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Miami Seaquarium faces eviction over animal welfare

A woman lays flowers at a makeshift memorial.
Wilfredo Lee
Laurie Rudock lays flowers at a makeshift memorial after the recent death of a captive orca, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023, outside the Miami Seaquarium in Key Biscayne, Fla.

Miami-Dade County gave formal notice Thursday it is evicting the company that owns Miami Seaquarium, citing animal welfare and a host of other issues with the iconic marine park.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s office, in a lease termination letter, ordered The Dolphin Co. to turn over the property by April 21 and demanded a response by Monday. She called a 2:30 p.m. news conference but the announcement – telegraphed by her office since January – creates a whole new set of questions regarding the 70-year-old park.

The foremost is whether the County has a contingency plan for the animals at the park – estimated by one former trainer to be about 50 – and includes dolphins, turtles, manatees, seals, sea lions, birds and fish.

“This is mind blowing. Obviously, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Because Miami Seaquarium is such a staple in Miami,” said Shanna Simpson, a former Seaquarium whale trainer. “But it needs to happen. The Dolphin Co. has run it into the ground, unfortunately.”

Key Biscayne Mayor Joe Rasco said he has been meeting with Levine Cava and Commissioner Raquel Regalado about the Virginia Key parcel’s future. The Village has long expressed concern about event traffic — often involving the Seaquarium property — spilling onto the Rickenbacker Causeway affecting travel to and from the island.

“This property is designated as a park in the County’s comprehensive master plan and they are both committed to keeping this land as a park,” Rasco said in a statement.

READ MORE: The Seaquarium's uncertain fate in the face of decertification, animal care issues and back rent

The Village has been working on its version of a plan to renovate the Causeway that would contain a form of “express lane” to avoid jams. The County is well into the process of replacing the Bear Cut Bridge, which connects Virginia Key and Key Biscayne.

The County first indicated the park violated its lease agreement in January, citing the U.S Agriculture Department’s concern over the care of four of its animals.

The County also expressed concerns in the past two months that the park missed its December rent payment and that several buildings had code violations. The park also is accused of violating its lease by losing all but one of its accreditations and lost its head veterinarian as complaints by federal regulators piled up.

Miami Seaquarium, though, has remained defiant, sending a letter that Levine Cava visit the park and then taking to social media to say she failed to show and was using the animal’s welfare for “political purposes, misleading people who truly care.”

Problems started mounting at Seaquarium after Lolita, an orca whale, died in August while waiting to be transferred to a sea pen in Washington State. Former trainers, such as Simpson, questioned whether the care of Lolita led to her death of renal failure and other maladies.

The park transferred its Pacific white-sided dolphins and three manatees to other parks and aquariums. In December, the bottlenose dolphin named Sundance died.

The USDA inspectors found a sea lion experiencing blindness from cataracts, rusty bird cages, mold in the penguin house, flamingos wading in dirty water and a dolphin ingesting a nail.

Seaquarium also sued animal activist Phil Demers for posting on social media drone footage of conditions of tanks of animals at the park. Demers on Thursday said he feels the park will now be closed.

“While it comes too late for Lolita and many other animals who have suffered from the Seaquarium’s neglect, fortunately, going forward, no animal will end up serving a life sentence at this awful place,” he said.

READ MORE: Will Lolita’s death mark a turning point for captive whales?

This story was originally published in the Key Biscayne Independent, a WLRN News partner.

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