Aptly named Romeo and Juliet, the story of two mated manatees — and a third, named Clarity — at the Miami Seaquarium is every bit the Shakespearian tragedy as the original. Per the Tampa Bay Times, Romeo, 67, and Juliet, 61, who have been living in captivity since the 1950s, are older than (and thus exempt from) the 50-plus-year-old Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that was "designed to protect them," a fitting note for the deplorable conditions in which they lived.
On Dec. 5, 2023, Miami New Times reported that Romeo and Juliet were transported nearly 300 miles cross-state from the Miami Seaquarium to their new home in ZooTampa, while Clarity was taken to the controversial SeaWorld Orlando. The cavalcade of officials flanking Romeo and Juliet on their way to their new home included "state and federal wildlife agencies" to oversee the safety of the move, per the Miami New Times.
While them being removed from the controversial Miami Seaquarium is a triumph in many ways, animal advocates hope that these new homes are only temporary.
This controversy marks yet another in a long series of animal welfare concerns over the years at the Miami Seaquarium and reaffirms why many are choosing to support animal sanctuaries over zoos and aquariums.
Manatees named Romeo and Juliet lived at the Miami Seaquarium for decades, up until 2023.
According to the Miami Seaquarium's website (and many news sources), Romeo and Juliet lived at the Miami Seaquarium for 67 years, from 1956 until 2023. (Somehow, Juliet is only 61 years old as of 2023, though, so something doesn't quite add up.)
In 1975, Juliet gave birth at the Miami Seaquarium, to who is believed to be the first-ever manatee offspring both conceived and born in captivity. In the decades since, and as the living conditions for Romeo and Juliet have deteriorated and allegations of their mishandling arose, advocacy for the well-being of the two manatees has increased.
Per The Guardian, efforts to help the manatees arose once the US Department of Agriculture documented significant concerns in July 2023 detailing inadequate care and living conditions for the manatees at the Miami Seaquarium. Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity were each described as experiencing health concerns that made their transfer out of Miami a risky one, but a necessary one nonetheless.
Video from direct action activist group UrgentSeas in November 2023 revealed the "deteriorating conditions" in which Romeo was living, as the heartbreaking footage showed him swimming in isolation within the confines of an estimated 30-foot "concrete pool," per UrgentSeas co-founder Phil Demers. As reported by USA Today, Romeo had been living in isolation since spring 2023, the lone manatee remaining after his three tank mates were released into the wild.
Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity have been relocated to ZooTampa and SeaWorld.
Per the Miami New Times, a crane was put in place on Dec. 5, 2023 to aid in facilitating the rescue of the three manatees on the day of their transfer out of the Miami Seaquarium. Again, Romeo and Juliet were taken to ZooTampa, while Clarity was taken to SeaWorld.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, overseeing the transfer of the manatees to their new homes, told USA Today that it partnered with Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) a Florida-based consortium.
Despite the documented concerns by officials and the veterinary team assisting in the rescue, MRP confirmed on Dec. 5 that the move was indeed a successful one.
According to MRP, ZooTampa and SeaWorld are two of just three "critical care centers" that support manatees in the U.S. That said, MRP hopes that Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity will only remain in these places temporarily, as MRP works to find permanent homes for the creatures.
Animal advocates would prefer Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity live at an animal sanctuary.
A laundry list of animal and human safety concerns against the Miami Seaquarium have been documented over the years, per a PETA blog post. While the transfer of two 60-plus-year-old manatees to a new location offers some semblance of hope for their remaining years, the history of preventable animal deaths at zoos and aquariums has animal advocates concerned.
"PETA celebrates that these suffering manatees were moved out of the Miami Seaquarium," Tracy Reiman, Executive Vice President of PETA, said in a statement shared with Green Matters.
However, the animal welfare organization would also like to see the Miami Seaquarium shut down, and for all if its residents — past and present — to ultimately wind up in sanctuaries.
"PETA urges officials to close this dump down and send all the animals to sanctuaries, where they could experience some semblance of freedom and receive the care they so desperately need," Reiman added. "And we encourage everyone to stay a nautical mile away from this greedy and incompetent abusement park."
Hopefully MRP will be able to secure places for Romeo, Juliet, and Clarity at sanctuaries where they will have more room to swim than at ZooTampa or SeaWorld.
This article was updated to include a quote from PETA.