Top SeaWorld vet says trainers need to build bond with whales in water

Park faces $75,000 fine from OSHA

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SANFORD, Fla. - In a court hearing Friday, SeaWorld continued to try to prove that its trainers are safe while working in the water with killer whales.

SeaWorld is fighting a $75,000 fine issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a killer whale in Orlando in 2010.  The park voluntarily removed all trainers from being in the water with whales after Brancheau's death.

The hearing ended Friday afternoon and the judge said it was the most unusual case he's heard in the last 15 years while handling OSHA matters. He added that most cases involve industrial safety hazards and fall hazards.

Earlier in the day, Dr. Chris Dold, vice president of veterinary services at SeaWorld, testified it's necessary for trainers to have close bond with whales to give the animals the best care they need.  He said that trainers in the water helps build bonds with whales, and those bonds help reduce the whales' stress during veterinary procedures.

Dold also said stress can alter the quality and accuracy of some medical tests, such as blood samples, and that it's better for animals' overall well-being.

Dold said the recent death of a whale named Katina might have been prevented if trainers had been in the water with her and detected problems earlier.

On cross examination, however, Dold acknowledged that even with trainers out of the water, SeaWorld has been fulfilling all of its medical requirements mandated by the USDA and U.S. Fisheries Department in order to maintain its whale display permits.

Dold also acknowledged that the whales can be properly cared for without trainers being in the water.

"Yes, we can care for the whales, but we would not be doing our best job," he said.

The attorneys have 45 days to file briefs instead of giving closing arguments. The judge will then decide if the $75,000 fine will be upheld.

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