Did the public know all the facts about Lolita’s death at Miami Seaquarium? | Opinion

It was the last straw. After the death of a young sea lion in June 2024, Miami-Dade County began eviction proceedings against the troubled current operators of Miami Seaquarium, which opened in 1955 and was once a gold star tourist attraction.

The eviction will likely trigger a legal battle between Miami-Dade and MS Leisure, a subsidiary of The Dolphin Company that operates the Seaquarium.

For decades, the Seaquarium has been plagued with allegations of animal abuse. At first glance, the sudden tension between the county and the Seaquarium is surprising. Just last year, the county and the Seaquarium partnered with a non-profit group, Friends of Toki, to announce a so-called plan to move the Seaquarium’s famous endangered killer whale Tokitae, whose famed performing name was Lolita, to a sea pen sanctuary in Washington.

In reality, Lolita’s tank was falling apart, and the stadium surrounding her was no longer safe for guests to watch her perform. The move never happened. Lolita died five months later.

Around the same time the Seaquarium announced sanctuary plans for Lolita, the Seaquarium failed its sewer recertification, email exchanges between the park operators and county officials reveal. The emails were obtained via a public records request from Miami-Dade County.

The failure was because raw sewage had flowed into Biscayne Bay since the spring of 2023. Following the bay currents, the contaminated water is sucked through the park’s intake pipes and pumped into the animal tanks, the email exchanges revealed. The month before Lolita died, chlorine disinfection in her tank was stopped and poor water quality likely contributed to her death.

At SeaWorld in Orlando, orcas are kept in a gated fortress with round-the-clock security. The Dolphin Company allowed the anti-captivity group Friends of Toki to pay for Lolita’s “care” and training. In contrast, the group filmed a documentary about her voyage home.

For years, the Seaquarium has, at times, violated the Animal Welfare Act, allowing starvation, inadequate veterinary care, inexperienced staff, deteriorating enclosures, poor water quality, and animal deaths. It has all been documented in news accounts and reports.

For 53 years, the USDA allowed Lolita to live in the smallest tank in the world for a killer whale without another whale of her kind, violating the law.

MS Leisure and its partners claim measures were taken to try to save Lolita. Back in March 2022, the USDA granted MS Leisure (a subsidiary of The Dolphin Company) an exhibitor’s license for the Seaquarium, but excluded the most prominent attraction, Lolita, from performing, or being displayed to the public. The public thought this move meant Lolita’s situation would finally improve, but in reality it removed all of her Animal Welfare Act protections.

Lolita’s “retirement” came after the USDA documented for the first time that her tank was illegal and desperately needed repair. The USDA never published the report, it was revealed in records obtained via another Freedom of Information Act request.

The unprecedented decision by the USDA to deregulate Lolita allowed MS Leisure to maintain the country’s most famous orca in a deplorable tank. Lolita died in a tank in disrepair while the general public believed she was doing great and going home soon. Ironically, MS Leisure’s deal with the USDA not to publicly display Lolita allowed the severity of her situation to remain hidden from the public.

The Seaquarium claims the county’s eviction is a land grab and has nothing to do with concern for the animals. County officials maintain they have done their best to protect the Seaquarium animals. In fact, The Dolphin Company was brought in with the hopes that they would do better than the previous operators.

Could Miami-Dade done more to protect the Seaqurium animals?

Sadly, just when the world was convinced the killer whale was finally going to be free from a tank and moved out of the infamous Seaquarium, she succumbed to its deadly reputation, a pawn in one last desperate attempt to exploit the famous whale.

Valerie Greene is a former SeaWorld Orlando animal trainer and a Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law graduate.