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Miami-Dade commissions vote to assign Miami Seaquarium a new operator, with new terms and requirements

A new company will soon be managing the Miami Seaquarium.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – A new company will soon be managing the Miami Seaquarium.

Miami-Dade County commissioners voted Tuesday to assign the lease to a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dolphin Company, a Cancun-based operator of other aquatic parks in Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe.

But unlike the previous operator, Festival Fun Parks, the new lease will come with new terms and a requirement they comply with state and federal regulations, as well as quarterly reporting.

If those requirements are not met, the county, as landlord, can terminate the lease, according to Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regalado.

“The lease was originally drafted in the 1950′s, it’s very limited in its scope,” said Regalado. “It does not include the federal and state agencies that now regulate these animals, so it was really important to add that amendment and to ensure they are complying.

“We can take action if something is going wrong at the Miami Seaquarium. To comply with federal and state regulations, to provide us with quarterly reports, that I think will solve a lot of the issues....Moving forward they have to make those changes, and they have to report back to the Board of County Commissioners....One of the requests we are making is changes to infrastructure to ensure that the mammals are protected. There were a lot of concerns, specifically the USDA report.”

The new lease conditions come in the wake of the explosive USDA inspection report. The federal agency outlined a litany of troubling findings to include marine mammal pools in disrepair, insufficient shelter to protect the animals from direct sunlight, injured and sick park animals, some with painful eye lesions, to include Lolita, the sole orca, who at 56-years-old hit her lower jaw while still being forced to perform fast swims and big jumps.

Miami Seaquarium (WPLG)

Melanie Johnson of PETA said they wanted commissioners to end the lease all together.

“There have also been rake marks on the animals that is caused by aggressive animals attacking each other with their teeth, and this happens routinely because Lolita is confined with incompatible tank mates. The USDA cited the Miami Seaquarium for 35 violations of Federal Animal Welfare Act regulations, including for housing together incompatible dolphins who ended up dying from trauma, as well as forcing Lolita to live in a tiny tank that is harmful to her and not giving them adequate protection from the sun.

“Our chief concern with the lease transfer is that the animals will continue to suffer in tiny tanks. No management team can care for these complex and intelligent animals in this wholly inadequate facility.

Said Regalado: “There has to be a middle ground. A lot of these animals have been in captivity their entire lives. You simply can’t just let them go. I think ideally, we would all want that, but we would have to get in a time machine in order to do that work. I think right now, what we need to do is make sure they have a plan, that they are being responsible.”

The Miami Seaquarium’s general managers released a statement that read:

We are working with the USDA on integrating and implementing these improvements.”

That came as a representative for the new operator, The Dolphin Company, told commissioners, “We look forward to this partnership with the county and turning a new page.”

That representative also said the company agrees with the new lease conditions, and that also includes making several repairs and providing new educational programming.

Additionally, the new operator said they will not acquire any new orcas and have developed a health and welfare management program for Lolita.

They are also assuming the completion of repairs, which they hope to have done by the end of the year.

The resolution, which passed through the commission unanimously, takes effect if the mayor does not veto it over the next 10 days.

In May 2020, PETA said they sent a letter to Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office asking for, “an investigation into cruelty to animals regarding the orca Lolita at Miami Seaquarium”.

In light of the USDA inspection report, Local 10 News reached out to Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office to inquire if they do plan to open an investigation.

STATEMENT FROM MIAMI-DADE STATE ATTORNEY’S OFFICE

“As you noted, the Miami-Dade County Commission vote today on a new lease agreement for the Miami Seaquarium which, according to what I read in the Miami Herald, will require the new owners of the Seaquarium to comply with the Animal Welfare Act, the maintenance of certifications such as the American Humane Association, and a commitment to seeking an accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is viewed as an opportunity to improve an outdated facility and to ensure there is more transparency and accountability in how the Seaquarium is run. This appears to be a rather important change affecting how the facility is operated and run by the new owners.

