Has reckoning finally arrived at Miami’s troubled Seaquarium?

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For decades, the Miami Seaquarium has been a jewel in Florida’s well-polished crown of popular tourist attractions, known to millions around the world as the home of beloved aquatic TV star Flipper the dolphin.

But these are tough times for the once-venerable aquarium, mired in a battle for survival in the face of the weight of animal rights activists, federal inspectors, financial woes and now the Miami-Dade Commission, which says it has fallen behind on rent and has Evacuation procedures have begun.

Related: Death of ‘world’s loneliest orcas’ prompts calls for change

It was a stunning fall, even in an era of growing public backlash against theme parks featuring marine animals. This decline was largely sparked by the devastating 2013 documentary BlackfishWhich revealed the miserable plight of captive killer whale Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando, 230 miles to the north.

Nearly all of the Seaquarium’s wounds are self-inflicted, and a litany of failures in veterinary care for dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and other animals, poor facility maintenance, and chronic understaffing are documented in successive stinging incidents. Inspection reports By the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The most recent violations, reported just days before an October inspection, include a dolphin being found with a two-inch nail stuck in its throat; another with broken metal nails in his mouth; The sea lion suffers from eye pain, is denied surgery and refuses to eat; mold and peeling paint in penguin and parrot enclosures; An underfunded veterinary laboratory that lacks basic diagnostic tools such as ultrasound, radiography, endoscopy, or functional anesthesia. The list seems endless.

“It’s a perfect chain, where now there’s so much they can take, a tsunami wave that just came crashing down,” said Phil Demers, a former marine mammal trainer and founder of the group UrgentSeas, whose defense efforts were credited with relocating the stricken manatees. Romeo and Juliet from the park last year.

“The county and mayor seem steadfast in their mission to rid Miami of this awful stain and the question is how much of a fight the Seaquarium has put up. The place should be reduced to dust and viewed as something that should never be done again.”

The decline appears to have accelerated in recent months. Saw last summer Tokitai diesThe oldest orca in captivity after more than half a century in a small pen. The manatee was removed in December amid welfare concerns, and the 30-year-old Sundance dolphin died weeks after a USDA inspection in November.Signs of stomach distress“.

In all, at least 120 dolphins and whales have died in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium, according to Dolphin Project.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, and her team said: “If the welfare of the animals is the priority, which of course it should be, then this venue should have its license withdrawn and the animals sent to other facilities.” – Author of its annual report The case against marine mammals in captivity a report.

“I don’t know where they’ve been all these years, but the USDA is finally on record that things are really bad there, even though they’ve always been bad, and now Miami-Dade is starting to get involved.

“We used to joke that the animal had to die before they would do anything, but even when that happened, they didn’t do anything.”

The County Commission’s moves toward canceling the Seaquarium’s lease at its headquarters on Virginia Key came in the wake of Sundance’s death and another USDA inspection last month. This inspection threatened to confiscate four animals and cited a “lack of proper veterinary care” for 25 other animals.

Inspectors previously found mold, bacteria, rusted enclosures and other structures, as well as a “severe shortage” of trained staff. These employment concerns were not new. In 2022, the agency found that nine dolphins had their diet reduced by 60% and were severely underweight. Park management blamed a “misunderstanding” among employees.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniela Levine Cava last month wrote to Dolphin, the Mexico-based marine park operator that acquired Seaquarium in 2021, expressing “deep concerns.” She said the district is reviewing the necessary procedures to follow through on terminating the lease.

Separately, the county Parks Department said Dolphin is late on December rent of about $90,000, with a January payment due this week.

“Although the Seaquarium has recently been able to avoid seizure of some animals, I remain concerned about the poor quality of animal care that the USDA has repeatedly documented,” Levin Cava said in a statement to The Guardian.

“In addition, there are currently four active cases involving unsafe structures that continue to violate the terms of our agreement. We recently publicly expressed our commitment to exploring all available options to ensure the safety of animals and the interests of our residents now and in the future, and I stand by our commitment.”

The county’s new aggressive stance, and the company responded, with a statement accusing the mayor Spreading false informationConfirms the collapse of previous friendly relations. In 2022, Levine Cava praised “A bright new chapter“For the Seaquarium after changing ownership, he supported an ambitious project promoted by Dolphin to transport retired Tokitae to Puget Sound, where she was captured as a calf in 1970.

The plan died with Tokitai, and activists who had long demanded her release denounced the transfer announcement as a ploy to gain public support.

“They were completely supportive of the change of ownership, and couldn’t say enough nice things about some of the individuals, but with Lolita’s death… [Tokitae’s stage name]“This has caused a huge embarrassment to the county, and coupled with not paying rent, I can see where enough is enough,” Demers said.

Publicly at least, Seaquarium owners remain defiant. A statement leading up to the latest report insists that the park “complies with federal Animal Welfare Act regulations,” has made ongoing improvements to its animal welfare programs and is open for business.

Despite repeated attempts, Dolphin did not respond to the Guardian’s questions or requests for an interview.

Gina Wallace, a marine mammal veterinarian who worked at the Seaquarium in 2021 and is now a prominent voice for the park’s closure, called its site “a complete mess.”

“When I was there, the trainers made the decisions themselves, not the animals,” she said.

“We had a dolphin with broken ribs and fluid around the heart, and he wouldn’t eat for about 10 days, and the vet trainer wouldn’t let me draw blood or do any procedures. I pulled zip ties from the back of the dolphins’ throats, bloody and torn.

“The key to bringing that facility down is the veterinarian. If it goes, the park gets shut down because it can’t be opened without a veterinary facility license. It could make the whole house of cards fall.”

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