Romeo And Juliet Removed From Seaquarium

Several people are in a pool, surrounding a manatee in a tarp that is being lifted by a crane. Another manatee is seen swimming in the pool.
Juliet is lifted by crane from her tank at Miami Seaquarium while Clarity swims around rescuers. Photo courtesy of FWS.

By Cheyenne Canon, Program Project Coordinator

A note from our Executive Director, Patrick Rose:

Before delving into the story of the manatees known as Romeo and Juliet, I want to unequivocally state that no manatee should be held in captivity solely for public display. In fact, for over 50 years, I have dedicated myself to raising awareness about the plight of imperiled manatees and advocating for the establishment of protections for them and their crucial habitat. My goal has always been to ensure that every sick or injured manatee is rehabilitated and returned to their natural environment.

Regrettably, prior to 1972, prevailing laws permitted the capture of manatees and other species with minimal regard for their well-being. Although the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 offered some rudimentary protections, it still sanctioned the capture of manatees for display purposes as long as certain basic standards of care were met. Consequently, we continue to grapple with the distressing legacy of those few remaining manatees captured before the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

A long time ago, the story of Romeo and Juliet began. But these were no fictional and overly-dramatic teenagers—they were manatees! Their tale unfolds in January 1958, when Juliet—then named Mabel–was brought to the Miami Seaquarium, where she met Romeo—then called Big Bull—who had arrived at the facility the year before. Because they were captured and brought to the facility before the implementation of the MMPA and ESA, they were considered property of the Seaquarium and not subject to the provisions of either federal law.

It wasn’t until 17 years later that Juliet gave birth to her first calf conceived in captivity. On May 3, 1975, Lorelei was born, remaining at Seaquarium for 11 years before being transferred to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Romeo and Juliet produced eight additional calves while at the Seaquarium as part of an ill-conceived captive breeding effort. A couple of their calves were released but were later discovered dead.

For manatees, migration patterns and other self-preservation habits are learned behaviors rather than instinctual, and they are typically passed from a mother to her calf. Manatees raised solely in captivity lack the knowledge or skills to be successful in the wild. A captive breeding program may have seemed like a good idea to some at the time, given that the estimated Florida manatee population was likely less than one thousand. Unlike some other endangered species, breeding in the wild was never the central issue for manatees, which were breeding at or near their biological maximum. The manatees’ original endangered status was not because too few manatees were being born, but rather because of past poaching combined with the growing risks from watercraft injuries and disruptions to the manatees’ critical habitat due to Florida’s unsustainable land development policies.

The Dolphin Company, the largest animal park operator in Latin America, acquired the Miami Seaquarium in 2022. In the years before, the Seaquarium had been considered a valuable member of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP), taking on the care, rehabilitation, and release of many injured manatees. However, U.S. Department of Agriculture investigations, both before the acquisition and in 2023, found multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act in the manatee exhibit as well as other animal exhibits.

Subsequently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) revoked Seaquarium’s permit to hold and rehabilitate manatees under the jurisdiction of the MMPA and ESA. After months of intense pressure behind the scenes from Save the Manatee Club (SMC), alongside animal welfare groups and multiple government agencies, The Dolphin Company agreed to voluntarily relinquish their ownership rights for Romeo and Juliet to the care of the FWS. One additional manatee named Clarity, who was receiving rehabilitation care under the authority of a FWS permit, was also ordered to be transferred.

Romeo settles into his new home at ZooTampa at Lowry Park. Photo courtesy ZooTampa.

On December 5, 2023, a multi-team effort was undertaken to transfer all three manatees from the park under the direction of the FWS with support from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and several other MRP organizations. After several hours of back-breaking work, including a lot of sweat, some tears, and at least one crane, one medium and two extra large manatees were loaded into three transport trucks. Romeo and Juliet headed for ZooTampa at Lowry Park and Clarity to SeaWorld Orlando. Upon arrival, they all underwent examinations and health assessments, and are receiving expert care in the company of companion manatees. They are comfortable and safe as they await the selection of their permanent homes.

SMC is grateful to these host facilities for their assistance and willingness to care for these manatees in need of attention. Fortunately, there aren’t many manatees remaining in captivity in the U.S., either brought into captivity or born to those captive manatees, not covered by the protections of the MMPA and ESA. These laws have since prevented the capture and captivity of manatees just for show. A goal of ours at Save the Manatee Club and our partners in the MRP is to ensure that every manatee that is rescued and receives care can eventually be safely returned to their natural environment, even if it takes years of care, treatment, and monitoring to find success. Permanent residency at a facility is now considered a last resort and reserved only for those manatees that would otherwise die if released.

Due to their advanced age, Romeo and Juliet will likely spend the remainder of their lives in human care under the diligent watch of MRP organizations and agencies.

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