Ever since the Marine Mammal Commission, a federal agency, criticized USDA officials for interpreting the Animal Welfare Act's (AWA) regulations in a way that allowed for a concrete wall in the tank of the orca Lolita at Miami Seaquarium, animal rights activists have been buzzing.
Thousands of them signed a petition demanding administrators at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the part of the USDA that enforces the AWA, adhere to the Marine Mammal Commission's ruling that tanks holding marine mammals should be free of obstructions that infringe on the required minimum space.
Tanya Espinosa, an APHIS public affairs officer, singled out Dr. Elizabeth Goldentyer, the director of the agency's East region, as the person who oversees the compliance of Lolita's tank. According to Espinosa, it is Goldentyer's opinion that the AWA allows for obstructions.
When news of Goldentyer's authority on the issue broke out, Broward-based animal rights advocate Russ Rector and his activist colleague Belinda Morris created a new petition, which hundreds of people have signed, urging the APHIS director to declare the nearly 50-year-old orca's enclosure substandard.
In response to the new petition and the Marine Mammal Commission's censure, Espinosa said that Goldentyer, along with other APHIS officials, may change her opinion on whether the concrete wall in Lolita's tank is "detrimental" to the orca's well-being and whether it violates all of the space requirements.
"The proposed rule explicitly did not include changes to the space requirements or the way they are calculated," said Espinosa. "APHIS will continue to review the issue of space requirements for future action... We will then consider our next steps."
Rector says he is stunned that APHIS officials may change their minds, especially since he has been urging them for years to do so without them appearing to budge. He credits Dr. Rebecca Lent, the director of the Marine Mammal Commission, as being the motivation for Goldentyer's apparent mulling over whether Lolita's tank is compliant with the spirit of the law.
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Rector says, however, he is concerned that Goldentyer will ponder over the issue indefinitely and will not make a decision or will fail to take any action.
"Let's hope they don't baffle us with bullshit like they usually do," he said.
New Times asked why space requirements were not brought up in the proposed rule when it is such a hot topic among activists and marine mammal experts. We will update this story if we hear back from APHIS.
UPDATE: "APHIS does not have sufficient scientific or other supporting data to support increased space requirements at this time: however, we will consider any new data provided on this issue during the comment period or later," said Tanya Espinosa.