By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested what they called poor conditions for killer whales and their trainers at SeaWorld San Diego on Wednesday, a week after filing a federal complaint saying the theme park had failed to keep incompatible animals apart.
The group is protesting a September 20 incident when they say a killer whale at the park, named Nakai, lost "a dinner plate sized chunk of flesh" after another orca attacked him.
SeaWorld said the injury was caused by contact with the walls of the cement pool during a performance.
Some 30-40 people protested at the entrance to SeaWorld San Diego on Wednesday, including a woman dressed as an orca with a bandage wrapped around its head.
"We are encouraging the public to boycott SeaWorld over their treatment of these killer whales, which results in injuries to the animals and to the trainers," said Matt Bruce, a local spokesman for the animal rights group.
"As long as they profit from keeping animals in confinement for entertainment, we would love to see SeaWorld shut down."
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines require that incompatible animals be kept apart.
"SeaWorld is fully aware of the social conflict, stress, agitation and resulting aggression and injury that it causes by housing these social and intelligent animals incompatibly, yet it continues to do so," PETA's federal complaint states.
The complaint follows ongoing legal fallout over the 2010 death of Florida trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca, named Tilikum, in front of horrified spectators at a SeaWorld show in Orlando, Florida.
SeaWorld has appealed a federal ruling that has kept its trainers from swimming with killer whales during public performances, arguing that physical contact between animals and their human minders is essential to its operations.
The company, owned by private equity firm Blackstone Group, has parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.
SeaWorld said in a statement that Nakai's behavior is "perfectly normal," and that he interacts well with his trainers and other whales. They added that the company always goes above and beyond to care for and protect its animals.
"SeaWorld's zoological facilities and methods of care exceed standards set by the Animal Welfare Act," a written statement from the company said. "There is no organization more passionately committed to the physical, mental and social care and well-being of animals than SeaWorld."
Nakai is healing well, with new tissue already growing where he was injured, SeaWorld said.
Activists said they commissioned an investigator from the Orca Research Trust to look at Nakai, and that person found puncture marks that match an orca's teeth. (Editing by Mary Slosson and Todd Eastham)