At just 29 years old, Alexis Martinez had everything to live for. A trainer at Loro Parque, a Spanish theme park on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Martinez was considered one, if not the, best orca trainer that Loro Parque possessed. Yet, as was the case with Dawn Brancheau, it failed to save his life. On December 24, 2009, just two months before Brancheau was killed by Tilikum in Orlando, Florida, Martinez died following a devastating attack by another SeaWorld orca named Keto. His death barely made the news and yet the incident report clearly defined the scope of the attack; the orca had intended to kill.
Like SeaWorld, Loro Parque’s orcas had a history of aggression towards trainers, and a fatality was just a matter of time. His death failed to derail SeaWorld’s USA-based orca shows. Trainers were pulled from waterwork for two days before jumping right back in again. SeaWorld had learned nothing and just two months later, it would cost Dawn Brancheau her life.
The historical background leading up to these two deaths is both telling and damning. Not only did it form the basis for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s case against SeaWorld, it aided Judge Ken Welsch with his decision to uphold OSHA’s citations against SeaWorld in 2012. As for the park, in appealing the OSHA citations, SeaWorld opened itself up to public scrutiny and tarnished its image forever.
What did we learn?
Between 1988-2009, SeaWorld generated 100 incident reports between its animals and its trainers. Of these, twelve that we know of involved documented injuries. OSHA forced Chuck Tompkins, the former Vice President of Animal Training to admit the park had, “missed a few.” OSHA also shredded Tompkins’ estimates that SeaWorld could predict the behavior of its whales upwards of 98% of the time. Dismissed by the government agency who described it as “questionable data” involving “guesswork and averaging,” the court afforded it little weight. Some of those incidents are contained in the report below:
Incidents aside, comments from SeaWorld staff made following internal reviews of these incidents were also introduced into the courtroom by OSHA. They clearly highlight the dangers of working with orcas:
Let’s face it, in these types of incidents, I don’t recall any whale responding to any hand slap, food bucket, or any other distraction we tried to implement. — Aug. 04, 2004. Response to an incident at SeaWorld Texas involving Kyuquot and a trainer.
Whales should never be reviewed as routine or predictable. — Aug. 02, 2002
To be honest, it’s great to be able to show people that our killer whales do have the potential of getting nasty. — July 01, 2002
These statements — many made prior to the deaths of Martinez and Brancheau do not need expert analysis. Yet SeaWorld — with all of its claims of expertise, continued to endorse its methods of training as safe. Byrne’s death, Duke’s death, and the death of Martinez, when combined with more than 100 incident reports from across all of its parks, should have been enough. It wasn’t. The park’s willful ignorance was shocking, but Brancheau’s death and SeaWorld’s response to it took things to an entirely new level of incomprehension.
Next time: How SeaWorld dealt with Dawn Brancheau’s death.