By Barbara Liston
SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - More than a decade before a killer whale drowned a SeaWorld trainer by pulling her into a pool by her ponytail, the Florida park had chosen to "desensitize" the animals to dangling hair rather than ban it, an employee testified at a federal hearing on Thursday.
The decision came after a trainer from a different SeaWorld park was pulled into the water by a killer whale that grabbed her loose-fitting sweatshirt in 1997, said Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando.
As a result of the sweatshirt incident, the Florida park ordered trainers to wear skin-tight wetsuits around the whales. Recognizing that trainers' ponytails also were susceptible to being grabbed, the park opted to expose whales daily to the hairstyle to get them accustomed to it, Clark said.
But after the 12,000-pound bull orca Tilikum dragged 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau in a pool and killed her last year, SeaWorld began requiring trainers to secure their hair in buns, Clark said.
Clark's testimony came during a hearing in which SeaWorld is challenging workplace safety charges filed by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The most serious charge is classified as a "willful violation," meaning SeaWorld showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."
SeaWorld faces a $75,000 fine and might be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, which traditionally has been the highlight of shows at Shamu Stadium, company lawyer Carla Gunnin said.
The hearing began in September and resumed on Tuesday. Administrative Judge Ken Welsch said he intends to conclude the proceedings this week.
Immediately after Brancheau's death, SeaWorld stopped allowing trainers to enter pools with killer whales. Clark testified that some close contact with the whales has resumed. She said trainers are allowed to touch whales' faces while cleaning their teeth and hug the youngest whales without physical barriers.
"We are making slow, methodical progress," she said.
Clark said she had not seen the company's full analysis of Brancheau's death. Investigators updated the trainers with a PowerPoint presentation but did not provide documents or handouts, she said.
Some exchanges between Clark and a government lawyer grew testy. Clark testified Tilikum had been exposed to ponytails during his entire 19 years at the Florida park without incident prior to Brancheau's death.
"Tilikum in 19 years had never shown us he pulled on anything," she said.
Pressed by lawyer John Black about whether she was aware that Tilikum and killer whales were capable of pulling on things, Clark said, "I know that you are capable of rape."
The lawyer did not react and continued his questioning.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)