Terms of exhibition permit suggest the late Russ Rector was almost right in betting he would outlive the aging Miami Seaquarium, even if Lolita did not
MIAMI, Florida––MV Leisure, the new owner of the 67-year-old Miami Seaquarium, will not be allowed to exhibit the 56-year-old orca whale Lolita and her Pacific white-sided dolphin companion Lili as a condition of a newly renewed exhibition permit issued under the federal Animal Welfare Act by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service.
“If, in the future, you intend to exhibit either of these animals (including posting any image of these animals on social media with the expectation of economic benefit), or resume using this pool [Whale Stadium] for exhibition purposes, you will need to apply for a new license,” USDA Deputy Administrator Elizabeth Goldentyer wrote to MV Leisure, the Miami Herald reported.
Second oldest whale in captivity
Lolita is the second oldest orca whale in captivity. Captured at Penn Cove, Whidbey Island, Washington on August 8, 1970, Lolita has been held at the Miami Seaquarium ever since.
Only Corky, captured at Pender Cove, British Columbia, in 1969, kept at SeaWorld San Diego since 1987, has survived in captivity longer.
Lolita, in poor health, “has not been doing twice-a-day shows for months, since the 20-foot deep tank in the stadium where she is housed was closed for repairs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” reported the Miami Herald.
Lolita, originally named Tokitae at capture, is still called by that name, or Toki for short, by advocates for her return to her native habitat.
“New operator has a different bent”
“It’s a big win for Toki that she doesn’t have to perform anymore,” said Miami-Dade county commissioner Raquel Regalado to the Miami Herald.
“This USDA license allows the county to close a chapter with the old operator, which has done a shoddy job and has not been transparent,” Regalado charged, “and move forward with a new operator that has a different bent on how to run a marine park and treat animals.”
MV Leisure in August 2021 bought the Miami Seaquarium from Festival Fun Parks, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based owner of 21 theme parks worldwide.
From Festival Fun Parks to the Dolphin Company
Festival Fun Parks in 2014 bought the Miami Seaquarium from the ownership consortium that had operated it since it opened in 1955, on land leased from Dade County for $2.5 million per year.
MV Leisure is a subsidiary of the Mexican-based Dolphin Company, owner of 27 theme parks worldwide focused on marine life.
Most Dolphin Company holdings are in Latin America but one is in Italy. The Dolphin Company also operates three other Florida facilities: GulfWorld in Panama City Beach, Marineland in St. Augustine, and Dolphin Connection in Duck Key.
“We will continue to monitor & care for her”
“As with any animal who has exceeded their anticipated life span, we will continue to monitor and care for her [Lolita] closely,” the Miami Seaquarium said in a prepared statement.
But the statement left unanswered what MV Leisure and The Dolphin Company will do with the Miami Seaquarium, when not allowed to exhibit the longtime Seaquarium leading attraction and not allowed to use Whale Stadium, by far the largest and most prominent Seaquarium facility.
Whale Stadium has already been closed for more than six months, ostensibly for renovation, but the closure so far has coincided with attendance restrictions due to COVID-19 outbreaks and what would normally be the Miami Seaquarium off-season for visitors.
PETA calls for “seaside sanctuary”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] attorney Jared Goodman called for the USDA-APHIS restriction on exhibiting Lolita and Lili “to be the first step toward releasing Lolita and Lii to a seaside sanctuary, before this long-suffering orca ends up dying in the same cramped tank she has been confined to for over half a century.”
An entity called the Whale Sanctuary has proposed building sea pen facilities for marine mammals retired from exhibition at a variety of locations, most recently Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, but no such site has been financed and developed.
The Lummi Nation, headquartered on Lummi Island in Whatcom County, Washington, has also expressed interest in hosting Lolita in retirement. Former salmon farming sea pens in the vicinity could potentially be reconfigured to house Lolita. This scheme, however, barely exists as yet on paper, even if Lolita––now far larger than she was when transported to the Miami Seaquarium as a four-year-old calf––could be safely moved thousands of miles back to her native waters.
“Small, shallow, barren concrete tank”
The restriction against exhibiting Lolita and Lili was announced not quite a month after PETA on February 7, 2022 said in a media release that it had “just learned from confidential sources” that “Beloved Lolita the orca—whose small, shallow, barren concrete tank has been closed to the public for months—is reportedly suffering from pneumonia and is in danger of not receiving adequate care.
