TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report on the diets of dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium, showing many had been cut, leading to the dolphins losing weight and acting abnormal toward staff and guests.
According to the report, initially obtained by PETA on Oct. 21, the diets of nine out of the 12 dolphins who call the aquarium home were decreased by the assistant director of animal training, as well as the animal care specialists manager, without consulting the veterinarian of the aquarium.
The investigation began when the director/zoological curator of Miami Seaquarium stepped in to increase the diets of the dolphins gradually in mid-June, after she noticed several of the dolphins were behaving abnormally and looked thin.
“The diets of nine dolphins at Dolphin Harbor were cut for the purpose of ensuring the animals performed for the guest interactions,” the USDA report said.
The report goes in to detail about all nine dolphins and their weights, but also highlights a 23-year-old female dolphin named “Star,” who was fed approximately 12 lbs. of food daily in Jan. 2022. Her diet was cut “abruptly,” according to the report, on March 31 to 4 lbs. daily.
“Medical notes from a visual examination performed by the AV [accredited veterinarian] on June 26, 2022, specifically identified three thin animals,” the USDA report stated.
One dolphin’s ribs were protruding, according to the report, and the male dolphin was 45 lbs. under his target weight range.
Another dolphin was reported to have lost 63 lbs. between March 5 and June 25. The dolphin weighed 312 lbs., under his goal weight of 355-365 lbs.
“After the major cuts, the diets were gradually increased over the next few days; however, the diets never reached appropriate levels to maintain each animal’s appropriate weight and the animals continued to lose weight,” the USDA report stated.
Feedings and interactions with guests at Miami Seaquarium were also moved from under the protection of umbrellas, to areas where the dolphins were not protected from the sun, according to the report. The changes were not reviewed by the aquarium’s attending veterinarian before they were implemented.
An increase in frequency of abnormal behavior, such as refusing control and swimming over ledges where guests may stand, acting aggressive toward trainers, regurgitation and more in the dolphins was not communicated in a timely manner to the veterinarian.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava tweeted about the report on Monday, saying, “Like people across our community, I was deeply disturbed by the findings of the recent USDA report regarding marine life at Miami Seaquarium.”
According to NBC 6, Levine Cava said the county has acted to address the issue. The NBC affiliate reports that Miami-Dade Parks is issuing The Dolphin Company a formal Notice of Noncompliance for failing to identify and resolve the problem.
The Dolphin Company welcomed Miami Seaquarium into its family of parks in March, taking full responsibility of the aquarium. The company has 32 parks, dolphin habitats and marinas across the world, including Mexico and Italy.
The mayor tweeted Monday morning the county is also in the process of hiring independent marine mammal veterinarians to perform unannounced inspections at Miami Seaquarium, in addition to USDA inspections.
In a response to a request for a statement, Miami Seaquarium sent News Channel 8 more information, stating: “Miami Seaquarium leadership became aware of these areas of concern prior to the USDA visit and took immediate, appropriate action well before being contacted by USDA.”
The aquarium said that some of the dolphins at the location were found to be overweight in March 2022.
The aquarium sent the following information regarding the dolphins and attending veterinarian authority:
- Animal care staff lowered individual dolphins’ base diet, then gradually increased their diet, with the goal of bringing them to an optimal level appropriate for each animal’s specific age, activity level and medical factors.
- Each dolphin’s optimal weight range and BMI has been reset, not based on historical protocol determined by previous ownership, but by research, experience and best practices contributed to the Miami Seaquarium by the world’s foremost, independent experts.
- At no time were adjustments, dietary or otherwise, made with the purpose of enhancing animal behavior during guest interactions.
- At no time were signs or indications of potential risk to staff or guests overlooked.
- At no time has the authority of the Miami Seaquarium’s Attending Veterinarian been ignored, however, there were some gaps in communication between departments this spring that were corrected.
I want to be very clear about the Miami Seaquarium’s commitment to providing the best possible environment for the health and well-being of the animals in our care. When we assumed management earlier this year, we set out to correct decades of difficult circumstances. We know the world is watching and we welcome that attention because in addition to providing the highest level of care for these animals, we want to be advocates for animal well-being around the world.Patrick Pearson, General Manager of Miami Seaquarium
Information provided by Miami Seaquarium said that gaps in communication due to work schedules, protocol and staff assignment “created a window of miscommunication between new animal care specialists, tenured animal care professionals and veterinarians.”
The aquarium said the issue was quickly identified, addressed and corrected.
With any change in ownership comes a learning curve between previous operations and new operations. The miscommunication that occurred was identified and addressed well before the USDA came for an inspection. The Dolphin Company understands the importance of animal well-being, they listened to concerns from the animal care and veterinary teams, and supported changes needed to improve communication.Dr. Shelby Loos, Attending Veterinarian
Miami Seaquarium said multiple steps have been taken to provide support for personnel at its location. The following actions have been taken over the past six months, according to the aquarium:
- New technology solutions including software that improves accuracy and decision-making, makes data available electronically, and tracks workflow
- Personnel alignment to include adjustment of staff assignments and additional staff where indicated
- Support from experts in marine mammal care
- Establishment of an in-house Animal Welfare Committee that meets regularly, and includes external animal care experts for all species at the Miami Seaquarium
PETA also issued the following statement to News Channel 8 regarding the USDA’s report:
Even after officials promised greater oversight, this damning new federal inspection report reveals that Miami Seaquarium staff starved dolphins in order to force them to perform and made the emaciated animals perform more often than usual, causing them to attack trainers and bite members of the public. PETA is calling on everyone to steer clear of the park, for the Seaquarium to release the dolphins along with the lonely orca Lolita, and for Miami-Dade County to shut this hellhole down.Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation General Counsel for Animal Law