Sunday, February 19, 2017

Class Action Lawsuit vs SeaWorld Promises Drama & Discovery

SeaWorld's captive orca Tilikum died 6 Jan 2017
from an antibiotic resistant super-infection. Listen HERE
Earlier this month U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled that a class-action lawsuit filed against SeaWorld, for false advertising, can move forward; important as the company was feverishly trying to have the case thrown out so it could avoid legal discovery. Discovery is done in preparation for trial, expected late 2017, and is a nightmare for the captivity corporation; one that has a lot to hide

Discovery includes subpoenaing compelling witnesses like scientists, employees, veterinarians & former trainers; or asking for physical evidence, such as the orca medical records, here. Once inserted into the record, the data or transcripts (example from OSHA trial herebecome available to media, scientists, members of the public, and animal welfarists. 


How discovery works: 
Copied from "How Courts Work" - Link HERE 

The trial will feature SeaWorld's hired power lawyer Larry Iser vs attorneys from Covington & Burling. We've covered Mr. Iser once before: SeaWorld Lawyer Warned Author of ‘Beneath the Surface’

  Orca Kahana: Another victim who brutally died young at SeaWorld from skull fractures
"Remembering SeaWorld orca Kahana," who died from skull fractures in captivity. Note that in nature there are no steel bars or concrete walls to cause skull fractures like this

Discovery  is feared by SeaWorld. Damning evidence brought forth from the 2011 trial, US Sec of Labor (OSHA) vs. SeaWorld, proved to cripple the company, ended trainer-orca waterwork interactions, resulted in a serious safety violation, and provided details from behind the captivity curtain. This included several near-deaths involving trainers working with captive Orcinus orca. We also learned that whales in captivity are regularly medicated, including with benzodiazepines like Valium, but more frequently with ones to control chronic infections or prevent stress-ulcers, like Tagamet. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, one type of lethal infection, Candidiasis, which recently killed a SeaWorld captive [emphasis mine], please click:  

This common mycotic disease in captive cetaceans occurs secondary to stress, unbalanced water disinfection with chlorines, or indiscriminate antibiotic therapy

Of note, un-medicated wild killer whales do not die of antibiotic resistant super-infections, such as the ones that killed Tilikum and Unna, SeaWorld of Florida & SeaWorld of Texas whales, respectfully. Read about Unna's story, as published by the Daily Mail

The Charges 

The plaintiffs, park guests who were given demonstrably false information, allege that SeaWorld is & has been engaging in false advertising by portraying collapsed dorsal fins as normal and captive-lifespans as equal to wild killer whales. The case is Anderson et al. v. SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, number 4:15-cv-02172, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Lastly, the plaintiffs point out that SeaWorld continues to (astonishingly) claim that it does not separate mother killer whales from their calves, something that has occurred over and over again, and a claim that has been refuted with basic knowledge of where those mothers-offspring now reside and at what ages they were separated.

From an animal justice perspective, this case seems like an easy win for the plaintiffs... but it's not. SeaWorld is very good at conflating issues like "survival" [projections] with "longevity," calling orca teeth-damage & associated flushings, "superior dental care," and also using time parameters that attempt to redefine what an orca calf actually is. The company prefers to view itself as "the authority" on killer whales despite not having a single scientist on its board of directors, here. SeaWorld prefers to label actual scientists as "radical activists," a method akin to the Trump administration marginalizing journalists. 

SeaWorld orcas neurotically grind their teeth on concrete walls and break them on steel bars, similar to horses "cribbing"

This will be SeaWorld's strategy in the coming months: 
Obfuscate, object to the release of pertinent animal records, marginalize experts, and overwhelm the judge & lawyers with industry-speak & cherry picked data. 
With SeaWorld hoping to muddy the waters on these three main issues (lifespan, collapsed fins, separating mothers from calves) it's important that we, the animal welfarist community, continue to shed light on the realities of captivity. Fortunately, with good information, expert testimony, & orca medical records, SeaWorld won't be able to wordsmith their way out of the obvious: 

Killer whales suffer at SeaWorld & live impoverished lives, in concrete tanks, eating unnatural food, like smelt. Neurotic teeth damage is the most striking visual evidence of suffering at SeaWorld, leading to over medication, dental pain, chronic infections, & morbidity

Gif file compiled by Jeffrey Ventre from #Superpod4, Salish Sea, WA, USA

Author: Jeffrey Ventre MD DC is a board certified medical doctor in the specialty of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). He treats patients with physical impairments from back pain & stroke, to spinal cord & brain injuries. Jeff is also a doctor of chiropractic & electromyographer. In 1996 Jeff joined Ken Balcomb & Dr. Astrid van Ginneken for Orca Survey, a 40+ year photo identification study of the the Southern Resident population of Killer Whales in the Pacific Northwest; a population once decimated by SeaWorld and where the original "Shamu" was taken. Along with his friends and former work colleagues at Voice of the Orcas, his sister Kimberly Ventre, & Jeff Friedman, he's helped organize 5 Superpod gatherings on San Juan Island, WA. Prior to becoming a doctor, Jeff worked at SeaWorld of Florida from Nov. 1987 until Dec. 1995. He worked with SeaWorld killer whales Katina, Tilikum, Kalina, Gudrun, Nyar, Kanduke, Kotar, Taku & favorite, Taima. JV appears in Blackfish movie, Voiceless film & Death at SeaWorld book. Regarding orca captivity, he & John Jett PhD have co-authored several scientific works & a university textbook chapter, here. JV
 can be contacted @jeffrey_ventre


So there is great irony that SeaWorld named it's dolphin swim-with park "Discovery Cove." Because discovery, in the legal sense, is exactly what the company fears the most. SeaWorld knows that when the curtain is pulled back, the wrath of public opinion is harsh. A taste of that is chronicled here. And, this new trial is on the horizon.

Photo on left by Jeffrey Ventre while working at SeaWorld, Photo on Right from Sara 

Regarding discovery, on August 23rd of 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld Florida with a “willful” safety violation for “exposing its employees to struck-by and drowning hazards when interacting with killer whales.” Despite efforts to seal documents and sequester testimony from experts, SeaWorld's worst nightmare, discovery, proceeded via pre-trial depositions, and continued in front of a packed courtroom, in Sanford, FL, USA.

For two weeks oral & written testimonies were presented, along with forensic & other types of evidence. The transcript of the entire trial can be read or downloaded from here:

OSHA v SeaWorld Trial Transcript 

Judge Ken S Welsch's Ruling on the OSHA v SeaWorld case 

The trial, held at a courtroom in Sanford, FL, is arguably one of the biggest court spectacles of the 21st century, attended by reporters, movie directors, journalists, television crews, activists and dozens of SeaWorld administrators and employees, many of whom were asked to testify. Some coverage by Journalist Tim Zimmermann, Outside Magazine:

OSHA Goes After SeaWorld - Nov 14, 2011

OSHA Goes After SeaWorld, Part 2 - Nov 23, 2011

SeaWorld pulled all the stops to win. After losing in Sanford, FL, they hired Eugene Scalia, the son of then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, once described as “an absolute bulldog” and Wall Street’s “secret weapon,” to argue before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In a split decision, the company lost again, 2-1.