For many years, SeaWorld singled out animal training — the department responsible for the company's trainer-safety protocols — from the rest of its animal disciplines.
The company had a corporate-level executive responsible solely for overseeing animal training in all SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks. Each park also had its own vice president in charge of animal training who worked equally alongside another vice president in charge of animal care, aquariums and aviaries.
Former SeaWorld trainers say the separate oversight structure for animal training ensured that best safety practices and other experiences were constantly shared among trainers in every park. The emphasis on animal training, they say, was particularly important for the people who worked with SeaWorld's biggest and most-dangerous animals: killer whales.
But more recently, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment shifted course. The company eliminated the corporate trainer position and the trainer vice-president slots at each park, opting instead to fold responsibility for animal training in with the rest of its zoological operations.
The newer model, in which no high-level executives are devoted exclusively to animal training, has diminished SeaWorld's overall emphasis on trainer safety, according to a former senior-level trainer who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering SeaWorld.
"Without cross-checking and communication throughout the corporation, safety procedures begin to relax and people get comfortable," said the former trainer, who added: "Historically, there has been a significant increase in aggression-related injuries when the training departments are not held together through a corporate umbrella."
SeaWorld emphatically rejects the criticism. The company says the changes it has made in recent years were designed to tie all of its animal disciplines together in a unified zoological program that has improved overall animal welfare and husbandry — and, the company says, trainer safety.
"Contrary to what you may have heard, having training as part of zoological operations enhances safety, communication, shared best practices and flexibility, not just at each park but across our whole company," SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said. "All departments with animal responsibilities should be in one department. Nothing about the structure in any way compromises the free flow of information or safety, either animal or trainer."
SeaWorld trainer safety has come under scrutiny since a Feb. 24 accident in which one of SeaWorld's killer whales drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau in front of park guests. Authorities say the killer whale, a 6-ton orca named Tilikum, grabbed Brancheau and pulled her underwater by her long ponytail as she lay on a ledge of shallow water at the edge of his tank.
Several former trainers have said it appears Brancheau may have put herself in a vulnerable position by lying too close to Tilikum's mouth.
"From my experience, that would have been potentially an unacceptable position," said Robin Friday, a killer-whale trainer at SeaWorld Orlando until 1998.
According to multiple former trainers, SeaWorld overhauled its animal-training department in the late 1980s and early '90s after a series of 1987 incidents involving killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego.
Among the most significant changes: creating a corporate curator and vice president of animal training for all of the company's parks, a job that reported dually to the existing corporate vice president for zoological operations and to the president of Busch Entertainment Corp. (The company was renamed SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment last fall, after it was sold by beer brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev to private-equity firm The Blackstone Group for approximately $2.5 billion.)
SeaWorld elevated Thad Lacinak, who began his career in 1973 as an apprentice animal trainer, to the new corporate position. It also established at each park a vice president's job specifically for animal training, which reported to Lacinak.
The goal was to facilitate communication among the various parks' animal-training staffs and to ensure that all were adhering to the strictest safety standards.
"I traveled from park to park. I traveled a lot, and I constantly reviewed the shows, reviewed the training protocols and reviewed all the safety procedures," Lacinak said in an interview.
But about five years ago, SeaWorld began to phase out the vice-president positions at the park level, merging them with vice presidents for the other zoological operations. Specific oversight of animal training was pushed down to lower-level managers, similar to the structures in place for animal care, aquariums and aviaries.
When Lacinak retired in January 2008, his corporate position was also eliminated. Another highly experienced trainer was promoted to corporate, but to a much broader job over all zoological disciplines and special projects such as SeaWorld's since-aborted plans for a resort in Dubai.
Jacobs, the SeaWorld spokesman, said those moves were part of a long-running corporate realignment begun in the mid-1990s.
"Those reporting relationships were gradually changed, based on the recognition that animal training is a key part of overall husbandry and that all those functions should be part of a single department," Jacobs said. He added that a number of SeaWorld's senior executives have experience as trainers, though their current responsibilities involve far more than animal training alone.
Jacobs said none of the changes was motivated by cost savings, and that SeaWorld Parks' overall animal-training staff has continued to grow through the years. The company currently employs about 100 animal trainers, he said.
Lacinak said that, before he retired, he recommended that animal training remain independent of the company's other zoological disciplines. Lacinak said he thought it was important to devote extra attention to animal training because SeaWorld's animal trainers have the most dangerous jobs in the company.
Still, Lacinak, who now runs a behavioral-consulting business in Orlando, said he could not say whether the structural changes made by SeaWorld in recent years have had any effect on overall trainer safety.
"It would be totally unfair for me to comment on that," he said. "I don't work there."
Not all former trainers think the changes have diminished safety.
"It was never a rigid chain of command that you couldn't easily speak your mind if you felt there were any issues that needed to be addressed," said Friday, the trainer who left in 1998.
But the former senior-level trainer who spoke only on condition of anonymity was critical of the moves.
That trainer, who left SeaWorld before Lacinak, said SeaWorld "has reverted back to the structure that was identified 23 years ago as detrimental to the free flow of information between animal trainers in different parks."
Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5414.