“The current attending veterinarian, Shelby Loos, reportedly possessed no orca experience when she was hired in 2019,” PETA added.
“She left in 2020 but was rehired last year after the Seaquarium fired its longtime head veterinarian,” Magdalena Rodriguez, who had “expressed concern about the extent of animal suffering at the park.”
“Damning federal inspection report”
Continued the PETA statement, “The whistleblowers also shared with PETA horrific photographs of Abaco, a 19-year-old dolphin who drowned after his rostrum became entangled in a net separating two pools and, as his necropsy revealed, had also incurred injuries from being attacked by incompatible dolphins.
“Abaco was one of six animals who died at the Seaquarium in 2019 and 2020, all from trauma-related causes—including to the head and neck with hemorrhaging,” PETA said.
PETA in September 2021 claimed to have “obtained a damning 17-page federal inspection report revealing a slew of animal welfare violations at the Seaquarium, including that it had failed to provide Lolita and several other animals with sufficient shade, leaving them in direct sunlight, which can cause painful damage to their eyes. This is the first time the USDA cited the facility for insufficient shade,” PETA noted.
Inspection came two months before park sale
The Miami Herald later obtained the entire USDA report, dated September 22, 2021, but based on a three-day inspection done in June 2021, before Festival Fun Parks sold the Miami Seaquarium to MV Leisure.
“Many of the violations — including feeding rotten fish — were corrected before the report was issued,” wrote Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda V. Mapes on October 16, 2021.
“According to the report,” Mapes summarized, Lolita “had been maintained on a fish diet of 160 pounds a day, but her rations were cut back to 130 pounds — over the objections of the attending veterinarian. The vet was concerned about her overall health and nutrition status and that she wasn’t getting enough water, since marine mammals get the water they need from fish. The vet also was concerned the lack of food would cause the orca distress and agitation.
Fed “rotting capelin”
“The staff in March 2021 wanted to further reduce Tokitae’s food ration, including her portion of salmon, and feed her salmon chunks and guts,” Mapes continued. “Medical notes from February through June document she was getting less food despite the vet [Magdalena Rodriguez] repeatedly voicing concerns. She also was fed rotting capelin — described as soft bellied and smelling bad — despite the attending vet’s objections.”
Added Mapes, “The attending vet also said training staff incorporated fast swims and big jumps in Tokitae’s training sessions and performances, despite her being a geriatric orca.
“Her blood work was abnormal and the attending vet believed this was due to overexertion and becoming winded, which was observed by both the senior trainer and the attending vet. The vet also stated she had hit her lower jaw, likely by striking it on a concrete bulkhead during a fast swim.”
The jaw injury was reportedly evident from February through April 2021. The attending veterinarian in April 2021 asked that Lolita not be asked to to jumps in which she would hit the water head first, “but the training curator, just six months on the job at the time,” Mapes said, “reinstituted the jumps anyway and included speed runs and multiple high-energy jumps in her routine.”
The Miami Seaquarium Whale Stadium water meanwhile became “very turbid and the bottom of the pool could not be visualized,” Mapes recounted.
Lolita “had visible white lines in her eyes, indicative of injury from chlorine,” while the tank itself deteriorated, “with laminate peeling off the concrete and paint warped and flaking off the top of the pool walls. A trainer reported pieces of paint were being brought to her by the animals,” Mapes mentioned.
“Lolita will probably die there”
None of this would have been any news to Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector, who died on January 7, 2018 after 24 years of trying to have the Miami Seaquarium closed for multiple Animal Welfare Act violations, including everything brought to light by others since his death.
“Russ started investigating Lolita’s tank in the early 1990s,” recalled his widow, Linda Rector, “and I do have many articles and paperwork documenting that he got the Miami Seaquarium fined ––but to no avail –
“What would he say?” Linda Rector asked rhetorically. “He would say, sadly, Lolita will probably die there because no one could agree on a tactical plan to get her out of there.”
Russ Rector closed Ocean World, then sought to close the Miami Seaquarium too
Formerly an Ocean World dolphin trainer for seven years, Russ Rector made closing Ocean World his first goal, upon starting the Dolphin Freedom Foundation in 1992. Two years later, in 1994, Ocean World did close.
