Romeo & Juliet manatees get an upgrade

Pool area where Romeo was being kept (Urgent Seas)
Pool area where Romeo was being kept (Urgent Seas)

A pair of elderly manatees that have been held at the failing Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium since they were captured as calves in the mid-1950s have been transferred to a safer environment, following a spike in public pressure.

Divernet has been following the misfortunes of captive marine mammals that also include orcas and dolphins at the Florida theme park, which has been heavily criticised by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its animal welfare reports over the past two years. The manatees, 67-year-old Romeo and 61-year-old Juliet, had been described as living in “ever-deteriorating conditions”.

Romeo and Juliet have now been shifted to two other captive facilities, along with a third manatee, a female called Clarity, who had been kept at the Seaquarium for 14 years. It was not clear whether any of the animals would be reunited at their new homes.

“The manatees were each prepared for transport, loaded into specialised transport vehicles, and accompanied by an experienced team of veterinarians and manatee specialists,” stated Miami Seaquarium.

“The animals were successfully transported to facilities at SeaWorld Orlando and ZooTampa, two of only three critical-care centres for manatees in the United States, where they are now undergoing thorough veterinary examinations.” Inadequate veterinary care has been one of a number of criticisms of Miami Seaquarium, which is owned by Mexico-based The Dolphin Company.

According to wildlife campaign body UrgentSeas, Romeo and Juliet had been kept apart for months and their health had been suffering. Its recently circulated video, showing Romeo left alone in a small, decrepit tank in an area of the park out of public view, has been seen by more than 3 million people. 

Lonely life of a captive manatee

“Manatees are semi-social animals and suffer psychologically when not living in groups or pairs, but Romeo remains alone, all the time,” UrgentSeas co-founder Phil Demers, a former marine-mammal trainer, had stated before the transfer from what he called an “awful“ facility.

“This is a high-risk move but urgently necessary given their failing heaths and living conditions. Everyone hoping for the best!” 

Phil Demers
Phil Demers of UrgentSeas

Record age almost 69

Romeo and Juliet are both elderly, although Snooty, the Guinness World Record-holder for the oldest manatee in captivity, died a day before his 69th birthday in 2017.

The pair had already been held in captivity for years before US animal-welfare legislation was enacted in the early 1970s, so had lived exempt from management by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, although that body assisted with the relocation.

Another campaigning group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), has long raised issues about animal welfare at Miami Seaquarium, citing “chronic and repeat violations” documented in USDA annual reports since 2021.

Last month it accused the facility’s management of reneging on an undertaking to retire the male dolphin Li’i to a sea-pen and instead transferring him to a SeaWorld captive facility in Texas. Li’i’s tank-mate Lolita, which at 57 had been the longest-lived killer whale in captivity, had died at the facility in August.

The most recent USDA report in September prompted Miami-Dade county to set a 15 December deadline for the facility to rectify all its violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. It served Miami Seaquarium with notice of default on its lease, which requires that it maintain its property in a good state of repair and its animals in accordance with federal laws. 

US accreditation body the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has stated that: “The Dolphin Company, which currently manages four AZA-accredited facilities, is committed to improving the facilities and standards of care at Miami Seaquarium”.

Also on Divernet: Captive dolphin ‘thrown out with bathwater’, Failing Seaquarium gets 6-week ultimatum, Manatee enchantment, Florida’s manatees in crisis


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