The Miami Seaquarium, one of the nation's oldest marine mammal parks, is bracing for a hurricane. A tirade of condemnation is now raining down from thousands of animal rights' activists who want the iconic Florida landmark shut down. They believe the park is exploiting captive animal performers -- some of them endangered -- in less-than-adequate conditions for profit.
On Sunday, about 100 people flocked to Virginia Key to demonstrate against the park's treatment of animals, particularly an orca named Lolita, who after 44 years was declared endangered by NOAA Fisheries last week.
Activists from out of town and Magic City locals came together to show their support for Lolita's release from the "SeaPrison" before she dies in captivity. Dozens held up picket signs, rallying together underneath swaying palm trees. Some of the signs simply read "Empty the Tanks" and "Free Lolita!" while others declared "Captivity: The Condition of Being Imprisoned or Confined."
"While we are extremely pleased at the NOAA announcement, we also know that this is far from over," Jeff Geragi, one of the demonstration's organizers, stated on social media. "Lolita will still be performing... this will be a long and hard battle, however this [endangered announcement] is a great first step. We applaud the NOAA for making the right and correct decision. Now it is up to us, the protesters, lawyers, public, and everyone to keep the pressure on the SeaPrison. After last week's police harassment it is very clear we are getting to the SeaPrison. We cannot and will not be bullied or intimidated."
The demonstration is one of five that have taken place over the past three weeks. On January 17, more than 1,500 people gathered at the Miracle March for Lolita. The organizer of the event, Robin Jewell, told New Times this week that she believes the demonstration was just a harbinger of what is to come unless the Seaquarium retires Lolita soon.
"Their nightmare has just begun. They will have no peace until they let her go," said Jewell. "Miami Seaquarium needs to be torn down because it has the worst dolphin tanks in the entire country. It leaks everywhere and is falling apart. Palace Entertainment [a subsidiary of Parques Reunidos, which owns the seaquarium] could take it down and make a huge water park or one of their other theme parks in the same location. They must see the writing on the wall: The days of orcas and dolphins in tanks is rapidly coming to an end."
Jewell's thoughts are echoed by Ric O'Barry, who used to catch dolphins for the Seaquarium in the 1960s and helped train the original Flipper. O'Barry now runs the Dolphin Project, which aims to protect cetaceans and rehabilitate them into the wild.
"The Miami Seaquarium is an anachronistic concept that should be abolished and replaced with a cruelty-free amusement park," he said. "Better yet, just plant trees when it's torn down."
O'Barry says nearly 100 dolphins have died at the Seaquarium through the years.
Among the deaths was Lolita's mate, Hugo, who died in 1980 after bashing his head on the walls of his tiny tank. Many animal rights activists say he may have committed suicide out of frustration of living in an 80-by-60-foot tank because in the wild, orcas swim roughly the distance from Miami to Naples each day.
Though many activists want the Seaquarium to be shut down entirely, some Lolita lovers believe Palace Entertainment can convert it into a "cruelty-free" water park with slides and rides that educates the public about marine mammals. The Miami Seaquarium has generated millions of dollars for the local economy over the years since it leases the land it is on from Miami-Dade.
"If the Miami Seaquarium fails to change, it will go out of business whether we like it or not," said Zach Affolter, who demonstrated against Lolita's captivity this past month. "More and more people are becoming aware of how cruel it is to keep sentient animals -- especially dolphins and other whales -- in captivity for entertainment. Marine mammal parks are on their way out. The real question is if the business leaders of these parks will call it quits and close the gates or come up with imaginative ways to convert their business model and create a high-tech-simulated undersea world of whales and dolphins that will thrill and amaze people while actually informing them about what life is like in marine habitats."
In response to the recent criticism, sources at the Miami Seaquarium, who wished to remain unnamed, told the New Times that the park's trainers take care of the animals and that the park helps rehabilitate and release sea turtles and manatees.