By July 1995, the Miami New Times recounted in identifying Russ Rector as “Best Hero” of 2004, he had “set his sights on the aging Miami Seaquarium. Acting on a tip from employees, he videotaped what appeared to be serious structural problems with the main performing stadium. His protests to county, state, and federal agencies went nowhere.”
But Russ Rector did not give up. A retired building contractor, Russ Rector eventually “documented scores of electrical code violations at the Seaquarium. This time Miami-Dade County officials responded,” the New Times said, “slapping the attraction with 137 violations. Cost for repairs: roughly a half million dollars.”
Smaller habitat than allowed by Animal Welfare Act
Simultaneously Russ Rector unsuccessfully pressured the Seaquarium to remove a work island used by trainers in performances from the middle of Whale Stadium, Lolita’s habitat.
The work island left the useable portion of Whale Stadium smaller than is allowed by the Animal Welfare Act, but because Lolita lived there before the Animal Welfare Act was extended to cover marine mammal parks, the Miami Seaquarium had an exemption from compliance.
Removing the island would have made double the swimming space available to Lolita––and would have ensured a permanent end to marine mammal shows using the island.
A series of unsuccessful lawsuits brought by PETA and the Orca Network eventually brought a ruling that the Seaquarium could be obliged to remove the island only by an act of Congress.
“I don’t have to pass building inspections”
Despite that disappointment, more than a decade before his death, in the summer of 2007, Russ Rector offered to bet any and all takers that he would outlive the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach, the Miami Seaquarium, and many of the other first-generation marine mammal parks still operating along the Florida coast.
“We’re all about the same age,” Russ Rector said, “and I’m showing mine, but so are they, and I don’t have to pass building inspections.”
Meanwhile, though often identified with the “Free Lolita!” campaign long directed by PETA and the Orca Network, Rector by 2002 had become skeptical that she could be released successfully.
Russ Rector advised setting up refuge first, then pressing Animal Welfare Act issues
Soon after Ocean World closed in 1994, Rector recalled in a 2017 email, “I was contacted by [orca researcher] Ken Balcomb,” of Friday Harbor, Washington, “and his son Kelly. Howie [Howard Garrett, longtime leader of the “Free Lolita” campaign] was still a mailman and was not involved at all. We had a very long meeting at a mutual friend’s house.
“During that conversation with Ken,” Russ Rector said, “I gave him the benefit of what I have learned while closing Ocean World. I told him not to start yelling ‘Free Lolita!’ because as they did at Ocean World [in reference to dolphins] all they would do was say she’ll die, and that ends the conversation.
“I told Ken to go back to Friday Harbor, get a place for her set up, and have it running, so once I could prove that Lolita’s tank was too small and she must be moved to a compliant situation within 30 days, that Ken could then raise his hand and say, ‘I have the solution.’
“Instead he went back to Friday Harbor and started yelling ‘Free Lolita!’ to every news organization that would listen.
“What about the other 70+ marine mammals at the Miami Seaquarium?”
“The fact that Lolita’s tank is too small and does not meet federal standards––and I have 524 pages of government documents proving it––was covered up and literally pushed aside by ‘Free Lolita!’” Russ Rector charged.
“So I’ve been around the ‘Free Lolita!’ movement from literally day one,” Russ Rector said, going on to question what had become of all the money raised by the ‘Free Lolita!’ campaign, “spent on everything but freeing Lolita.
“If you haven’t freed something in 20 to 25 years it probably isn’t going free,” observed Russ Rector.
“My big question,” Russ Rector emphasized, “is what about the other 70+ marine mammals at the Miami Seaquarium? I guess they don’t mean as much as Lolita and don’t deserve freedom also.
“How much awareness is needed?”
“I’ve always said if you want to stop the killing in these facilities,” Russ Rector said, “you must kill the facilities one by one. You cannot go into any facility and beg the owners for one animal. That proves to them that you don’t know what you’re doing, and really are dealing from a position of weakness.”
In recent years “Free Lolita!” campaigners have focused on what has been termed “raising awareness.”
Scoffed Russ Rector, “How much awareness is needed, so I know when we get there? How much money does raising awareness cost, because from my point of view concerning Lolita and raising awareness, it costs an enormous amount of money, so how much does awareness cost and how much do we need? Please somebody, give me a figure.”