“Additionally, we have been working with the legal counsel for PETA, with whom we had a meeting today, regarding the Seaquarium and discussed with them the impact of the Federal Appeal Court’s reinstatement of PETA’s Federal lawsuit seeking the eventual release of the Miami Seaquarium’s animals into the wild, truly the goal of PETA’s May 2020 letter. Beyond the Federal lawsuit, as indicated by the Federal Department of Agriculture report, there are federal jurisdictional aspects which may alter or impact Miami Seaquarium’s overall status and situation. PETA’s legal counsel and our attorneys recognize that all of these aspects are interactional and must be fully understood if the goal is the improve the living conditions and circumstances for the animals. We will continue to monitor the overall situation in conjunction with PETA’s legal counsel as matters develop further.”

STATEMENT FROM THE DOLPHIN COMPANY

“We are pleased that the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, under the guidance of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Commissioner Raquel Regalado, unanimously approved today’s resolution and look forward to elevating the care and well-being of all the animals at the Miami Seaquarium. The Dolphin Company supports the County’s efforts to ensure further transparency and accountability at the Miami Seaquarium and to promote animal conservation and welfare. We share these same values and principles.

“For more than 25 years, The Dolphin Company has operated with the mission to connect people with magnificent marine mammals and marine life through educational and interactive experiences. At every one of our parks across the globe, including the three we currently operate in Florida in St. Augustine, Panama City Beach and the Florida Keys, animal welfare is our primary concern.

“In the United States and throughout the world, all of our parks comply with local and federal laws and regulations governing marine and other terrestrial animals. Pending a successful completion of all actions of transfer, The Dolphin Company will be pleased to join the Miami-Dade County community and welcome the Miami Seaquarium into our family of parks, sharing our experience as responsible animal stewards for the benefit of the animals, staff and guests.

“As with all of the Dolphin Company facilities, every aspect of operations at Miami Seaquarium will be carefully evaluated and any necessary enhancements or improvements to the facilities will be promptly implemented.”

FROM THE AGENDA ITEM

“The Lessee has recently been issued a report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) citing 21 non-significant infractions. To date, 15 infractions have been corrected and the remaining six infractions will be corrected by no later than November 2021. Notwithstanding approval of the assignment by this Board, the sale transaction from the Lessee to the Assignee cannot be effectuated until all infractions are corrected. In addition to the repairs already in progress, the Assignee intends to make several enhancements to the existing concessions at the Seaquarium to upgrade the amenities for children, including the play areas, and intends to provide additional interactive programs and experiences to educate patrons on the importance of respecting and caring for the environment. The Assignee has provided and committed to a health and welfare management plan specifically for the care of the Orca whale (Orcinus orca) Tokitae (a/k/a Lolita) that addresses the staff of professionals responsible for Lolita’s care with daily functions, habitat maintenance, husbandry, and enrichment. The health and welfare management plan has been reviewed by the staff of PROS ZooMiami to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare are being met. The Assignee has confirmed to not procure or acquire any additional orcas.”

THE MOTION

The United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service report was prepared by a veterinary medical officer and it is dated Sept. 22, but the inspection took place over three days (June 8 to June 10) with Festival Fun Parks LLC general manager, facility curator, training curator and attending veterinarian.

The report outlines:

  • Insufficient shelter to protect the animals from direct sunlight
  • Repeatedly ignoring the advice of the attending veterinarian - on a wide range of issues from the quality and amount of food giving to park animals to forcing Lolita to continue performing fast swims and big jumps despite her age. (56-years-old)
  • Lolita described as a “geriatric whale” who is “medically and behaviorally challenged”
  • “There have been a number of serious injuries over the last several years, some involving death” in part due to housing incompatible animals together.
  • Poor water quality in marine mammal pools
  • On April 30th, 2021 Lolita had “visible white lines in her eyes which were indicative of injury from chlorine” and “at the time of inspection, inspectors observed pinniped s and cetaceans with chronic eye conditions and/or skin conditions.”
  • Several pools and surrounding structures in disrepair
  • Staff feeding park animals poor-quality food
  • Sections of underwater fencing held together with zip ties

RELATED STORY

Mexican theme park group purchases the Miami Seaquarium


About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."