SeaWorld has filed a complaint with the Labor Department alleging that Lara Padgett, the Occupational Health and Safety Investigator sent to get to the bottom of the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer, was ethically compromised. Padgett, according to a SeaWorld spokesperson speaking to the AP, "may have acted with a different agenda," they wrote, "one that is sympathetic to animal rights activism." Their evidence includes photos of the investigator with the makers of the documentary Blackfish, which focused on trainer Dawn Brancheau's death, and has been a thorn in the side of SeaWorld PR for the last several months.
SeaWorld has been pretty openly furious about Blackfish, which examines the effect of captivity on the park's superstar orca whales. Its stance on the story of Brancheau and the orca who killed her (a 12,000-pound male named Tilikum) contends that the organization shouldn't be in the business of keeping orcas in captivity at all. SeaWorld has responded to the film with an aggressive PR campaign accusing Blackfish's filmmakers of spreading misinformation. The unusually thorough media campaign against the documentary has attracted a lot of attention, and not all of that is positive. In any case, Thursday's Labor Department complaint takes SeaWorld's response one step further.
Among other things, SeaWorld accused Padgett of giving Blackfish's filmmakers confidential documents pertaining to her investigation, and of posting negative comments to social media about SeaWorld, in violation of a federal statute. SeaWorld's complaint asks the government to investigate Padgett, and to remove her from her job while that happens. As the New York Times explains, Padgett's report on Brancheau had some immediate consequences for the way SeaWorld does business, even before Blackfish came out:
Ms. Padgett’s review of Ms. Brancheau’s death led to an enforcement action that severely limited interaction between SeaWorld trainers and orcas. SeaWorld’s legal team, led by Eugene Scalia — the son of the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia — has appealed, and the case is pending before the United States Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit.
Blackfish's associate producer Tim Zimmermann told the Orlando Sentinel that Padgett didn't give the filmmakers any documents, let alone confidential ones. He added that filmmakers were unable to secure an interview with the investigator for their documentary, despite multiple requests. Padgett herself has declined to comment on the complaint.