Report cites dolphin food deprivation at Miami Seaquarium

In this file photo, a young girl hitches a ride on a dolphin at the Miami Seaquarium.

In this file photo, a young girl hitches a ride on a dolphin at the Miami Seaquarium.

Nine dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium were starved as punishment, causing unhealthy weight loss and dangerous aggressive behavior, according to a critical inspection by the federal agency that oversees animal attractions.

Friday’s report marked the second time in 13 months that U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have given a negative assessment of the treatment of animals at Virginia Key Marine Park.

Lolita the killer whale, Seaquarium’s star attraction for 50 years, was one of the subjects of the 2021 USDA report, which also cited inadequate nutrition for the animals as well as poor water quality and maintenance. water and ordered Lolita’s cramped tank closed for repairs. Lolita, also known as Tokitae or Toki, retired in March when The Dolphin Company replaced Festival Fun Parks as operator of the Miami-Dade County lease, prompting optimistic predictions from the from county leaders that Seaquarium would become more conservation-focused and less entertainment-focused.

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Dolphins with their trainers at the Miami Seaquarium. Miami Herald file

But the latest report from a July 6 inspection says the dolphins’ diet was cut by 60% from March and April to encourage them to perform better in interactive sessions at Dolphin Harbor, where a “meet the dolphins” of 30 minutes costs. $159 for guests 10 and older, including admission.

“Depriving these dolphins of all their food and nutritional needs to ensure compliance in public encounters directly affected their health and well-being,” according to the report, which gave detailed anatomical descriptions of “very thin dolphins” with protruding ribs and a skinny neck. “Food or water deprivation should not be used to train, work or otherwise handle animals. Correct as of today.

Seaquarium chief executive Patrick Pearson, who took over in April, disputed some of the report’s findings, which also cite a lack of communication between assistant vet Shelby Loos and staff about the condition of the animals.

“I would disagree with the characterization of undernourishment,” Pearson said. “The dolphin diet has been changed for important reasons. We acquired the property in March and our team determined that we had nine overweight dolphins. We would never cut a diet to induce behavior.

“As for the nutrition and miscommunication issues, we took corrective action even before the USDA was tipped and showed up.”

According to the report, incidents of aggressive behavior such as “mouthing” or biting increased after the diet cuts.

“The food deprivation these dolphins were subjected to also led to an increase in incidents of undesirable behaviors such as separating or breaking sessions, swimming on ledges where guests can stand, sinking during queues and assaulting coaches,” the report said.

Read more: Shows are over for Lolita, Seaquarium’s killer whale, according to new managers. End of the 50-year era

Calypso, an 8-year-old female whose daily rations were reduced from 15 pounds of fish to 9, recorded an average of 18 incidents of “undesirable behavior” in January and February, but “after the transition [to a new operator]Calypso’s unwanted behaviors increased significantly to 38 separate incidents in April,” according to the report.

Cobalt, a 12-year-old man weighing 615 pounds whose diet was cut from 18 to 5 pounds and who lost 104 pounds in four months, had no aggressive incidents on his training charts in January and February. But once her food intake was reduced, “inappropriate behaviors steadily increased.” He bit coaches, harassed runner-up Star, and “regularly broke away from sessions and started swimming towards guests in a meet.”

The number of guest interactions per session also increased, forcing the dolphins to play longer. The report says Aries, a 375-pound man who lost 63 pounds after his diet was cut from 13 pounds to three, interacted with 67 guests in one day.

Jenna Wallace is a former Seaquarium veterinarian who left after cooperating with the first inspection in 2021. She served as a key whistleblower witness for an investigation into Seaquarium conducted by the USDA’s Enforcement Division. She called the latest report “disturbing”.

“A hungry animal works harder, that’s the thought,” Wallace said. “You increase the number of guests, you ask the dolphin to flap its pectoral fin, hi! — to 60 people, to stick his head out and kiss more people, to get more people to grab onto his pecs and swim. They are hungrier, but they get less food, and that makes everyone angry.

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In this file photo, former Miami Dolphins football players AJ Feeley (quarterback) and Brendon Ayanbadejo (linebacker) take part in a special dolphin swim at Miami Seaquarium’s Flipper Lagoon. Miami Herald file

When Toki’s diet was cut last year, the whale began to act more aggressively and staff believe she accidentally killed Catalina, the Pacific white-sided dolphin who lived in the same tank. by hitting it.

“The trend started when Toki’s diet was the first to be cut because our curator said ‘They’re feeding Toki like a stuffed pig,'” Wallace said. “You have a killer whale in a tub and she’s hungry and dehydrated and confused, what do you expect?”

The USDA report noted other incidents, including a training session in which a dolphin named Cayman punched a trainer in the stomach and three other trainers tried to order the dolphin to stand. stop, but “Cayman ignored the reminders and uttered coach several times as they swam for the stairs.” and Cayman again attempted to ram into a coach.

At Dolphin Harbor, dolphins showed warning signs before biting guests “but staff chose to continue guest interactions anyway.” The facility has not handled its animals in a manner that minimizes the risk of harm to the public.

Seaquarium, which opened in 1955, has long been a target of animal activists who call it an “abuse park” and say Toki’s tiny tank has caused physical and psychological trauma.

“The new report confirms that animals continue to suffer horribly at Seaquarium, in violation of animal welfare law and the county lease,” said Jared Goodman, general counsel for animal rights for People for the Ethical. Treatment of Animals (PETA). “The Dolphin Company has been touted as a savior and we see they can’t even do the bare minimum for the animals. They have to shut down Seaquarium.

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Lolita the killer whale, here being fed by one of her trainers, has lived at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970. herald file

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she was “deeply troubled by the findings of the USDA report.” Seaquarium sits on land leased by the county.

“Under the terms of the lease, The Dolphin Company is required to comply with federal regulations, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act, and we will promptly review the report to determine whether The Dolphin Company violates the lease,” she said.

Pearson defended changes to Seaquarium, including computerized monitoring of water quality and feeding volume and “procedures in which we have worldwide expertise in running dolphin operations and aquariums. with the highest standards”.

He said that although concerns about Toki’s health persist, she is thriving.

“Three weeks ago she was very ill and our team came up with a treatment plan,” he said. “Today, she eats well and is very playful. I spent an hour with her and I can say that she is doing very well.

This story was originally published October 21, 2022 7:22 p.m.

Linda Robertson has written on a variety of exciting topics over an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she has covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and teamed up with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now recounts our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.

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