A captive southern resident orca at the Miami Seaquarium for now more than 50 years was given meager rations, fed rotten fish, and forced to do high-energy jumps and tricks despite a jaw injury from fast swims, a federal inspection reported.
The findings, first reported in The Miami Herald, were publicly released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service following a routine inspection of the marine theme park over three days in June.
The Sept. 22 report, filed by the federal veterinary medical officer, details multiple violations of animal care standards.
Many of the violations — including feeding rotten fish — were corrected before the report was issued.
In a statement issued about the inspection, Miami Seaquarium General Manager Bill Lentz said during a June inspection by the USDA, inspectors identified some areas for the facility to address.
“Our veterinarians and animal care specialists are fully dedicated to delivering the best care to all of our animals, and we stand by the quality of care they receive,” Lentz said. “As part of our efforts to update numerous areas of Miami Seaquarium, we had already begun a number of enhancements. The additional areas identified by the USDA have been added to this list of improvements.”
The Seaquarium “has a long track record of successful inspections,” he noted. Several upgrades have already been completed, he stated, with the entire list expected to be resolved within the coming months.
“In some instances, we will be well ahead of the timelines provided. We will provide updates on these efforts along our continued path of improvement,” Lentz said.
Toki the orca, also called Tokitae or Lolita, 56, was captured in Penn Cove, Puget Sound. She may be an L pod orca and Ocean Sun, or L25 may be her mother, but that has never been proven. She is without doubt one of the J, K or L pods rounded up for capture on Aug. 8, 1970, and has been in captivity at the Seaquarium ever since.
According to the report, she had been maintained on a fish diet of 160 pounds a day, but her rations were cut back to 130 pounds — over the objections of the attending veterinarian. The vet was concerned about her overall health and nutrition status and that she wasn’t getting enough water, since marine mammals get the water they need from fish. The vet also was concerned the lack of food would cause the orca distress and agitation.
The staff in March wanted to further reduce Tokitae’s food ration, including her portion of salmon, and feed her salmon chunks and guts. Medical notes from February through June document she was getting less food despite the vet repeatedly voicing concerns. She also was fed rotting capelin — described as soft bellied and smelling bad — despite the attending vet’s objections.
Medical entries made by the attending vet after she was fed the rotting capelin for eight days tracked with effects of poor quality fish, including inflammation. “Feeding poor-quality fish or partially decomposed fish is detrimental to the health of the animals and can result in illness, compromised immune systems, and even death,” the inspector wrote.
The attending vet also said training staff incorporated fast swims and big jumps in Tokitae’s training sessions and performances despite being a geriatric orca.
Her blood work was abnormal and the attending vet believed this was due to overexertion and becoming winded, which was observed by both the senior trainer and the attending vet. The vet also stated she had hit her lower jaw, likely by striking it on a concrete bulkhead during a fast swim.
Tokitae’s medical records indicate an injury to her lower jaw lasting from February through April, and a request in April from the attending vet that she not be asked to do head-in jumps. But the training curator, just six months on the job at the time, reinstituted the jumps anyway and included speed runs and multiple high-energy jumps in her routine.
The inspector found the water in the whale pools was “very turbid and the bottom of the pool could not be visualized.” Windows in the tank revealed “heavy particulate matter clouded the water column.” Tokitae had visible white lines in her eyes, indicative of injury from chlorine.
“Providing resident animals with water free of pathogens or harmful organisms is a critical factor in their well being,” the inspector wrote.
The inspector also noted that after the killer whale and dolphin show, approximately 50 to 100 people immediately congregated around the pool and a small child was lifted and placed on the pool’s ledge, while other members of the public extended their arms over the ledge to take videos and photos.
Staff were ineffective at keeping the public a safe distance away for both the safety of the people and the animals, the inspector wrote.
In other critical findings, Tokitae’s pool was in disrepair, with laminate peeling off the concrete and paint warped and flaking off the top of the pool walls. A trainer reported pieces of paint were being brought to her by the animals.
The pool also lacked sufficient shelter to protect the marine mammals from the Miami sun. Direct sunlight can adversely affect the animals’ health, especially their eyes, which can result in corneal damage and premature cataracts. Additional steps must be taken to protect the animals, including Tokitae, from the sun, the inspector found.
The orca has long been at the center of multiple attempts to free her, including by the late Gov. Mike Lowry, members of the Lummi Nation, who regard her as a relative, and the nonprofit Orca Network.
The animal rights nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called for an animal cruelty investigation of the Seaquarium by local prosecutors in Miami.
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