Dr. Rebecca Lent, the executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), sent shockwaves across the internet when she deemed the tank of orca Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium substandard due to a five-foot-thick concrete island at its center.
Though officials at the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have said for years that regulations allow for obstructions that infringe on the minimum amount of space marine mammals have to move about, Lent says she could not disagree more.
In a letter to APHIS, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, she recently wrote that obstructions are a no-no when calculating whether a tank meets minimum requirements. They encroach on the space that animals need to make normal "postural" adjustments, rendering the safeguards in the AWA "meaningless."
Though the MMC does not have enforcement power to cite the marine park for noncompliance with the AWA, it legally possesses "expertise on issues relating to the protection of marine mammals," so Dr. Lent's statement has weight in court.
Meanwhile, leaders of national organizations that protect marine mammals have come out in support of Lent's statement. Among them is Sharon B. Young, the marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States, who told New Times that her organization is deeply critical of APHIS' apparently “subjective” enforcement of the AWA. “We share the feeling of many —including the MMC — that tank dimensions should be calculated based on unobstructed space. Lolita’s current tank is grossly inadequate,” she said.
In her 15-page page letter responding to APHIS' proposed new regulations, Young criticized Dr. Barbara Kohn, the senior staff veterinarian, and others at APHIS for asserting the authority to determine whether "partial obstructions in a horizontal dimension compromise the intent of the regulations and/or significantly restrict the freedom of movement of the animal(s) in the enclosure.”
Young wrote, “The plain English definition of the word ‘obstruction’ would result in a situation in which the freedom of movement of necessity is restricted. The definition must be refined such that the ‘minimum horizontal dimension’ is the plane that an animal can move without full or partial obstruction. To do otherwise undermines the intent and leaves enforcement subjective.”
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Earth Island Institute, a Berkeley-based environmental group, also weighed in, agreeing with Young and Dr. Lent. "We are 100% behind U.S. Marine Mammal Commission Director Dr. Rebecca Lent's statement that all the current minimum space requirements must be unobstructed,” wrote David Phillips, the executive director of the institute's International Marine Mammal Project. "Any allowance of ‘partial obstructions’ render the space requirements meaningless and must be prohibited.”
Phillips also told New Times that he supports efforts by Russ Rector, a Broward-based animal rights activist, to urge APHIS officials to take action against the Miami Seaquarium’s “inadequate” facility. Already, thousands of people have signed Rector’s petitions to both remeasure Lolita's tank in light of the MMC's statement and to update the AWA to better accommodate marine mammals in captivity.
Among those who signed is Wendy King, who in recent years has relentlessly protested the marine park’s captivity of the nearly 50-year-old orca. “Please, help Lolita, Dr. Kohn,” says King. “There is no question she is suffering. We have the testimony now. It's public knowledge. You've been charged with her well-being, and it's time to intervene and help her.”
The leaders of the Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Defenders International, Born Free Foundation, Born Free USA, the Center for Whale Research, the Cetacean Society International, In Defense of Animals, Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Marine Connection, Orca Research Trust, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Zoocheck have collectively stated that they believe APHIS officials should "disallow partial obstructions" that restrict animals from moving in the minimum space allowed to them by law.