Closure Update: Florida Theme Park Must Shut Forever as of Tomorrow, Government Says

in Theme Parks

A trainer in a wetsuit shares a touching moment with a killer whale at the edge of a pool in a marine park, their foreheads nearly touching in a seemingly affectionate gesture.

Credit: Andy Blackledge via Flickr

The day has finally come. Just over a month after receiving its eviction notice, tomorrow (April 21) marks the day that Florida’s most controversial theme park must shut its gates forever after years of controversy over the wellbeing of its animals.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

Related: Florida Theme Park Puts Down Animal Before It Can Be Confiscated By the Government

Theoretically, the case is pretty clear. Miami Seaquarium received its eviction notice in March, with Miami-Dade County declaring that it had violated the terms of its lease by failing to provide a satisfactory level of animal care. However, Miami Seaquarium isn’t going down without a fight.

What Went Wrong at Miami Seaquarium?

Tracking the issues at Miami Seaquarium is no easy feat. Since opening in 1955, the marine theme park has drawn endless criticism over the conditions in which its captive animals – which currently include dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, rays, and more – reside.

Dolphins at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo Dasilva via Flickr

Some of the worst incidents recorded in investigations by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) include a sea lion named Sushi, whose cataract surgery was delayed for so long that she developed severe ocular pain and refused to eat, ultimately dying in January 2024. An Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was also found with a two-inch nail in its mouth, another with a bolt, and the pools of various animals filled with bacteria, while a single veterinarian was left in charge of the park’s 42 marine mammals, 47 birds, and numerous fish.

Like Florida’s other major marine theme park, SeaWorld Orlando, the park has drawn particular ire over its killer whale residents. While the last orca – Lolita (AKA Tokitae) – died at the park in August 2023, activists spent decades fighting for her freedom from the “fish bowl” in which she once resided with a fellow whale named Hugo. However, Hugo died of a brain aneurysm in 1980, having spent the prior months “thrashing” and ramming his head into the wall of his tank.

Seals at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Earlier this week, it was alleged that Miami Seaquarium has tried to mitigate the amount of negative information unearthed by state inspections. According to inspectors, employees claimed that they’d been told they weren’t allowed to talk one-on-one with those conducting the report unless they had explicit permission. Park officials also apparently kept inspectors waiting for hours when they did arrive to examine the park’s facilities.

When Is the Park Closing?

In theory, the Miami Seaquarium will close for good tomorrow. In practice, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, and prospective parkgoers can still buy tickets on its website (although reports claim that not many people are doing that right now).

On March 7, the Miami-Dade Commission served Miami Seaquarium with an eviction notice that requires the park to vacate its 38-acre premises in Key Biscayne by April 21. A letter sent by Jimmy Morales, the Commission’s chief operating officer, claimed that the park had committed “numerous and significant violations” of its lease and accused it of having “a complete disregard for the safety of [its] animals.”

Trainer on orca at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

“The deficient and dangerous conditions that lessee has allowed to persist on the property … in many instances has resulted in injury to the animals and the animals’ ingestion of foreign materials,” Morales added.

Miami-Dade County had previously threatened to take legal action to close the marine life park in late January, also citing the $87,000 it owes the county in unpaid rent. In a statement to Inside the Magic at the time, Miami Seaquarium insisted that it was “in compliance with federal Animal Welfare Act regulations” and was in the process of collaborating with the USDA to address concerns.

Sea lion jumps through hoop
Credit: Kenneth Cole Schneider via Flickr

Related: Florida Theme Park “Intimidates” Employees as Government-Mandated Closure Approaches

Since receiving the official eviction notice, Miami Seaquarium has made it pretty clear that it’s not abandoning its South Florida site any time soon. A statement shared with Inside the Magic revealed plans to “deliver proof to the landlord that none of the defaults or violations occurred, have been cured, or are in the process of being cured during the period specified in the contract.”

Miami Seaquarium Fights Back

On April 6, Miami Seaquarium released a list of “corrective steps” it plans to put into action to ensure the park’s longevity. This includes repairing and maintaining its animal facilities, “revitalizing” the healthcare system of its animals, and kickstarting its own environmental impact review.

We would like to share another letter sent to Miami Dade County COO, Jimmy Morales, today.

The biggest kickback against its eviction, however, arrived yesterday – just 48 hours before the county’s ordered closure date. Miami Seaquarium’s owner, The Dolphin Company, filed a federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade County. Its CEO, Eduardo Albor, also released a statement arguing that closing the park would endanger its animal residents.

“As stewards of the Miami Seaquarium, part of The Dolphin Company’s global family of parks, we are deeply committed to the more than 2,500 staff members that are responsible for the welfare of our marine inhabitants and the educational mission we proudly deliver in the communities we serve,” he said.

“Filing this lawsuit against Miami-Dade County is a step we take with heavy hearts but clear minds, driven by our duty to protect our legacy and ensure our ability to continue making positive impacts on marine conservation. We stand firm in our belief that with fair treatment and support from Miami-Dade County, we can overcome the current challenges and emerge stronger, for the benefit of our community, our staff, and the animals we are dedicated to protecting, just like we do in all our parks.”

Tokitae killer whale and trainer at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

Related: Trainers Accuse Theme Park of Killing Orca, Updates Given

The lawsuit claims that Miami-Dade County has enforced regulations that “unfairly target the operations of the Miami Seaquarium,” as well as breaching the terms of its lease and applying restrictive zoning and land use policies against the park in a discriminatory way. It also claims that the county has harmed the reputation of both the Seaquarium and its employees, and seeks compensation for the economic damages done unto the marine park.

So, where does the park stand right now? According to CBS News Miami, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava has doubled down on the fact that the county expects Miami Seaquarium to close tomorrow, and that they “certainly would pursue legal action.” However, she also noted that it will need to be a delicate procedure. “We obviously have to take into consideration the wellbeing of the animals so there will be an orderly process, hopefully with the support of the Seaquarium Management,” she said.

Man in a lifejacket being pulled along by two dolphins in a pool of water
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Miami-Dade County has also released its own statement containing the same sentiment. “It is our hope that The Dolphin Company is taking the necessary steps to vacate the premises… but if they fail to do so, we will move forward with the eviction process,” it said. Whatever the outcome, the next few days – if not weeks and months – are sure to be a turbulent time in the relationship between Miami Seaquarium and Miami-Dade County. Watch this space.

Do you think Miami Seaquarium should permanently close? Let us know in the comments!

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