The proposals for a new megamall called American Dream Miami have caught international headlines, especially since the project is set to include a roller-coaster, water park, and even a ski-slope. The plan has also caught plenty of flak from everyone from politicians to economists. But now a new wave of opposition is emerging.
Animal rights activists are lining up protests over the mall's plans to include a permanent sea lion show.
“If this ridiculous sea lion show is made, these animals will be exposed to nothing natural," says former Navy dolphin trainer Rick Trout. He helped blow the whistle on the Navy's unethical treatment of the animals. "These California sea lions belong in their sea lion colonies on the coasts of California, not in a mall in South Florida.”
Triple Five, the the Canadian developer behind American Dreams Miami, hasn't returned calls or emails from New Times for this story; we'll update this post if we hear back. The group, which operates the Mall of America and the massive West Edmonton Mall and is building another giant shopping center in New Jersey, proposes building the mega-mall in northwest Dade.
Trout, who lives in Tavernier, says that animal rights activists have many reasons to worry about a sea lion exhibit. For one thing, the noxious aroma that comes with any sea lion habitat would have to be countered through strong chemicals, such industrial strength chlorine. That, in turn, could have adverse effects on the marine mammals.
“Their normal diet is fish and squid and what goes in has to come out, and the byproduct of their diet is one of the most terrible odors you would ever want in any situation, nonetheless in a mall where people shop," Trout tells New Times.
With Ringling Brothers recently planning to remove elephants from it's shows and court battles heating up over Lolita, the killer whale in Miami's Seaquarium, Trout believes the public it turning against animal entertainment.
"In today’s enlightened society, this can only backfire," he says. "This project flies in the face to the very progress that has been made by people who are sensitive to the plight of animals in captivity.”
Nicole Giorgianni, a Tampa Bay-based animal rights activist, echoes Trout’s concerns. She also believes the mall’s construction will lead to habitat loss for other native species.
“With the recent Ringling decision on elephants, there is proof that there is a shift in the thoughts of animals used for captivity,” she says. “Aside from the ridiculous amount of land destruction and wildlife displacement that will result from this mall’s construction, my personal thoughts on this sea lion plan are that of disgust.”
The animal activists are trying to stop the sea lions permanent captivity by nipping the planned show in the bud.
"The best way to stop these animals from going spending their lives in this mall is to stand up against it now," Trout says. "Once this mall is issued a license to exhibit [the sea lions] it will be very difficult to have the show shutdown."
Keeping the animals in a mall setting could be even more damaging to the creatures, they say; there is already a petition to retire California sea lions from an artificial lagoon at West Edmonton Mall.
Trout fears that since many marine mammal shows use positive reinforcement to train the sea lions to do tricks, much of the time they will be hungry (they only get fed for doing tricks properly), and may eat items that shoppers toss into their tank.
This occurrence is not unheard of and he says it has happened to other marine mammals that were in captivity at West Edmonton Mall, Triple Five's current flagship shopping center.
Activists also worry for the safety of mallgoers, since sea lions have the reputation of being escape artists and for fighting back.
“No matter how they try to minimize people touching and petting, other people will get near these animals, and will end up with bites,” says Giorgianni, who has worked in zoos,
Despite the criticism, supporters of sea lions in captivity do have some positives to point out. Some sea lions seem to live longer in captivity than their wild counterparts, because they lack natural predators like great white sharks. In Edmonton, Triple Five says the creatures get a diet catered to their body weight of high quality fish and squid, and have a "wide variety of feeding opportunities."
Several times a year, veterinarians examine the mammals, and for the most part the sea lions have been healthy. The animals can educate audience members about the species, proponents say.
Still, activists are staunchly opposed to the proposed sea lion show and believe that the time of exploiting animals in shows for money is coming to an end culturally.
"There is just no way this is OK," Trout says. "This sea lion show does not fit with the idea of Miami being a progressive city because the idea of it is so backwards."