MIAMI – The US Department of Agriculture is investigating the Miami Seaquarium after citing the aging facility for a number of serious animal welfare violations, including feeding spoiled fish to Lolita, the main attraction of the park, and not knowing where the animals were placed in different pools, which has led to heavy fighting that has contributed to the deaths of at least two dolphins last year.
The new investigation, which has been confirmed by Miami-Dade County and could take weeks, comes after a routine inspection in June detailed serious violations in a 17-page report listing “events of particular concern” and “issues” critical ”infrastructure and health. Among them: the reduction in the amount of food for the attraction performing marine mammals and a low flow of water, which resulted in a sharp increase of bacteria and algae in several tanks and swimming pools.
And animals continue to die in the ailing park after a string of deaths last year sparked concern among federal agencies: Catalina, a Pacific white-sided dolphin who lived in the same reservoir and played shows with Lolita, died earlier this month from what staff believe may have been trauma following the assault by the 56-year-old killer whale. The coral, a harbor seal, died of a “chronic infection”. And a manatee that was in rehab died of emaciation, or of being too weak and thin.
The federal inquiry is delaying the transfer of the lease to The Dolphin Company, a move that Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and county leaders say is a solution for the ailing marine park and a chance to dramatically improve care and animal monitoring. The Seaquarium has been the target of frequent campaigns by animal rights activists who accuse it of animal cruelty for keeping Lolita in America’s smallest killer whale tank, among other issues.
County commissioners in October approved the transfer of the Seaquarium lease to The Dolphin Company, based in Cancun, under an agreement to ensure investment in infrastructure and better care for marine animals in the park that operates on land owned by Virginia Key County since it opened in 1954. Miami-Dade receives approximately $ 2.5 million per year in rent from the park.
Commissioners voted to allow Festival Fun Parks, a subsidiary of Madrid-based Parques Reunidos, also known as Palace Entertainment, to sell the lease it has held since 2014 to the Mexican operator. But the deal can only be finalized once the Seaquarium deals with the critical violations that emerged from the USDA’s inspection in June and any enforcement actions that may arise from the ongoing investigation, Miami-Dade Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces said.
“The transaction cannot proceed until all USDA citations have been processed. This is a condition required by the mayor and the board of directors for the approval and execution of the rental transaction, ”the county said. “The Dolphin Company understands and accepts this requirement and, therefore, will not resume operations of the Seaquarium until the improvements are completed by the current operator.”
Of the USDA inspection report of June 8, 2021, the county said, “The current operator has reviewed and processed these citations, and the required improvements are nearing completion.”
In an inspection report released in September, the USDA said the current park management, under general manager Bill Lentz and curator Chris Plante, ignored the advice of its own attending vet, which led to to “events of particular concern”. Highlights include Lolita the killer whale, the park’s main attraction for five decades, performing head jumps with an injured jaw, against the vet’s advice.
Park management also halved Lolita’s food intake and portions given to other animals. In a quote deemed critical, the USDA said Plante admitted to feeding Lolita and other performing mammals rotting fish, resulting in intestinal issues that had to be treated with antibiotics. The lack of food volume likely caused Lolita “distress and restlessness,” according to the report.
There were also serious water quality issues that made the animals sick. In a long section on water problems and their effects on animal health, the report states that the low flow of water has resulted in a sharp increase in bacteria and algae in several tanks and swimming pools. The Seaquarium pumps water from Biscayne Bay but is supposed to treat it to prevent bacteria.
Miami-Dade said improvements have been made to the Seaquarium, including fixes for water quality by installing chlorine and animal feed testing procedures. But the “Animal Handling” item in Lolita’s pool is among the issues cited by the USDA that have not been addressed, according to a list provided by the county.
Contradicting the county, the Seaquarium said in an emailed statement, “All projects have been processed as required by the USDA. We continue to work closely with USDA and other experts to constantly improve. Current operator Palace Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment.
