they are changing is because we’ve learned so much about the cognitive abilities and social lives of other species from individuals that we work with and study in captivity.”  

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