For decades, Miami Seaquarium was a jewel in Florida’s well-polished crown of popular tourist attractions, known to millions worldwide as the home of the beloved aquatic television superstar Flipper the dolphin.

But these are tough times for the once-exalted aquarium, mired in a battle for its survival against the weight of animal rights activists, federal inspectors, financial troubles and now the Miami-Dade commission, which says it is behind with the rent and has begun eviction proceedings.

Related: Death of ‘world’s loneliest orca’ sparks calls for change

It has been a spectacular fall, even in an era of a growing public backlash to theme parks with marine animals. That pushback was sparked in large part by the disruptive 2013 documentary Blackfish, which exposed the miserable plight of the captive killer whale Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando, 230 miles to the north.

Almost all of the Seaquarium’s wounds are self-inflicted, a succession of failures in veterinary care of its dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and other animals, poor maintenance of facilities, and chronic understaffing, documented in successive scathing inspection reports by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The latest violations, reported just days ago from an October inspection, include a dolphin found with a two-inch nail in its throat; another with a broken metal bolt in its mouth; a sea lion with eye pain, denied surgery and refusing to eat; mold and peeling paint in penguin and parrot enclosures; an underfunded veterinary lab lacking basic diagnostic tools such as ultrasound, radiography, endoscopy or functioning anesthesia. The list seems endless.

“It’s a perfect cascade where now there’s just too much for them, a tsunami wave that just crashed down,” said Phil Demers, a former marine mammal trainer and founder of the group UrgentSeas, whose advocacy was credited for the relocation of the distressed manatees Romeo and Juliet from the park last year.

“The county and the mayor seem steadfast in their mission to rid Miami of this awful stain and the question is how much fight the Seaquarium has. The place needs to be reduced to dust and considered a thing to never do again.”

The decline appears to have accelerated in recent months. Last summer saw the death of Tokitae, the oldest orca in captivity after more than half a century in a small enclosure. The manatees were removed in December amid welfare concerns, and a 30-year-old dolphin, Sundance, died weeks after a November USDA inspection noted “signs of gastric distress”.

In all, at least 120 dolphins and whales have died in captivity at Miami Seaquarium, according to the Dolphin Project.

“If the animals’ wellbeing is the priority, which of course it absolutely ought to be, then that place should have its license pulled and the animals sent to other facilities,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute and co-author of its annual case against marine mammals in captivity report.

“I don’t know where they’ve been all these years, but the USDA is finally recording that things are really, really bad there, even though they’ve always been bad, and now Miami-Dade is starting to get involved.

“We used to joke that an animal had to die before they did anything, but even when that happened they still didn’t do anything.”

Moves by the county commission towards revoking the Seaquarium’s lease on its Virginia Key premises came in the wake of the death of Sundance and yet another USDA inspection last month. That inspection threatened the confiscation of four animals and cited a “lack of appropriate veterinary care” for 25 others.

Inspectors previously found mold, bacteria, rusting enclosures and other structures, and a “critical shortage” of trained employees. Those staffing concerns were not new. In 2022, the agency found nine dolphins had their diets cut by 60% and were severely underweight. Park management blamed a “miscommunication” between employees.

The Miami-Dade mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, wrote last month to the Dolphin Company, the Mexican-based marine theme park operator that acquired the Seaquarium in 2021, expressing “deep-seated concerns”. The county was reviewing actions necessary to pursue termination of the lease agreement, she said.

Separately, the county’s parks department said the Dolphin Company was behind on its December rent payment of almost $90,000, with the January payment due this week.

“Although the Seaquarium was recently able to avoid the confiscation of some of the animals, I remain concerned about the poor quality of animal care that has been repeatedly documented by the USDA,” Levine Cava said in a statement to the Guardian.

“Additionally, there are currently four active unsafe structures cases that continue to violate the terms of our agreement. We recently expressed publicly our commitment to explore all the options available to ensure the safety of the animals and the interests of our residents now and in the future, and I stand by our commitment.”

The county’s aggressive new position, and the company’s response, a statement accusing the mayor of spreading misinformation, confirms the collapse of previously cordial relations. In 2022, Levine Cava hailed a “bright new chapter” for the Seaquarium following its change of ownership, and backed an ambitious project heralded by the Dolphin Company to relocate the retired Tokitae to Puget Sound, where she was captured as a calf in 1970.

The plan died with Tokitae, and campaigners who had long called for her freedom denounced the relocation announcement as a hoax to curry public favor.

“They had been entirely supportive of the ownership change, and couldn’t say enough nice things about some of the individuals, but with the passing of Lolita [Tokitae’s stage name], it put a lot of embarrassment on the county, and coupled with the non-payment of rent I can see where enough became enough,” Demers said.

Publicly at least, the Seaquarium’s owners remain defiant. A statement predating the latest report insists the park is “in compliance with federal Animal Welfare Act regulations”, has made constant improvements to its animal welfare programs and is open for business.

Despite repeated approaches, the Dolphin Company did not respond to the Guardian’s questions or requests for an interview.

Jenna Wallace, a marine mammal veterinarian who worked at the Seaquarium in 2021, and now a prominent voice for the park’s closure, described its position as “a hot mess”.

“When I was there the trainers were making decisions for themselves and not the animals,” she said.

“We had a dolphin with fractured ribs and fluid around the heart, it wasn’t eating for like 10 days, and the trainer would not allow me as a veterinarian to pull blood or do any procedures. I’ve pulled zip-ties out of the back of dolphins’ throats, bloody and lacerated.

“The key to taking down that facility is the veterinarian. If she walks, the park closes because it can’t be open without a veterinary premises license. She could make the whole house of cards fall.”

2024-02-11T13:47:07Z dg43tfdfdgfd