The USDA said it could not comment on the investigation as a matter of policy. People familiar with the situation said an investigator spent several days at the facility earlier this month interviewing employees.
In general, when USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection staff discover serious violations during routine inspections, they may request a formal investigation by the investigative and enforcement departments. USDA to possibly prepare a case against the installation.
“Investigation is a fact-finding mission, which may include collecting documents, taking photographs and hearing witnesses, including the alleged offender,” according to the agency. Once the investigation is complete, the USDA issues a report with its findings, which is then forwarded to the Enforcement Division for review and recommendations for potential sanctions. Enforcement actions may include warnings, a voluntary settlement agreement, or a referral to the US Department of Justice for civil or criminal action.
The Dolphin company said it was not yet in charge of the park and any questions should be directed to current operator Palace Entertainment, which is owned by Madrid-based Parques Reunidos. The Dolphin Company did not answer questions about whether the new federal investigation could be a deciding factor.
The USDA investigation coincided with the death of Catalina, a 31-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin who had lived with Lolita the Killer Whale in the same pool at the Miami Seaquarium since 2018.
Seaquarium staff suspect the death was caused by trauma, possibly because Lolita crashed into the dolphin in an episode of aggressive behavior that had been seen before, according to people familiar with the case.
Catalina was owned by SeaWorld of Florida and had been on loan to the Seaquarium since 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which maintains the National Inventory of Marine Mammals, a database of animals kept in captivity in the United States.
NOAA said it was informed that Catalina was flown from Seaquarium to SeaWorld on December 3. She has not received any notification of her death, according to a spokesperson.
SeaWorld has confirmed that the dolphin died at its Orlando facility. The Marine Park said an autopsy had been performed but no cause of death had been determined.
“We are saddened by the loss of Catalina, a 31-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin, who died last week.” Seaworld said in an emailed statement Dec.9. “Catalina was recently transferred to one of our intensive care facilities in Miami Seaquarium where she has resided since 2018. Our team of experienced veterinarians and animal care specialists have never left her, providing the environment- comfort and care. specialized. Our hearts go out to all who knew her and those she inspired to learn more about animals and their habitats.
The USDA inspection report documented cases of assault between Lolita, Catalina, and another white-sided dolphin called Lii.
“A chase, whitewater and assault between Lii and Catalina, two Pacific white-sided dolphins and Toki had been sighted and were of concern,” the report said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which earlier this year obtained public documents showing five dolphins and a baby sea lion died at the Seaquarium between March 2019 and April 2020, is calling for the marine park to be closed.
“How many more animals still have to die before the Miami Seaquarium resigns?” This park of “abuse” continues to shamelessly push incompatible animals into the appalling little reservoir of the Killer Whale Lolita, which apparently led to the death of the dolphin Catalina, “said the vice president of the PETA Foundation and Deputy General Counsel for Animal Law Jared Goodman in an emailed statement. “PETA welcomes USDA investigation, but warns Miami Seaquarium animals will continue to suffer and die until the owners of this ruthless exploitation operation finally release them in seaside sanctuaries. ”
After firing longtime veterinarian Magdalena Rodriguez over the summer, the Seaquarium hired Shelby Loos, who posted videos on the facility’s Facebook page in an attempt to share animal information. Loos is also a part-time lecturer for the graduate course “Conservation and Management of Marine Mammals” at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, according to her LinkedIn profile.
In an October editorial in the Miami Herald, she said the Seaquarium is working to improve how it operates and the way it takes care of its animals.
“When I took on the role of Assistant Veterinarian at the Miami Seaquarium this year, I identified several areas where we could improve the level of care animals receive, including inter-departmental communication and preventative care. With the support of expert veterinary consultant, Dr. Tom Reidarson, we are taking action to improve the lives of the animals at the Miami Seaquarium every day, ”she wrote. “While our clinical skills as veterinarians are important, our ability to communicate clearly and openly is just as crucial. “
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