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SeaWorld whale that drowned trainer required special rules

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Fla (Reuters) - The SeaWorld killer whale that drowned his trainer in 2010 in Orlando, Florida was known for refusing to let go of objects he found in his pool, a senior trainer said on Tuesday.

Senior trainer Lynne Schaber testified during the second day of a federal hearing. SeaWorld is challenging safety federal charges against the resort that stem from the drowning of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca bull, in front of park guests.

The most serious charge leveled by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is classified as a "willful violation," meaning SeaWorld showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."

The theme park company faces a $75,000 fine. More importantly, SeaWorld might be forced to end physical interaction between trainers and killer whales, company lawyer Carla Gunnin said in her opening statement on Monday.

Performances at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium long featured iconic moments of trainers surfing on the backs of killer whales and getting launched from the whales' snouts. But SeaWorld trainers have not performed or interacted in the water with killer whales since Brancheau's death, with one exception in a medical emergency, Gunnin said.

Schaber, called to testify by federal lawyers at the hearing in Sanford, outside of Orlando, said trainers had to receive special approval from management to work with and touch Tilikum.

A separate section of the trainers' handbook was devoted specifically to Tilikum because "we did not get in the water with him," Schaber said.

"Tilikum displayed behavior that he did not return objects in the pool...I could assume, possibly understand, that it could include people," Schaber said.

Federal lawyer John Black said in his opening statement Monday that SeaWorld's primary method of protecting its trainers from killer whales was to teach them how to recognize visual cues indicating an animal might turn aggressive.

"Relying primarily on training the trainers to be careful leaves gaps," Black told administrative judge Ken Welsch, who is presiding over the hearing.

The proceedings are expected to last a week, and a final ruling could be months away.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)

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