Killer whale Lolita at Miami Seaquarium could be at risk and should be moved For decades, activists have argued that Miami Seaquarium housed Lolita, an endangered orca in a tank that's much too small. A new USDA report found other serious violations in how she's been treated.

For 51 years this killer whale has lived in a tiny tank. Now her health is at risk

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now, if you're old enough, you may remember this from the 1960s and '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLIPPER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) They call him Flipper - Flipper - faster than lightning. No one you see...

CHANG: The TV show featuring a bottlenose dolphin was filmed at Miami's Seaquarium. For 51 years, the marine attraction has also been home to Lolita, one of the oldest killer whales in captivity. In a new report, federal inspectors have raised concerns about her health and how she's being cared for. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Lolita's not doing shows right now. The Seaquarium says its whale stadium is closed for repairs. In a show recorded earlier this year, the orca breaches and uses her flukes to splash the audience. She's been doing some version of this show since shortly after she was captured in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WHALE TRAINER: We're proud to have all of you join us here to know that Lolita is happy and healthy.

ALLEN: Outside the entrance to the Seaquarium, protesters offer a different message.

THOMAS COPELAND: This place is horrific for animals. It is torture. Fifty-one years of captivity for that orca and you won't even get to see her to see her condition.

ALLEN: With his bullhorn, Thomas Copeland is often at the protests. For years, the complaints about Lolita's care focused on a single major concern - the size of her tank. It's 80 feet long, 20 feet deep and just 35 feet wide.

NAOMI ROSE: Thirty-five feet? She's 20 feet long. And she's lived there for 50 years. It's ridiculous.

ALLEN: Naomi Rose is a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute. For years, she says, efforts to improve conditions for Lolita gained little traction, in large part because the company that owns her, her trainers and veterinarians were providing the proper care. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last month showed that may no longer be the case.

The 17-page document detailed dozens of problems - critical issues with the pools and enclosures for dolphins, seals and the killer whale; poor water quality; and inadequate shade. The inspector said dolphins had been injured and some had died because incompatible animals were often housed together. For Rose, perhaps the most shocking finding of the report is that the Seaquarium deliberately fed Lolita and other animals fish that was going bad.

ROSE: They fed the animals rotting fish against the advice of their veterinarian. Their veterinarian quite logically said, this fish smells bad. Don't feed it to the animals. And they did anyway.

ALLEN: The report said Lolita's trainers continued to override objections by the Seaquarium vet. They cut the amount of fish the orca received daily by 30 pounds. And despite an injury, they continued to have her perform jumps she should no longer do.

The Seaquarium wouldn't make anyone available for an interview. In a statement, it said it's dedicated to delivering the best care to all our animals and is working with the USDA on issues identified in the report.

The attraction recently was sold. The head of Miami-Dade County Zoo, Will Elgar, evaluated plans submitted by the new owner, the Dolphin Company, including one specifically for Lolita's care. At a recent meeting, he encouraged Miami-Dade County's Board of Commissioners to sign off on the deal.

WILL ELGAR: It's a great opportunity to have a company that is actually animal-focused and conservation-centric coming in to take charge, if the transition moves forward, of the Seaquarium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE MOTOR AND PROTESTER SHOUTING)

ALLEN: Outside the Seaquarium, protester Thomas Copeland is skeptical that the new owner will be able to make significant improvements to the conditions Lolita has lived in now for a half century.

COPELAND: You cannot put an orca in captivity where it is an environment that's big enough that matches what it sees in the wild. They swim hundreds of miles in a day. But they can't do that here in a tank that's only 20 feet deep at its deepest point for the orca when the orca's now 22 feet long.

ALLEN: Advocates hope that in the wake of the USDA report, the federal government will support Lolita's relocation. There are plans underway on the West Coast and in Canada to build sea pens that someday may provide a protected sanctuary for captive killer whales.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF T.H. WHITE'S "THE LOST BRIDGES")

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