Miami Seaquarium Lease move Delayed Amid USDA Investigation

It may seem like all splashes and smiles at the Miami Seaquarium, but conditions at the more than half-century-old marine park on Virginia meaningful are believed to be dire enough that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last month that it was stepping in to conduct an investigation amid a series of animal deaths and failing park infrastructure.

This past August, Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, AKA Palace Entertainment, reportedly sold the Miami Seaquarium to a Mexican outfit called the Dolphin Company. But amid the current federal probe, Miami-Dade County is delaying the park’s lease move until basic problems are resolved.

“How many more animals need to die before the Miami Seaquarium calls it quits?” PETA vice president Jared Goodman said in a statement. “This abusement park keeps shamelessly shoving incompatible animals into the orca Lolita’s abysmally small tank, which has now seemingly led to Catalina the dolphin’s death. PETA welcomes the USDA’s investigation but warns that animals at the Miami Seaquarium will continue to suffer and die until the owners of this callous, exploitative operation finally release them to seaside sanctuaries.”

From the deaths of Coral the shelter seal to Catalina the Pacific white-sided dolphin, here are six findings that have blighted the Miami Seaquarium over the years.

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Lolita was brought to Miami Seaquarium in 1970.

Small and Outdated Enclosures

Let’s start with the most reported scandal at the Miami Seaquarium over the years: The orca Lolita, AKA Tokitae, is approximately 20 feet long and has lived in a “whale bowl” too small for her size for about 50 years. It is reportedly the smallest and oldest surrounding of its kind for an orca — a creature that regularly swims up to 100 miles in a single day in the wild. An audit by the USDA had before revealed that the 80-by-35-foot tank may not meet the “minimum horizontal size” for such an animal as outlined in the federal Animal Welfare Act. Animal-rights activists hope Lolita will ultimately be relocated to a bigger, more appropriate tank for her size or released into a protected sanctuary. PETA is in an current lawsuit against the Seaquarium to free Lolita.

USDA inspectors found enclosures that house other marine animals to be in disrepair, specifically “several pools and surrounding structures.” The current condition of the pools allows for paint chips to be consumed by animals as they remove from the surface. A trainer reported that dolphins had brought over chips of paint during exercises. According to the USDA, the chips present a “health danger” to animals if ingested.

Beyond the paint, the sea lions’ habitat was found to have “rust stains on the dry resting area and near drains within their pool.” Rusted areas cannot be properly sanitized and as a consequence can make animals sick.

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A String of “Trauma-Related” Deaths

Between March 2019 and April 2020, five bottlenose dolphins and one baby California sea lion died at the Miami Seaquarium: 24-year-old Echo died of acute neck trauma in an incident that Seaquarium staff reportedly didn’t observe, 18-year-old Abaco drowned likely after becoming entangled in a fence that separated two pools, and 25-year-old Indigo died of muscle injury and hemorrhaging, which the Seaquarium noted was likely caused by another dolphin. The sea lion died from head trauma. The other two dolphin deaths were found to be from causes unrelated to trauma.

“It’s not normal to have this many trauma-related deaths in such a short amount of time,” Melanie Johnson, manager of PETA’s Animals in Entertainment campaign, told New Times last September.

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Catalina was a Pacific white-sided dolphin, the species pictured in this photo taken at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Death of Lolita’s Tankmate, Catalina

Orcas are highly social creatures. Back in the ’70s, Lolita shared an surrounding with another killer whale named Hugo. However, since Hugo’s passing in 1980, amid a waning supply of orcas in the oceanarium market, Lolita has lived in the company of Pacific white-sided dolphins.

While so-called Southern Resident killer whales like Lolita are strict pescatarians, they can nevertheless hurt other marine mammals. This has historically been the case at the Miami Seaquarium as Lolita has reportedly unleashed beatings on her smaller tankmates on event. This behavior is believed to have caused the December 2021 death of Catalina, a 31-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin who lived with Lolita. According to reports, Catalina died from trauma consistent after a moment of “aggression” from the orca.

Animal-rights activists blame the Miami Seaquarium for forcing Lolita to proportion the cramped surrounding with another, much-smaller creature.

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Feeding Spoiled Fish

Just like you wouldn’t satisfy your dog or cat spoiled pet food that might get them sick, you wouldn’t want to satisfy an orca decaying fish. however USDA officials found that performing mammals at Miami Seaquarium, including Lolita, were being fed decaying fish, causing intestinal issues that needed to be treated with antibiotics.

Lolita’s meal rations were also reduced, which is believed to have made the orca more disturbed than usual. She wasn’t the only animal who went hungry. According to reports, other animals had their food portions reduced by half. Some of the park’s residents have already suffered from malnutrition, including one manatee in rehabilitation that died of emaciation.

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Seals at Miami Seaquarium

Poor Water Quality

Among the latest concerns from the USDA is the fact that several of the Seaquarium’s tanks are literally green from slime. The reason? Poor water flow. The problem has led to a sharp uptick in bacterial and algal growths, which aren’t just an eyesore but a authentic concern for the animals in the facility. Among the latest animals to die in the marine park in the past year was Coral, a shelter seal that died from a “chronic infection,” likely caused in part by poorly maintained artificial habitats.

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Lolita, specifically, was found to have performed head-in jumps with an injured jaw.

Performing Against Veterinary Opinion

In the USDA’s September inspection report, Miami Seaquarium staff were found in some instances to ignore veterinary opinion and perform with animals that had been recommended rest and recuperation following an injury. Lolita, specifically, was found to have performed head-in jumps with an injured jaw.

Lolita and a “number of bottlenose dolphins” were also found to have lesions on their eyes, which is believed to be a consequence of performing under the intense sun without enough shade.

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