Lolita’s tank at the Seaquarium may be too small after all, a new USDA audit finds

Killer whale Lolita performs at the Miami Seaquarium. The USDA Office of the Inspector General found the whale’s tank may not be in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.
Killer whale Lolita performs at the Miami Seaquarium. The USDA Office of the Inspector General found the whale’s tank may not be in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.

For years, animal advocacy groups have argued that the Miami Seaquarium’s lone killer whale, Lolita, has been kept in a tank that is woefully small, allowing her to swim only a few yards in any direction.

Now, they might have the support of a federal agency.

In a report released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, an audit of Lolita’s tank found that it “may not meet all space requirements defined by the agency’s [Animal Welfare Act] regulations.”

“The design of the enclosure may deny the resident orca sufficient space for adequate freedom of movement,” the report found.

That doesn’t mean the 50-year-old Lolita will be leaving the Seaquarium. The report doesn’t reach a firm conclusion about the tank, instead calling for better guidelines when auditing marine mammal enclosures. Its suggestion that the tank might be too small would contradict previous USDA evaluations that Lolita’s enclosure was an appropriate size.

While the audit does not specifically name the Miami Seaquarium, photos of the enclosure and its dimensions match the unique shape and size of the Seaquarium’s orca tank. The report also cites a tank with only one orca — Lolita is the only solitary captive orca in the country.

“It certainly is further confirmation that the USDA’s own oversight body doesn’t believe the facility is compliant with the regulations,” said Jared Goodman, director of animal law at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals foundation. “The evidence was already strong.”

PETA has been working for six years to bring to light the alleged non-compliant size of Lolita’s tank, Goodman said, and activists have been pushing to move Lolita to a seaside sanctuary for decades.

But the Seaquarium’s general manager, Andrew Hertz, said in a statement that the park has always been in adherence with the federal government’s rules and regulations.

Citing the USDA’s sole letter to the Seaquarium in 1999 regarding Lolita’s enclosure, Hertz said: “Lolita’s habitat has been certified by the USDA as ‘… meets the intent and the letter of the law with regard to space requirements for orcas.’ The USDA goes on to say that her habitat ‘far exceeds the minimum requirements established by the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) regulations.’”

The Seaquarium emphasized that the most recent USDA audit report states that current regulations don’t clearly outline rules for enclosures like the Seaquarium’s, that “do not fit well within the process for determining whether minimum space requirements are met,” according to the report.

Hertz added that since the audit was conducted, the park “has not been contacted by USDA stating [the enclosure was too small.]”

Most of the USDA’s report focuses on the fact that the tank may not meet the minimum horizontal dimension requirements, largely due to a “work island” for trainers in the middle of the circular tank that creates an obstruction for the 20-foot whale.

To meet the minimum requirements, the horizontal dimension of the enclosure should be at least 48 feet for an orca to swim a path twice its length unobstructed.

Technically, Lolita’s tank measures 60 feet but is bisected by the work island. That separates the tank into two pools, with the main pool only reaching a horizontal dimension of 35 feet, the audit found. That figure matches a 1995 review of the enclosure that also found the pool’s true dimension to be 35 feet.

The auditor analyzed prior data and documentation on the tank and visited the facility in person in the time period from October 2015 to August 2016. The audit focused on seven parks, four of them in Florida.

The Seaquarium might also be missing the mark on the requirements for the minimum depth of an orca pool. That’s because the channels on the two sides of the work island, which connect the two pools, are only about eight feet deep compared to the tank’s main pool depth of 20 feet.

Also in question is the four-foot tall barrier that surrounds the tank, which only has a yellow line painted one foot from the wall to keep visitors out.

“Foreign objects could be dropped into the enclosure, or one of the animals could injure a spectator,” the report said.

Still, the Seaquarium has never experienced an incident with the barrier wall, which meets the Animal Welfare Act’s minimum requirements, the audit found.

According to the report, “[animal care officials] met with facility representatives and discussed the potential risks associated with the current public barrier around the tank and methods that could be used to bolster it.”

The report, which focused on whether the Animal and Plant Health Service’s Animal Care Program had an adequate system in place to monitor compliance at marine mammal enclosures around the country, fell short of declaring the Seaquarium non-compliant due to the ambiguous rules in place to audit tanks.

The audit recommended creating written guidelines by the end of the year that more clearly indicate the requirements — in terms of the size of enclosures and other rules — animal care inspectors have to look for when auditing facilities that house marine mammals.

The findings of the report bolster other recent actions by PETA to declare the Seaquarium’s tank inadequate and move Lolita to a sea pen in Washington state. The orca was captured by whale hunters off Puget Sound in 1970 when she was about 3 or 4 years old and sold to the Seaquarium, where she has been the star attraction for decades.

PETA was part of a lawsuit filed against the USDA last year claiming the agency is violating the Animal Welfare Act by granting a license to the Seaquarium’s new parent company, Palace Entertainment. Licenses can only be granted to facilities compliant with USDA regulations, which PETA and other groups argue the Seaquarium is not. The case is still in process.

In July 2015, the groups filed a lawsuit claiming the Seaquarium is violating the Endangered Species Act by keeping Lolita confined in what they describe as “abusive conditions.” The case was dismissed by a federal judge in June 2016 and appealed by PETA the following month.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH