Officials at the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) have said for decades that the orca Lolita's tank at Miami Seaquarium meets federal regulations. They argue the concrete wall in the killer whale's tank does not violate minimum space requirements.
However, Rebecca Lent, director of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency that oversees animal policy, rebuked APHIS officials earlier this year for disregarding the five-foot thick concrete work island. She said the wall limits the space the nearly 50-year-old orca has to move and make normal “postural adjustments.”
The consequence is clear: Since not meeting minimum space requirements is a violation of the law, the Miami Seaquarium has been treating Lolita inhumanely for decades.
APHIS officials told New Times last month that they are considering changing their position on whether the concrete wall impedes Lolita’s ability to move about.
APHIS, however, may not have had the authority to approve the concrete work island at the center of Lolita's tank.
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In a recent proposed update to the Animal Welfare Act, APHIS officials are seeking approval for authority to disregard such obstructions. Animal rights advocates show they lack authority over the obstruction.
"It is our position that the agency does not currently have that authority, and the fact that it has proposed including it in the regulations signals that the agency similarly does not believe its interpretation of the existing regulations is on completely solid ground," said Jared Goodman, the director of animal law for PETA.
If officials were confident they already had that authority, activists argue, then they wouldn't have to ask for permission from lawmakers to disregard them.
New Times has asked APHIS officials why they are seeking permission to allow obstructions if they already have that authority. They told us they were not up to answering this question.