Killer Whale Involved in Big OSHA Case Dies

Tilikum, the orca that killed whale trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 at SeaWorld of Florida, died Jan. 6 "surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians that provided him around-the-clock world-class care," the company reports.

An animal at the heart of a major OSHA enforcement case, an orca named Tilikum, died Jan. 6. SeaWorld announced in a statement that the "SeaWorld family is deeply saddened to announce that one of its most well-known orcas, Tilikum, has passed away. Tilikum passed away early this morning, January 6, surrounded by the trainers, care staff and veterinarians that provided him around-the-clock world-class care."

"Like all older animals, Tilikum had faced some very serious health issues. While the official cause of death will not be determined until the necropsy is completed, the SeaWorld veterinarians were treating a persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection. The suspected bacteria is part of a group of bacteria that is found in water and soil both in wild habitats and zoological settings," the statement says. "Tilikum’s life will always be inextricably connected with the loss of our dear friend and colleague, Dawn Brancheau. While we all experienced profound sadness about that loss, we continued to offer Tilikum the best care possible, each and every day, from the country’s leading experts in marine mammals," it adds.

President and CEO Joel Manby added, "Tilikum had, and will continue to have, a special place in the hearts of the SeaWorld family, as well as the millions of people all over the world that he inspired. My heart goes out to our team who cared for him like family." The whale was estimated to be about 36 years old, near the high end of the average life expectancy for male killer whales, the company reports.

The OSHA case concerned SeaWorld's protection for whale trainers following Brancheau's death in February 2010 -- Tilikum had pulled her into the pool during a performance and killed her.

OSHA filed two willful citations against SeaWorld after investigating her death. An OSHRC administrative law judge affirmed the citations in June 2012 but downgraded them from willful to serious; SeaWorld appealed but lost in 2014 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which rejected SeaWorld of Florida LLC's challenge to a general duty clause violation. The majority opinion, written by Judge Judith W. Rogers, found "there was substantial record evidence that SeaWorld recognized its precautions were inadequate to prevent serious bodily harm or even death to its trainers and that the residual hazard was preventable."

SeaWorld stopped allowing trainers to be in the water with killer whales after Brancheau's death and separated them with barriers or distance, which were the abatement measures proposed by OSHA in the case. But SeaWorld argued the agency overreached by using the general duty clause and that barriers and distance create additional hazards for the trainers. The case was SeaWorld of Florida, LLC v. Thomas Perez, No. 12-1375. Chief Judge Merrick Garland, later a U.S. Supreme Court nominee of President Obama, was one of the three judges on the case.

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