USDA Says Lolita’s Tank at the Miami Seaquarium Is Too Small

Animal advocates have been arguing for years that Lolita, the lone orca at the Miami Seaquarium, has spent decades living in a tank that’s far too small for her. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has historically maintained it’s legal, it looks like the agency might be changing its tune.

Lolita was once a wild and free member of the southern resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, but she was taken for public display in the notoriously brutal roundups that took place in the 1970s.

She has since spent almost 50 years at the Miami Seaquarium in the oldest and smallest tank in North America. How small is it, exactly? It’s this small.

The area she’s seen swimming in is 80 feet wide with 35 feet between the outer wall and the island barrier in the middle. She herself is long enough to stretch the full depth of the tank if she floats vertically. Not only does the tank just look too small for her, her advocates have continued to argue that it’s illegally small under the USDA’s standards for minimum size under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

Under the AWA, which is enforced by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a tank for an orca Lolita’s size should be 48 feet in each direction, with a straight line of travel across the middle, but her travel is blocked by the island, which also has gates on both sides.

This month, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report that “determined that APHIS has allowed an orca (Orcinus orca) to be kept in an enclosure which may not meet all space requirements defined by the agency’s AWA regulations,” mainly because of the island barrier.

Without the work island, her tank would be 60 feet by 80 feet, but as an obstruction, it leaves her with 25 feet less than the USDA’s measurement of 60 feet, and 13 feet less than what is required by law. Her tank may also be missing the mark on depth because the areas next to the island on either side are only about eight feet deep, and the Miami Seaquarium has completely failed to provide her with shade.

Although the report doesn’t specifically call out the Miami Seaquarium, or name Lolita, the diagrams of the tank in question that are included make it pretty clear that it’s referencing her and her tank.

The report builds on what her advocates have been saying all along, in addition to a conclusion recently reached by the Marine Mammal Commission, which previously stated, “All minimum space requirements should be met in an unobstructed manner, otherwise the definition of ‘minimum’ would be rendered meaningless.”

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t make any final conclusion about the tank, it only calls for clearer guidelines and procedures that can be used for inspections, but the USDA does have the authority to declare the tank noncompliant, which would make her presence there illegal.

It has also renewed calls to end her confinement, and retire her to a sea pen. While she may not be able to ever fully return to the wild, the Orca Network has an extensive retirement plan in place that involves sending her back to a sea pen in her home waters off the coast of Washington, where she would at least be able to experience the ocean and communicate with others of her kind.

The ultimate goal of the plan is to reunite her with her pod, but if she is unwilling, or unable, they have vowed to provide care for her for the remainder of her life.

Hopefully the USDA will clarify its guidelines in a way that aren’t skewed to accommodate the Miami Seaquarium. Meanwhile, two lawsuits are still in the works against both the Miami Seaquarium and the USDA that could change the future for Lolita.

Photo credit: LEONARDO DASILVA

60 comments

Melania P

Really?

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Misss D
Miss D1 months ago

Nicola H asks ‘is she able to provide for her own food? And don't they have a certain hierarchy?’ She would be trained to hunt for salmon again. If it turns out she can’t do this, then she would be looked after for the rest of her life. Regarding the hierarchy issue, biologists know her family very well including her mother, Ocean Sun. Orca have incredibly close family ties, especially between mothers and offspring, even into when the offspring become adults. As Lolita can still communicate using her family’s dialect of calls and songs, then she has a good chance of being able to reintegrate back into the pod. Again, if she can’t, then she would be looked after for the rest of her life in the sea pen in her natal waters where she can at least still have some interaction with her family.

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Misss D
Miss D1 months ago

Nicola H asks ‘I don't know whether she still remembers the "language" they use between each other.’ Nicola, she does remember. We know this because a couple of decades ago, when Lolita had already been in confinement for over 30 years, the Seaquarium allowed a biologist to carry out some research on her and he played her calls from her pod. She responded enthusiastically. In addition, the calls that she uses, that she has always used, are those of the “dialect” used by her own pod. She still calls out to them, after nearly 50 years, but of course, gets no response. Because she knows her own language, as it were, she is likely to be recognised by members of her pod who were alive at the time of her capture. Her mother is still alive and is part of one of the most intensively studied pods of orca on earth, the Southern Residents off the coast of Washington. Biologists know where Lolita fits in with her family tree, they know the movements of her family, and have already picked out a suitable area for a sea pen for her, in her natal waters. She is actually one of the best candidates for release back to the wild because of the possibility of reintegrating her back to a wild family (as opposed to those orca born in captivity or those captured but where this is little/no info on their wild families).

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Misss D
Miss D1 months ago

Some of the information I have quoted below comes from expert legal reports that were prepared for the last court case against Miami Seaquarium at the start of last year. The judge released the papers, despite the Miami Seaquarium’s protests to keep them secret. You can view the papers on the following links: http://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/PDF/UNSEALED 120 Ex. A, Visser Expert Report.pdf and http://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/PDF/UNSEALED 119 Ex. A, Hargrove Expert Report.pdf. It is worth noting the end comment of the former report which states: ‘It is my professional opinion that world-wide, this facility ranks as one of the top two contenders for the ‘worst conditions’ an orca is currently being kept in.’ (Dr Ingrid Visser).

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Misss D
Miss D1 months ago

The article states ‘Miami Seaquarium has completely failed to provide her with shade.’ The water in which she is kept is usually very clear, to enable easier viewing of her by customers. This enables the sun’s rays to penetrate deeper than they would do naturally. Killer whales in the wild can get away from the sun by diving. Lolita’s pool is less deep that she is long, so this is not possible for her. As you can see from the video clip, there is no overhang shading Lolita’s pool so the only shade she ever has is when the sun is not directly overhead and the raised bleachers cast a shadow. If Lolita is uncomfortable and wants to get away from sun, her only option is to restrict herself to this shadow. Therefore the usable area of her pool - in the smallest orca tank in America - is even further restricted. Except during midday, when the Florida sun is at its hottest and she has no relief from it at all. Lolita is constantly sunburnt. This is dealt with by her trainers rubbing a black oil onto her that hides the worst of the burns. Wild orcas have never been documented as having sun burn.

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Misss D
Miss D1 months ago

The article states ‘She herself is long enough to stretch the full depth of the tank if she floats vertically.’ It is worth expanding on this. Lolita is approximately 21 feet long. The pool is not uniformly deep and is 20ft deep at the centre, So its deepest point is a foot less than she is. At the shallow perimeter, it is only 12ft deep. Lolita is basically unable to up-end herself - let alone dive. However, these figures are only relevant if the pool is properly filled with water. Very often, it is not. According to Miami Seaquarium records, the water level is often dropped. This means that Lolita very often finds herself in a pool that is substantially less than her own length at its deepest point and about half her length in the shallower parts.

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Carl R
Carl R1 months ago

Thanks!!!

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Judie B
Judie B2 months ago

FREE LOLITA! She's been given a life sentence for the crime of being born an Orca. She deserves to go home. If you want to see stupid animal tricks, let those in charge of the Seaquarium take her place.

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ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA R2 months ago

Nicole H said it all... And It's heartbreaking to know how many people still have a definition of entertainment thru misery, pain...

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iloshechka A
iloshechka A2 months ago

thank u

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