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SeaWorld drops appeal in safety ruling over dead orca trainer

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - SeaWorld Entertainment has ended its appeal of a federal safety agency's citation in connection with the 2010 death of one of its killer whale trainers, the company has told investors.

"We have elected not to pursue further appeal,” the company wrote in its quarterly report filed Aug. 14.

Trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in front of horrified spectators at a SeaWorld show in Orlando, Florida, when a 29-year-old male orca named Tilikum dragged her under water.

In April a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a ruling that SeaWorld had violated its duties as an employer by exposing trainers to "recognized hazards" when working with killer whales.

The ruling allowed the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require SeaWorld to limit the interactions trainers have with killer whales.

Fred Jacobs, the company’s vice president of communications, said Wednesday that trainers have not performed in pools with killer whales since Brancheau’s death.

Jacobs said trainers continue to work with killer whales in pools with "fast-lift" floors that can quickly rise to strand the whale out of water, in programs to de-sensitize the creatures so they are familiar with people and will not react violently if someone accidentally falls into their pool.

After Brancheau's death OSHA fined the company $75,000, a sum later reduced to $12,000.

OSHA had told SeaWorld it could resolve the problem by requiring trainers to be protected by physical barriers or by adopting other measures.

A long-running controversy over human-orca interaction was reignited last year with the release of the movie "Blackfish" about Brancheau's death and Tilikum's career as an entertainer and stud for other captive whales. SeaWorld has criticized the film as "inaccurate and misleading."

SeaWorld shares lost nearly a third of their value recently after the theme park operator slashed forecasts while acknowledging that the whale controversy was hurting attendance.

The company followed with an announcement Friday that it will nearly double the size of its killer whale tanks.

(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Jim Loney)

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