Keys Marine Park Theater of the Seas Criticized by Feds for Animal Conditions

Set beside the aquamarine waters of Whale Harbor in the Keys is Theater of the Sea, one of Florida’s oldest marine mammal parks. For nearly 70 years it has attracted thousands of visitors with its diverse assortment of animals, many of whom are rescued and bear colorful names, like “Aphrodite,” a green sea turtle, and “Igor,” an American and Cuban hybrid crocodile.

Yet a federal investigation conducted this month says the park is in violation of multiple sections of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), and that its dolphins and sea lions are at risk of being harmed as a result.

“All natural seawater pools at the facility were observed to have minimal or no shade for resident dolphins. Minimal shade for the animals was provided by naturally growing mangroves,” wrote USDA inspector Mario L. Mercado in his review.

Park officials, though, say the report doesn't mean animals at the Theater of the Seas are in danger. 

"We try to stay on top of the AWA, but it is difficult to always be 100 percent," says Beverly Osborne, the park's curator. "It's like owning a house, there is always upkeep, but that does not mean the animals are not being taken care of. These animals at the park are better taken care of than my own children." 

The critical report from inspector Mercado notes a number of issues at the marine park, including gaps in perimeter fences, rusting platforms near water habitats, and a lack of shade for marine creatures in their enclosures. 

Dolphins, in particular, struggled to protect themselves from the South Florida sun in their pools, the inspector found. In one case he observed workers lather sunscreen on a 32-year-old bottlenose dolphin named “Stormy,” and watched the dolphin still try to seek out seek out shade.

“The shade provided to ‘Stormy’ by the small mangroves in his enclosure in inadequate,” Mercado wrote. “In order for ‘Stormy’ to get away from the sun, he must seek shade by the small mangroves shallows and remain virtually motionless.”

He noted similar problems with a tarp providing shade for the nearby sea lions, noting that it was torn in several areas and "deteriorating."

"Appropriate shelter needs to be provided to all marine mammals in order to protect them from the weather and from direct sunlight,” read the review. 

As for the enclosure's fencing, Mercado found that "one gate has a significant gap between the fence and gate that is large enough for unwanted animals or persons to pass through. … Vegetation and small trees were observed growing within and above the chain-linked fence’s foundation, compromising the integrity of the fence."

Osborne says those issues don't mean the park as a whole is mistreating animals, though. 

“We had three inspections in 2014 that were flawless, and we are also an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums which has guidelines that meet and exceed the government’s standards of care," the park curator says. "Their medical care is better than mine. There was some chipped paint, but the animals are not suffering as a result. I appreciate anyone’s concern for the animals, but you have to understand we are also concerned for them."

In a release on the report, the park took issue with Mercado's critiques about shade for marine animals. 

"We believe there was a misunderstanding during this year’s inspection citing 'minimal shade for resident dolphins," the release said. "Theater of the Sea’s large dolphin lagoons are bordered with matured mangrove trees providing more than ample natural shade."

As for the ointment Mercado saw workers rub on Stormy, the park’s staff said it is used to keep the marine mammals’ skin from “drying out” when they rest on the surface of the water, and “not as protection from the sun.”

Despite disagreeing with the findings, the park’s staff said they would, nevertheless, comply with the inspector’s official review and make the necessary improvements, including building a structure to provide adequate (and safe) shade for the animals.

"Although our veterinary team strongly believes our animals are provided with abundant canopy we have agreed to build a structure to provide additional cover over one of the habitats," the park's staff stated.

Some local animal activists say that isn't enough.

"Just like humans, dolphins get sunburned too," says Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer who has since become critical of marine parks. "Also, when it comes to these rescued animals, you can't say an animal is non-releasable without trying and failing at least twice to free it. Quite frankly, stranding response and rehab has become a backdoor form of capture without a permit for these marine parks."  
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Jonathan Kendall is a former editor at Big Think. He studied journalism at Harvard and is a contributing writer for Miami New Times as well as for Vogue, Cultured, Los Angeles Review of Books, Smithsonian, and Atlas Obscura.
Contact: Jonathan Kendall