Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade County backs down on Seaquarium ‘no-protest’ zone

Marian Prio wears a "Lolita "costume last month in calling for Lolita to be released to a coastal sanctuary. The protest was in remembrance of Lolita's capture 45 years ago.
Marian Prio wears a "Lolita "costume last month in calling for Lolita to be released to a coastal sanctuary. The protest was in remembrance of Lolita's capture 45 years ago. El Nuevo Herald

Miami-Dade County has backed down from its no-protest zone outside the entrance to Miami Seaquarium — after the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued in federal court.

From now on, animal-rights activists — along with their handmade signs to “Free Lolita” — will have full use of the public sidewalk in front of the Seaquarium. More than a year ago, activists complained, Miami-Dade police officers began pushing protesters out of a section of sidewalk that they called the “red zone.”

Using “safety concerns” as justification, police banned protesters from 15 feet of sidewalk at the entrance. Later, the banned area was expanded to include 25 feet of sidewalk at the exit.

The net effect: Protesters found it harder to communicate with families who were driving into the park. Before the “red zone” began, the protesters were able to convince many visitors not to buy tickets to the Seaquarium in a single weekend, according to the ACLU suit, which was filed in June.

When pushed to a less-visible stretch of sidewalk, the protesters said they were only half as effective. Instead of being able to converse casually with Seaquarium visitors, the distance meant activists had to shout to be heard.

“It is much easier to turn away from shouting protesters,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, an ACLU staff attorney who handled the First Amendment case. “You’re limiting the impact of their speech… and limiting the types of conversations that they can engage in.”

For years, activists have called for the release of Lolita, a killer whale and famous park attraction. The 7,000-pound orca lives in a tank that is 20 feet deep — smaller than the tanks for about 22 other captive killer whales around the country. Lolita’s home also lacks shade, the activists complain.

Seaquarium officials say that Lolita is well cared for at the park, where she has lived for about 45 years.

The ACLU announced its settlement Monday. Miami-Dade County officials did not respond to a request for comment. The Seaquarium, which was not a party in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

All I did was kind of challenge the officer. Basically saying, ‘This is a public sidewalk, why can’t I protest here?’

Seaquarium protester Steven Bagenski

Under the terms of the deal, Miami-Dade will stop enforcing the “red zone” and also pay $1,330 to one protester, Steven Bagenski, who was arrested last year for standing in the forbidden stretch of sidewalk.

Bagenski, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, said he was “kind of shocked” when he got arrested.

“All I did was kind of challenge the officer,” he said. “Basically saying, ‘This is a public sidewalk, why can’t I protest here?’”

Bagenski noted that Miami-Dade police officers receive off-duty pay for providing security at the Seaquarium.

“Here, my First Amendment rights were being trampled on by somebody that may have been hired by the Seaquarium as an off-duty police officer,” Bagenski said. “It seemed like a conflict of interest.”

Bagenski said Lolita’s treatment at the Seaquarium is akin to “spending your life living in a bathtub alone.”

Lolita has been without another orca since 1980, when her tankmate, Hugo, died after repeatedly smashing his head against the tank.

Nationwide, SeaWorld and other theme parks with whales in captivity have been on the defensive since the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which painted an unflattering picture of how the whales are treated.

In a letter to the editor published by the Herald last year, Eric Eimstad, the Seaquarium’s vice president and chief marketing officer, wrote that Lolita has “thrived” in her surroundings.

“Lolita has been protected from the viruses and pathogens to which the killer whale population in Puget Sound has been exposed,” he wrote. “To uproot her would be cruel and heartless. Lolita is at home at Miami Seaquarium.”