UPDATE: Florida Theme Park Evicted, Will Close for Good This Month

in Theme Parks, Updates

Trainer on orca at Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

This article was updated on April 6, 2024.

One of Florida’s most controversial theme parks will close down for good, it’s been confirmed.

Yesterday (March 7), the Miami-Dade commission officially served an eviction notice to Miami Seaquarium, which will require the marine theme park to permanently close its doors come April.

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

It’s been a long time coming. Over the past few years, Miami Seaquarium has frequently made headlines – and never for the right reasons. For the sake of its animal residents, this announcement is undoubtedly good news. But what happens next?

What’s Happening to Miami Seaquarium?

Eviction papers served by the Miami-Dade commission require Miami Seaquarium 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.”

Morales added: “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.”

Seals at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

This follows another letter sent by Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava in late January in which she expressed her “profound frustration” with the park and its owners, The Dolphin Company, and warned that the county was pursuing its legal options to force the park’s closure.

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.

Man riding dolphins at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Related: Is SeaWorld Getting Rid of Its Killer Whales?

“We reiterate our disappointment with how Miami-Dade County has misused the information they claimed they had received from the USDA regarding animal health issues at MSQ [Miami Seaquarium],” a spokesperson for the park said. “The Mayor and her staff have never reached out to MSQ to confirm the accuracy of this information before making it public. They could have contacted us at any time with any questions or concerns, or even sent an independent veterinarian to confirm the claims, but this was not the case.”

Having now been served eviction papers, Miami Seaquarium provided another statement to Inside the Magic in which it insisted “there are no grounds for lease termination” and that it plans to challenge the decision. “We are confident that upon receiving our response with proof of compliance, the landlord will honor the lease agreement and allow us to continue providing the best care to all species under our supervision, as we do in all other sister parks,” a representative said.

The Dark History of Miami Seaquarium

While Miami Seaquarium touts itself as a hub of marine conservation and education, actions speak louder than words. Nearly seven decades after it first opened, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released several concerning inspection reports about the living conditions of the park’s animals in the runup to Miami Seaquarium being evicted.

In November 2023, the USDA claimed that a visit to the park showed a rusty, dangerous penguin enclosure, a manatee named Clarity with a progressive skin condition that was yet to be properly treated, several dolphins showing signs of gastric distress and possible ulcers, animals living in bacteria-ridden water, and multiple pools in a state of disrepair.

A month earlier, one dolphin was found with a two-inch nail in its throat, while another had a broken metal bolt in its mouth. While a sea lion was clearly experiencing significant eye pain, it was not given surgery, and onsite facilities were found to lack basic essentials required to care for marine life, such as ultrasound, radiography, endoscopy or functioning anesthesia.

Reports also complained that the South Florida park only has “a single veterinarian to care for the 46 marine mammals and hundreds of birds, fish, sharks, and rayshouse at the facilitiy.” Seaquarium’s head veterinarian, Jessica Comolli, resigned in February. According to The Guardian, Miami Seaquarium also owes at least $180,000 in unpaid rent.

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

Related: 14 Whales Die at Popular Theme Park, Raising Concerns Over Animal Welfare

The Dolphin Company purchased the park from Palace Entertainment in 2022 and has long argued that the park’s issues predate its ownership and maintains that it has made efforts to improve its conditions and facilities. It has previously taken legal action against those who’ve criticized its animal care, with activist Phil Demers – who had repeatedly shared drone footage showing the living conditions of Miami Seaquarium’s animals – sued by the park in May 2023.

Lolita the orca’s 53 years in captivity (43 of which were endured without another orca tank mate) and her subsequent death at the Miami Seaquarium may go down as the most egregious form of publicly celebrated animal abuse of our time. Her final months (once @TheDolphinCo_ and @eduardoalbor took over operations) were the most torturous.

“Seaquarium’s priorities have long been clear: it would rather shut down criticism than resolve the repeated, extensive, and well-documented animal welfare violations that led to that criticism and, ultimately, revocation of its lease,” said Chris Carraway, Staff Attorney at the Animal Activist Legal Defense Project. “For nearly a year, Miami Seaquarium has spent significant time, money, and energy suing Mr. Demers for his First Amendment-protected advocacy on behalf of the animals imprisoned at the aquarium. For what?” “Theme parks are no place for animals–they should all be freed.”

The Controversy Around Tokitae

Last year, Miami Seaquarium made the bold move to promise the freedom of its last remaining killer whale. Tokitae (who went by the stage name of Lolita) was the second-oldest orca in captivity, and had spent decades alone in the smallest orca tank in North America after the death of her companion, Hugo, in 1980.

Unfortunately, Tokitae passed away due to apparent renal failure in August before plans to relocate her to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest could come to fruition. However, there were questions about the viability of this plan long before she died. Former trainers argued that Tokitae was too old and fragile to make the journey cross-country, and that she simply wasn’t prepared to adapt to life in the ocean.

@truth4toki

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Several trainer banded together to form the group Truth4Toki, arguing that she should instead be relocated to SeaWorld Orlando, which retains multiple killer whales and has far more sophisticated facilities for both their living and health.

“We’ve been saying for a long time they’re going to kill her at Seaquarium,” Dr. Jenna Wallace – a former vet at Miami Seaquarium – told the Miami Herald after Tokitae’s death. “We’ve been fighting so hard to get her the best treatment and get her out of there, but nobody listened. It shouldn’t have ended like this. She deserved better.”

At least 120 dolphins and other whales have died in captivity at Miami Seaquarium. This number includes Sundance, a 30-year-old dolphin who was one of the previously mentioned dolphins in gastric distress.

What Will Happen To Evicted Animal Residents of Miami Seaquarium?

In a statement shared with Inside the Magic, Miami Seaquarium 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.”

On April 6 – just under a month after Miami Seaquarium was evicted – it released a list of “corrective steps” it will implement in order to ensure it can remain open, including repairing and maintaining its animal facilities, “revitalizing” the healthcare system of its animals, and kickstarting its own environmental impact review.

In the case that Miami Seaquarium is evicted for good and vacates the premises on April 21, it’s unclear what will become of the park’s animal residents. However, it has relocated several of its animals to other parks in the past.

A sea lion on a rock by a pool at SeaWorld Orlando
Credit: SeaWorld

A pair of elderly manatees, Romeo and Juliet, were previously relocated to ZooTampa in December 2023 after a long fight by animal rights activists. That same month, another manatee named Clarity was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, and in September, a Pacific white sided dolphin named Li’i (who shared a tank with Tokitae) was transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio a month after her tank-mate’s death.

The park is currently home to dolphins, sharks, rays, sea turtles, penguins, birds, reptiles, and multiple species of tropical fish. Some experts have shared their concerns that the park will struggle to put an animal care plan into action before April 21 and will instead opt for the easier route: euthanisation.

What are your thoughts on Miami Seaquarium being evicted? Let us know in the comments!

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