UPDATE: Government Prepares To Confiscate Animals From Controversial Florida Theme Park

in Theme Parks

Tokitae killer whale and trainer at Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

Miami-Dade County has revealed plans to take the animals of one of Florida’s most controversial theme parks into its custody.

The controversy around keeping animals in captivity for the sake of entertainment is nothing new. It’s been over a decade since the documentary Blackfish (2013) criticized SeaWorld Orlando for its treatment of the killer whale Tilikum – who was infamously involved in three of the four fatal orca attacks on humans – and activists still lobby for the freedom of the park’s marine mammal residents.

Killer whales during Orca Encounter at SeaWorld Orlando
Credit: SeaWorld

Related: DeSantis Announces Release of Another Animal From Florida Theme Park as Controversy Continues

Today, SeaWorld has backed down to criticism and no longer operates its orca breeding program. It has also axed the idea of using animals for entertainment, instead utilizing its orcas and dolphins for “educational” presentations at SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Antonio, and SeaWorld San Diego.

The most controversial park in Florida now sits a little further south than Orlando. Miami Seaquarium currently takes the brunt of animal rights activism, with the park criticized for the findings of multiple USDA inspections in recent years – including an Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin with a nail in its throat and waters ridden with bacteria.

Dolphins at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo Dasilva via Flickr

Miami Seaquarium’s reputation sunk to a new low earlier this year when Miami-Dade County served the park with an eviction notice. As per the request of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s administration, the oceanarium was supposed to vacate the premises by April 21, having violated the terms of its lease by failing to provide adequate care to its residents.

Two weeks later, however, the park remains in operation. Its owner – The Dolphin Company – has taken legal action against Miami-Dade County to try and block its eviction notice, claiming that the county itself has violated the lease (which should last until 2044) and arguing that leaving the premises would endanger its animals.

Seals at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Related: Dolphin Committed Suicide at Florida Theme Park, Report Claims

Now, Miami-Dade County has revealed that it’s already taken the animals into consideration when planning for the park’s eviction – going so far as to promise that it would take them into its custody.

“The county is currently putting together a contingency plan in case we do have to care for the animals,” Melanie Spencer, an assistant county attorney, told a federal judge on May 1.

However, the Miami Seaquarium has countered that the county has no idea how much effort is required to care for the hundreds of animals – including dolphins, penguins, sea lions, and sharks – currently living at the park.

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

Related: Florida Park Takes Legal Action Against Critic of Its Animal Attractions

“I don’t believe they understand the scope of the number of animals in [Miami Seaquarium’s] custody,” Hilton Napoleon II, a lawyer representing the park, told U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Becerra, according to the Miami Herald. “The amount of food they eat. Why the dolphins need to eat ice.”

Napoleon also added that Miami Seaquarium is concerned that Miami-Dade will close the park and ban staff from the property, putting the animals at risk. “If they put a red tag on this facility, and we’re not allowed inside, this can cause serious hazards for the animals,” he said.

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

While the county declined to provide precise details of how they would care for the animals in the event of Miami Seaquarium’s eviction, it did state that it has been “in contact with other facilities.” Its chief operations officer, Jimmy Morales, also provided a reminder after the hearing that Miami-Dade County already operates Zoo Miami.

“Obviously at the zoo, we have hundreds and thousands of animals, some of which are endangered,” he said. “We obviously have the capacity to care for them.”

The Dolphin Company first purchased the Miami Seaquarium in 2022. While the county was initially on good terms with the park’s new owners – particularly when it vowed to free its last remaining killer whale, Lolita (AKA Tokitae), in 2023 – this relationship took a downward turn after Lolita died in her tank in August.

What’s the ideal resolution for Miami Seaquarium’s animals? Let us know in the comments!

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