For years, the animal protection community, including AWI, has maintained that the tank for Lolita, the lone orca who has languished for over 45 years at the Miami Seaquarium, does not meet the minimum space requirements for her species under US law. Complaints, comment letters, and finally a pending lawsuit have all pointed out how Lolita’s 1960s-era tank is only 35 feet at its narrowest point—known as the “minimum horizontal dimension” (MHD)—rather than the 48 feet required for orcas by the Animal Welfare Act regulations. This legal dimension itself is grossly inadequate, but Lolita’s tank is smaller still. Thirty-five feet is not much longer than Lolita’s body, tip to tail.
Yet the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has allowed this situation to persist, coming up with various explanations—none of them logical or consistent—for its lack of enforcement. June, however, saw a startling development, when the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report of an audit it conducted on APHIS’ implementation of the regulations specific to cetaceans.
The report noted, among other things, that Lolita’s tank “would only have an MHD of 35 feet … this falls short of the minimum requirements for an orca.” The OIG, in short, agreed with us. It recommended that APHIS clarify how tanks like Lolita’s meet the minimum space requirements. APHIS’ response did nothing of the sort; it directed the OIG to read an agency document from 1979 that it claimed “explained … how those requirements apply to pools with unique configurations.” This outdated document said nothing at all that was relevant to Lolita’s tank.
Despite the OIG failing to challenge the agency’s response, its conclusion that Lolita’s tank appears to be noncompliant with regulations may prove useful in the pending lawsuit.