Concerns arise over USDA’s handling of SeaWorld Orlando

Concerns arise over USDA’s handling of SeaWorld Orlando

The USDA’s enforcement of animal welfare regulations is “woefully lax,” experts say.

Published June 16, 2023

9 min read

Trembling and unable to lift his tail, Rascal the dolphin was struggling to swim. Nearly a third of his body was covered in both superficial scrapes and deeper cuts—injuries he’d sustained from other Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in his pool at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Scar tissue indicated these attacks had been going on for a while.

The 25-year-old dolphin was prescribed pain medication, but he was not separated from his group after this October 2022 incident, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in a December report.

Three days later, SeaWorld staff found Rascal on the side of his pool, bleeding from “many deep rake marks” that were “warm to the touch” on his face, fins, and body, the report noted. It’s not uncommon for animals—including marine mammals—to display aggression in captivity, studies show.

When inspectors with the USDA, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, visited for an announced relicensing inspection on December 5, they cited SeaWorld for this incident, as well as for chlorine readings that exceeded the maximum level, according to documents obtained through a records request. Less than a week later, on December 8, inspectors visited again, this time passing SeaWorld

On December 9, the USDA requested that, by December 13, SeaWorld provide more information, including pool water quality records as well as medical records and daily logs on certain animals. The information requested on December 9 appears to overlap with concerns initially cited by the USDA on December 5. 

On December 13, according to USDA records, SeaWorld provided some, but not all, of the requested records. Nonetheless, based on the December 8 passed inspection, the USDA reissued SeaWorld Orlando’s animal exhibitor license on December 21. 

Delci Winders, director of the Animal Law Program at Vermont Law School, says she believes this constitutes “a blatant violation” of the Animal Welfare Act, which stipulates that facilities may only have their license reissued if they are in full compliance with that law.

On January 26, the USDA cited SeaWorld for “fail[ing] to issue the records in a reasonable time.”  Then, in March, the agency issued the facility an official warning of an alleged violation for failing to furnish the information requested back in December.

In a statement, SeaWorld spokesperson Ken Fields said the park has “exceptional animal care” and touts its certifications and accreditations from American Humane, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“We meet or exceed regulatory, accrediting, and industry standards,” Fields said in an email. “With respect to the USDA, we are and have always been licensed [and] in good standing and have a strong and important relationship with the USDA.”

After publication, Fields amended his statement to say that SeaWorld had turned over all requested records to the USDA in December. He declined to “speculate” on why the USDA would then cite the facility in January.

Andre Bell, a USDA spokesperson, told National Geographic that the agency “takes the welfare of animals very seriously.” SeaWorld “completed all relicensing requirements, which include a relicense inspection to demonstrate full compliance with the [Animal Welfare Act] and associated regulations,” Bell said in a statement.

‘We don’t know what we don’t know’

Failing to hand over records is both a serious and rare offense for animal exhibitors, says Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute—especially since the USDA classified this breach as “critical,” which can mean the violation had “a serious or severe adverse effect on the health and well-being of the animal,” according to the USDA’s inspection guide.  Of the more than 45,000 inspections the USDA has performed since 2014, only a few dozen facilities have been cited for failing to hand over records, and only about five have received a critical citation for this issue.

As far as what the records contain, “we don’t know what we don’t know,” Winders says. But she assumes that “what’s in those records must be so bad” that SeaWorld was willing to risk potential blowback to not comply with the USDA’s request. Winders says she believes “it’s just a sign of a bad actor who is not acting in good faith.” SeaWorld did not respond to National Geographic’s inquiry about what the records contained.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which purports to accredit only “gold standard” animal facilities, is “aware of the issues” at SeaWorld, but they were all part of a “routine inspection process,” says Dan Ashe, AZA president and CEO. The USDA noted problems during SeaWorld’s relicensing procedure, and SeaWorld resolved those issues, Ashe says. “If [the USDA] didn’t receive the information that they wanted, why would they relicense SeaWorld?”

SeaWorld Orlando is AZA-accredited through March 2026, and Ashe says there are no plans to rescind the accreditation. “The process worked the way it’s supposed to work,” he says. SeaWorld has an “exceptional record,” he adds.

But the incident with Rascal is apparently not the only incident of animal aggression at SeaWorld Orlando. In 2022, a visitor posted a video on TikTok in which another dolphin, its face bloody, laid on the side of the concrete tank.

In the months since the USDA’s warning, it appears that SeaWorld hasn’t been fined or otherwise penalized, according to the USDA’s website. For violators of the Animal Welfare Act, the USDA has the authority to issue fines and suspend or revoke the facility’s license. The agency could also pursue civil action against SeaWorld or refer the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution, according to Jared Goodman, a lawyer at the PETA Foundation.

When asked if SeaWorld had provided the records since the USDA’s January warning, the USDA declined to answer.

‘Woefully lax’ enforcement

In recent years, former USDA inspectors and staff have said the agency has demonstrated a pattern of neglect in its effort to prioritize business interests over animal welfare. In 2022, the USDA allowed thousands of beagles to suffer in poor conditions for months at a research breeding facility without reinspecting, confiscating any animals, or revoking the facility’s license. And fines for animal welfare violations are often so paltry, violators consider them “a cost of doing business,” according to numerous reports.

Goodman calls the USDA’s Animal Welfare Act enforcement “woefully lax.”

In 2020, the USDA instituted a new policy that requires Animal Welfare Act licenses be renewed via announced inspections every three years. Previously, facilities would be inspected, but for the most part, licenses were renewed every year, Winders says. The new rule is “unequivocal” she says—animal exhibitors must be in full compliance with the law to receive a new license.

“Yet again, we see that the USDA is failing to protect the animals that it is charged with protecting,” she says. “After years of litigation and rule-making, it is business as usual, with rubber-stamping license applications for violators who are harming animals.” The USDA did not respond to this allegation.

SeaWorld’s failure to separate Rascal from the other dolphins was only revealed after Goodman filed an information request. The version of the December 5 inspection report that the USDA posted online does not include any mention of the Rascal-related incident.   

This is “very unusual,” Goodman says. SeaWorld had appealed the violations the USDA cited in December, but their appeal was declined for procedural reasons, records show. Goodman says he believes the USDA appears to have removed the Rascal citation from the records posted online “to appease SeaWorld.”

This story was updated on May 31 to reflect a follow-up statement from SeaWorld. The headline and deck were updated on June 1.  This story was further updated on June 16 to provide clarification, including the sequence of events.

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