A new chief trainer at Miami Seaquarium, appointed by the marine park’s owner, The Dolphin Company, declared himself superior to the attending veterinarian and told employees to disregard her instructions, creating a stressful environment for staff and animals, according to the latest federal inspection of the Virginia Key attraction.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also cited vacant veterinarian and veterinarian technician positions, mishandling of a dolphin who bit a patron’s hand during an interactive session, danger to a dolphin who ingested plastic and a chunk of concrete in a deteriorating tank, the isolation and lack of shade for a manatee, and rib injuries to a dolphin incompatibly housed with others.
The routine inspection by the agency that oversees animal parks was conducted July 17, about one month before Lolita, the 57-year-old orca and Seaquarium’s star performer for half a century, died on Aug. 18 of kidney failure and old age, according to a necropsy summary. Lolita, also known by her Native American name of Tokitae, or Toki, lived in the Whale Stadium tank but had not been under USDA jurisdiction since March 2022, when The Dolphin Company assumed the lease of Seaquarium from Miami-Dade County.
In order to obtain its USDA license, The Dolphin Company, a Mexico-based marine park operator, agreed not to exhibit Lolita in the aging bowl, which was declared unsafe by the county, under a USDA repair order, and closed to the public.
Veterinarian staffing cited
In July, inspectors spoke to employees who said they were caught in a conflict between The Dolphin Company trainer and the attending veterinarian, or AV.
“It was reported by several employees that a newly appointed corporate trainer, in charge of dolphin training, was instructing other employees not to contact the AV and undermining her authority,” the report stated. “A Chain of Command chart was displayed in the trainer’s office at Top Deck. This chart showed him at the top of the chain and did not include the AV. When asked, he stated that he did not report to facility management but instead answered to two corporate personnel. Numerous other employees reached out anonymously but hesitated to give formal statements for fear of retaliation.
“Failure to ensure that the attending veterinarian has appropriate authority over the veterinary care of the animals can lead to unnecessary stress, discomfort, and suffering of the animals,” the report said.
Seaquarium did not respond to questions about the report — the second annual inspection conducted under management by The Dolphin Company — or whether the USDA’s required corrections have been made.
The USDA criticized Seaquarium for a lack of “adequately trained employees.” The firing of one vet and staff resignations forced difficult decisions to be made on animal care, the report said.
“The termination of employment of an associate veterinarian on March 27, 2023, resulted in a single veterinarian to care for the 46 marine mammals and hundreds of birds, fish, sharks and rays housed at the facility,” according to the report.
As an example of how the attending veterinarian’s recommendations were not followed “on numerous occasions” or “her authority was ignored,” the report cited the Pacific white-sided dolphin Elelo, who underwent a gastroscopy on Jan. 3 for swallowing debris in the Pompano 3 pool. The vet said the dolphin should be transferred to another facility because the floor of the tank was crumbling. Seven months later, Elelo ingested more debris and the vet again said the dolphin needed to be moved “as the pool needs to undergo a significant amount of maintenance.”
“The facility failed to maintain a marine mammal enclosure in good repair and protect the animals from injury,” the report said. Elelo was moved to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium about a month later.
Dolphin, manatee issues
On March 19, during a “Meet and Greet” interaction at Dolphin Harbor, a dolphin named Gemini disrupted the session by biting a guest’s hand.
“During public exhibition, any animal must be handled so there is minimal risk of harm to the animal and to the public,” the report stated.
Romeo the manatee was not protected from direct sun when the tarp over Pompano 1 pool was removed at times in March and April, exposing his skin and eyes to damaging light. In addition, Romeo was housed alone for months after three other manatees were released back into the wild, not a healthy situation for a social animal, the report stated.
”Although numerous attempts have been made to acquire another manatee, it was determined that the facility did not yet meet the requirements to receive another animal,” the report said.
A February CT scan of Bimini showed that the 23-year-old female dolphin had multiple rib fractures in various stages of healing, probably caused by an aggressive dolphin at Dolphin Harbor. After the scan, Bimini was placed with a safer group, the inspector noted.
“Housing incompatible animals together can negatively impact their health and welfare and may cause serious injury and even death,” the report stated, crediting Seaquarium with correcting the problem before the inspection.
One year ago, when the USDA released its inspection report from a July 6, 2022, visit, four months after The Dolphin Company took over, Seaquarium was cited for underfeeding nine dolphins as a form of punishment, causing unhealthy weight loss and dangerous aggressive behavior. While the “very thin” dolphins were eating less, they were working harder -- scheduled for more interactive sessions, the report said. There was also a lack of communication between then-attending veterinarian Dr. Shelby Loos and staff on the condition of animals.
The Dolphin Company’s general manager at the time said communication problems had been solved and denied that dolphins were being deprived of food to induce better performances. They were overweight and put on a diet, he said.
The USDA’s 2021 report, issued when the previous owner, Madrid-based Palace Entertainment, ran Seaquarium, cited poor water quality, rotten food, and deficient maintenance, and ordered Lolita’s cramped tank closed for repairs. And, as in the current report, Seaquarium management was criticized for ignoring the recommendations of the attending veterinarian, Dr. Magdalena Rodriguez, who had cared for Lolita for 23 years and said the orca should not have her diet cut, should stop performing the head-first jumps that had injured her jaw and should be retired from her shows.
The county owns the prime Virginia Key land where the Seaquarium has operated since 1954. It has long been a target of animal activists.
When county commissioners agreed in October 2021, to sign the lease over to The Dolphin Company, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Commissioner Raquel Regalado added amendments that gave the county strict oversight and required the new operator to address violations in the 2021 report.
“We believe this is the chance for significant improvements at the Seaquarium with a much highter standard of care and more transperancy,” Levine Cava said. “Previously, it was Palace’s operation and we were just taking the rent money. There was very little oversight. Now we are expanding our oversight role and will aggressively monitor the health and well-being of these animals under the new leadership.”