However, animal rights activists counter that these releases are convenient publicity stunts. Sea turtles and manatees don't perform tricks -- the routines that attract spectators. Also, manatees, they say, are expensive to feed and maintain.
The unnamed workers were not able to comment on their thoughts on Lolita because of contractual agreements. All public statements are to come from park management.
In response to Lolita's classification as endangered last week week, Andrew Hertz, the manager of the Miami Seaquarium and son of Arthur Hertz, the former owner of the park, stated:
"Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44 years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is healthy and thriving in her home, where she shares her habitat with Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that the 49-year-old postreproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest, and we are not willing to treat her life as an experiment."
However, according to a 1981 article by the Palm Beach Post, Lolita's life at the Seaquarium has been an experiment from the very start of her captivity. The facility staff told the newspaper that no one knew much about killer whales when the park first purchased the orcas, Hugo and Lolita. Indeed, they were the first killer whales to be put into tanks in the Southeast. In 1972 the park even hired a psychic named Marlow Gray to check whether Lolita was pregnant because no such technology existed at the time to determine whether the orca was expecting.
The Palm Beach Post article went on to say that the park "had no idea that putting Lolita in her [current] tank would be like dropping Bermuda in a puddle. As a baby, she was 13 feet. Now, she's 20." The article stated that the Seaquarium had planned to enlarge her small tank. However, the plan never came to fruition for reasons unpublicized.
The "courageous and yet so gentle" Lolita is now 24 feet. Her head pokes out of the water when her tail is on the floor of the tank. Her "fishbowl" remains the same size as when it was first constructed in the late '60s. According to the Animal Welfare Act, the tank technically violates federal law, though it has allegedly been grandfathered in under the law.
In response to Hertz's claim that Lolita cannot be sent to the orca sanctuary, animal rights activists claim there is no solid scientific evidence to suggest Lolita, an apex predator, cannot live in her native waters of the Pacific Northwest or in a controlled environment such as a sea pen, where she would receive continued care by marine mammal experts.
"The notion that they want to protect her is an insult to our intelligence. They are her exploiters, not her protectors. These aquariums have no issue transporting these animals when they can make a buck," said Jane Velez Mitchell, editor of Jane Unchained. "These animals can be safely transported to protected coves, where they will be provided all the necessary food and companionship as they are gradually given more room. It's the orca who decides if and when she will proceed out of the cove."
However, efforts to move Lolita back to Puget Sound are not new. In 1995, then Washington Gov. Mike Lowry campaigned to bring Lolita back to her natural home.
In response to the governor's efforts, the Seaquarium issued a statement saying that "Lolita is not, and never will be, for sale at any price."
However, "never" apparently ended last year, when Wometco Enterprises Inc. sold the Seaquarium to Palace Entertainment for a reported $30 million. Included in the deal was a stipulation that Andrew Hertz remain the park manager.
Hertz has publicly stated before that he believes the animal rights activists who demonstrate against the Seaquarium are "elitist" because the park allows people without the means to travel to enjoy nonnative marine life.
But people from all socioeconomic backgrounds attend the weekly protests, many touched by Lolita's story after watching films such as Blackfish and Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.
Because of Lolita's continued captivity, the backlash has intensified. According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the staff at the Miami Seaquarium temporarily removed the park's page from Facebook on Friday after a flood of animal rights activists posted images in support of freeing Lolita on their page.
The page was subsequently reactivated with all of the comments to retire Lolita deleted.
Many animal rights activists who are demonstrating each week at the Seaquarium hope their protests will lead to the eventual reunion of Lolita with her mother, Ocean Sun, who is nearly 90 years old.
"It is my greatest hope and prayer that Lolita and her mother are reunited," said Velez Mitchell. "Meanwhile, Lolita has become the living symbol of captive animals everywhere. Once we free her, we will have progressed a long way towards freeing the billions of animals held hostage in laboratories, factory farms, and zoos."