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Miami Seaquarium & APHIS Under Fire Over Orca's Conditions

Miami Seaquarium & APHIS Under Fire Over Orca's Conditions

Lolita has been in the same-sized tank since she first arrived at Miami Seaquarium. By No machine-readable author provided. Belissarius assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0.

It has not been a good couple of days for the Miami Seaquarium (MSQ). Facing scrutiny from released expert witness court documents and additional pressure from the Marine Mammal Commission over the health and conditions of their lone orca Lolita, MSQ is finding it increasingly more difficult to justify keeping this solitary orca in captivity.

Yesterday, the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), an independent government agency charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to further the conservation of marine mammals and their environment, condemned Lolita's tank as substandard. As reported in the 'New Times BPB', APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the government agency responsible for the oversight and implementation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), has long endorsed Lolita's tank as legal under the act. When it comes to explaining how they reached this conclusion, however, the agency's response is either a non-response or a highly confusing one.

For years, animal rights groups have argued that Lolita or Tokitae/Toki as she is known to activists, has dwelt in subpar conditions and that her tank is undersized. The main issue revolves around a concrete workstation that Toki cannot pass through and that bites into the recommended minimum space requirement demanded by the AWA.

In its response to APHIS' February 2016 notice (81 Fed. Reg. 5629) proposing to amend its regulations implementing the Animal Welfare Act (the AWA) as they pertain to marine mammals, the MMC called APHIS to task after a 1991 discussion paper recommending an earlier review of the marine mammal standards went ignored:

It is particularly disappointing that now, 25 years later, APHIS has done nothing to follow through on this recommendation and has opted not to address the minimum space requirements under section 3.104 -- Rebecca J. Lent, Ph.D. Executive Director, Marine Mammal Commission.

The commission also added:

Section 3.104(a) of the existing regulations specifies that enclosures must be constructed and maintained so that the animals contained within are provided sufficient space, both horizontally and vertically, to be able to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement, in or out of the water. The Commission does not believe that APHIS has met those requirements with either the current or proposed regulations.

All minimum space requirements should be met in an unobstructed manner, otherwise the definition of “minimum” would be rendered meaningless.

Therefore, the Commission recommends that APHIS clarify in its final rule that all minimum space requirements for all species/groups under section 3.104 of the regulations are to be calculated and based on unobstructed horizontal distances and depths.

As a further blow to Miami Seaquarium, court documents -- notably expert witness testimonies filed against the aquarium by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Orca Network, were made public and described in the 'Seattle Times', despite an attempt by MSQ to keep them sealed. Observations and evaluated records on the former wild orca by John Hargrove, a former senior SeaWorld trainer and author of the book, 'Beneath the Surface', offered a stark glimpse into Toki's daily life at MSQ. Hargrove reported:

  • Ongoing and progressive harassment of Toki by MSQ's resident Pacific white-sided dolphins with chasing of the orca documented more than 150 times
  • Questionable medications including one called 'Regumate' whose use was stopped by SeaWorld because of dangerous side-effects, and 'Tramadol' for severe to moderate pain
  • Skin and fungal infections
  • Behaviors that were precursors to aggressive incidents such as head-bobbing and jaw-popping

Ultimately, Hargrove said that from MSQ's own records, Toki was given a 'poor behavior' rating more than 1300 times. "A poorer behavior rating than any orca I have worked with in my career."

MSQ, in a written statement, maintains that Lolita's facilities are all "legally compliant" and that the orca "enjoys her Pacific white-sided dolphins as companions." In describing Lolita's wellbeing, the aquarium added, "She is, in fact, one of the healthiest orcas ever examined whether in the wild or in a facility."

As dissent over Toki's living conditions expand further yet, and with other credible government agencies now weighing in about her environment, APHIS could be forced to make a stand. The question is, will it be for Toki or, as history appears to show, the Miami Seaquarium?

About Tokitae:

  • Toki is an L-Pod orca belonging to the endangered Southern Resident orcas
  • She was captured August 8th, 1970, in a mass roundup of nearly one hundred members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community. She is in her 46th year of captivity
  • She was one of seven young orcas captured and remains the only one alive today
  • Her mother is believed to be L-25, 'Ocean Sun', who is still very much alive and estimated to be in her late 80s
  • When Toki was captured, it ended a wild matriline
  • In 2015, Toki earned protection status under the Endangered Species Act
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Population is Dying

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Population is Dying

Sixty-two bottlenose dolphins dead in 10 years at SeaWorld parks

Sixty-two bottlenose dolphins dead in 10 years at SeaWorld parks