UPDATE: On Thursday, Nov. 14, SeaWorld provided E! News with the following statement: "The safety of zoological staff and the welfare of our animals are SeaWorld's highest priorities. SeaWorld animal care and training professionals have worked safely with and around killer whales for nearly five decades. The techniques in husbandry, veterinary care, and training that we have developed for killer whales over that span are a model for marine mammal facilities worldwide. Close contact with these animals is critical to providing a safe environment for our zoological staff and appropriate care for SeaWorld animals."
The future of SeaWorld, its trainers and captive killer whales lies with the feds.
In 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando, Dawn Brancheau, an experienced marine mammal trainer, was killed in the water by Tilikum, an adult male orca tied to two other human deaths. Following this tragic incident, the government banned trainers from entering into the water with the whales and fined SeaWorld for violating workplace safety laws. But on Tuesday, Nov. 13, SeaWorld argued their position against the government ruling in court.
Per CBS News, court documents filed by attorneys for SeaWorld state that "close contact with killer whales is essential to the product offered by SeaWorld, and is indeed the primary reason trainers and audiences have been drawn to SeaWorld for nearly 50 years."
Under the current ruling, trainers are still allowed in close proximity with the whales as long as they're separated by a protective barrier. According to the Orlando Sentinel, a lawyer for SeaWorld, Eugene Scalia, argued this mandated restriction is like "if the federal government came in and told the NFL that 'close contact' on the football field would have to end."
But Chief Judge Merrick Garland wasn't sure if Scalia's logic applied, asking if the helmet "totally change[d] the nature of the presentation of the NFL?"
The answer to that question might mean the difference between trainers getting back in the water with orcas or performing from the sidelines.
Death at Sea World author David Kirby agreed this was "a very, very good point for Sea World to make," saying, "Why us and why not NFL or NASCAR? Because let's face it, the show is much more spectacular when the trainers are in the water than when they're just on stage."
SeaWorld clearly would prefer this, but government lawyers are firm in their stance against this close contact. In legal briefs, they state that "forty-plus years of history at the SeaWorld parks have yielded occasion after occasion where captive killer whales have not responded as their trainers intended."
The 2013 documentary Blackfish brought attention to multiple incidences of orcas exhibiting aggressive and violent behavior towards humans while in captivity, something that has never been reported in their interactions with people in the wild.
SeaWorld did not immediately respond to E! News' request for comment.
(Originally published Nov. 13 at 1:50 p.m. PT.)