Miami Seaquarium Stops Trainers From Performing With Lolita After Federal Safety Ruling

Animal rights activists for years have complained that an orca named Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium has been held in unsafe conditions. Now, an investigation by federal authorities into the safety of the trainers who perform with the killer whale has lead to a big change at the park.

A Seaquarium spokesman has confirmed to New Times that trainers will no longer be allowed to perform in the tank with Lolita as a result of the investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

"Recently, due to OSHA’s overall concern for employee safety, they issued a citation that requires that we remove employees from the water during show performances," says statement from the Seaquarium. "As a result of OSHA’s concerns (and not based on any safety incidents with Lolita), Miami Seaquarium has agreed to remove trainers from the water during show performances with Lolita."
OSHA's ruling came last summer, after the Animal Legal Defense Fund asked the worker safety organization to investigate. SeaWorld in Orlando had halted similar shows after an orca named Tilikum killed a trainer during a performance in 2010; that death later prompted OSHA to cite Sea World for continuing to allow trainers in the tank with the animals.     

Seaquarium, though, never stopped putting trainers in the water with Lolita. Last summer, OSHA cited the park for the practice and fined it $7,000. But park officials had been expected to argue in August before an administrative law judge that Lolita's safety record should be taken into account.  

Instead, the park has now confirmed that it's pulled its trainers from the water. 

"Safety is our #1 priority at Miami Seaquarium, and we work passionately to maintain a remarkable safety record," the park said in a statement. "Lolita has been a member of the Miami Seaquarium family for nearly 45 years. In that time, our trainers have forged a special bond with Lolita ... Lolita will continue to receive the same care, stimulation and attention that she has for nearly 45 years. She will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium."

UPDATE: PETA has issued a statement on the news that the Miami Seaquarium will no longer allow trainers to preform with Lolita:
Due to a settlement reached with the government, trainers at the Miami Seaquarium will no longer ride this endangered orca like a surfboard during performances. This is no surprise, as the handwriting was on the wall: Had the Seaquarium continued to expose trainers to the danger of direct contact with orcas, it could well have followed in SeaWorld's footsteps with the loss of human life by deeply frustrated captive marine mammals. Also, the citations for employee endangerment would have been upheld and, like SeaWorld, Seaquarium's internal records of orca aggression—caused by the stress of being forced to perform circus-style tricks in a barren concrete tank—would have been made public, something the company did not want. Even with this ruling, Lolita remains alone in the smallest orca tank in the U.S., and PETA urges people to boycott the Miami Seaquarium until it releases Lolita to a seaside sanctuary where she would be reunited with family and the feel of the ocean's currents.

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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