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Two years ago, it looked so different. 

My friend and colleague, veterinarian Dr. Nicole Gianni, has been advocating for the past 25 years to save Lolita the orca, who had been confined at Miami Seaquarium since 1970. Dr. Gianni shared with me dozens of photographs and hand drawings that capture her dedication to Lolita, including images from various peaceful demonstrations in her orca-adorned T-shirts and when she had the opportunity to meet Lolita in person. 


And two years ago, Dr. Gianni excitedly posted a news story about The Dolphin Company obtaining a new USDA exhibitor license and lease for the Miami Seaquarium with the condition that Lolita would no longer be put on display. Dr. Gianni wrote on Facebook, “Shaking with emotion reading this news finally. I have worked my entire life to see this…Lolita is the reason I became a veterinarian.”

We had high hopes that this change in ownership would mean drastic and positive upgrades for the park. 

We were wrong. 

This was simply part of a scheme to allow The Dolphin Company to operate with a noncompliant tank. Conditions quickly deteriorated under The Dolphin Company’s management, and reports began circulating that  they were reducing animals’ food to improve performance while increasing their public interactions. 

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Then Lolita passed away. But her death eclipsed the suffering of the many other animals behind the scenes. Fortunately, animal care staff reached out to Our Honor, the veterinary support organization that I founded, and where  Dr. Gianni volunteers. 

After numerous negative USDA inspection reports, the revocation of their American Humane Certification, their removal from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums pathways program to accreditation, and the recent resignation of their veterinarian (after already being cited for inadequate staffing) it appeared The Dolphin Company’s reign might come to an end.

Miami-Dade County finally served The Dolphin Company with an eviction notice, but the company published a defiant response. It seems they have more attorneys available to fight the eviction than veterinarians to care for the animals.

Lolita, a captured Orca, performs in a show, Jan. 11, 2011, at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita died in August as efforts were underway to move her to a sea pen in Washington state. (Leonardo Dasilva via Creative Commons)

A few weeks ago, Dr. Gianni and I went to the Miami Seaquarium to document the condition of the animals. We found animals deprived of sufficient shelter and sustenance, in violation of Florida law. 

Marine animals depend on the quality of their aquatic environment for oxygen and nutrient exchange. However, we documented numerous cases in which animals were confined to enclosures with poor water quality and barren housing, causing ongoing physical injury and mental distress. Fish had scarred, cloudy, and bulging eyes, we believe, from the turbid water. 

We found 20 pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) confined to small areas with warm, unchilled water affecting their skin. Some suffered from cataracts, which research says can be triggered by the lighting environment (there is a  light-colored, barren pool bottom).

Panama, a large female bottlenose dolphin around 30 years old, appeared listless and unwell. We also noted the peeling paint and black mold in the penguin enclosure, previously described in the USDA reports. Distressed by what we saw, we sent our findings to the Mayor, Commissioners, and the media. 

It’s time for Miami-Dade County to enforce Florida’s animal cruelty laws and seize the animals.

Florida Statute 828.122 provides that when a court finds probable cause of abuse of any animal, the court shall order the confiscation of the animal. Under 828.073, any law enforcement officer or animal control officer can remove animals found neglected or cruelly treated or place them in protective custody at the Miami Seaquarium and compel The Dolphin Company to care for the animals until they are relocated to better facilities.

Most importantly, the County must stop the cycle of leasing to for-profit zoos and convert the facility to a nature preserve or a research or rehabilitation facility for sea turtles, manatees and other marine animals. It’s time we end this cruelty once and for all. 

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Crystal Heath
Dr. CRYSTAL HEATH  is a graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of Our Honor, an organization that supports veterinarians and animal professionals in advocating for the best interests of others, no matter their species. She is also on the board of LEAP - Leaders for Ethics, Animals and the Planet.
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Dr. CRYSTAL HEATH  is a graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of Our Honor, an organization that supports veterinarians and animal professionals in advocating for the best...