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Call it Round 3.

Miami-Dade County sent notice to Miami Seaquarium on Thursday that it owes $87,916 in back rent after missing its payment in December.

The notice of noncompliance comes after the County took initial steps Jan. 21 to terminate the lease, citing disturbing reports on animal welfare from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Seaquarium hit back by saying that Mayor Daniella Levine Cava had her facts wrong on the removal of four animals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — saying it never happened. The USDA then told a Miami television station that the park took action to remedy concerns about the animals in question. 

Now it’s a battle over the rent.

Perry Perez, chief of the County’s Contracts & Procurement Division, Thursday told Seaquarium Thursday it missed last month’s rent payment per its lease agreement. The county gave Seaquarium 45 days to pay the $87,000 or face a penalty. 

Levine Cava sent the notice a week ago when the county learned the USDA gave notice it would confiscate four animals. “The welfare of these animals is paramount, and any compromise in their care is a direct contravention of our shared commitment to their well-being,” she wrote to the marine park’s owner, the Dolphin Co.

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CBS News Miami reported that the Animal & Plant Inspection Service – a department of USDA – cited the marine park for several Animal Welfare Act violations earlier this month after the death of the bottlenose dolphin Sundance. The station reported the agency returned Jan. 17 and determined four animals were not receiving necessary medical attention.

However, the USDA also told CBS News Miami that Seaquarium had made necessary corrections so the animals could stay at the park. USDA did not return a phone call or email for comment on Saturday.

County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, said Saturday the move to sever the lease is not based just on one USDA action.

“It’s about a pattern of issues with the USDA. So we’re looking at what’s been happening since we transferred the lease,” Regalado said. Her district includes the Seaquarium and Key Biscayne. 

In the last year, Seaquarium has been the site of multiple animal deaths. Seaquarium officials  found it necessary to relocate its Pacific white-sided dolphins, as well as three manatees.

Seaquarium made worldwide headlines in August when Lolita, an orca whale died from multiple illnesses. Her handlers said she was healthy and efforts to relocate her to a sea pen in Washington State were on track. But former trainers questioned the care of Lolita – also known as Tokitae – before her death.

The USDA in its annual report in June 2022 and July 2023 cited Seaquarium for failing to properly care for its animals, including poor quality of diet and poor water quality. 

“We had the issue with the manatees. There was the issue with what they were feeding the dolphins and whether they were feeding the dolphins. There have been several issues,” Regalado said.

Regalado also said that part of the Dolphin Co. taking over the lease was making capital improvement to the property – something, she said, has not occurred. Seaquarium opened in 1955 and has been a mainstay tourist attraction in South Florida.

The marine park did not respond to the County’s claim of unpaid rent, but earlier in the week it said Levine Cava had misrepresented that USDA had confiscated four animals.

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John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.