Aquarium at mall accused of abuse
Galleria to get SeaQuest; federal inquiry sought
Operators of an interactive aquarium coming to Fort Lauderdale are being accused of violations of the Animal Welfare Act by a South Florida congressman and animal rights groups.
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-West Boca, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open an investigation into allegations of animal mistreatment by SeaQuest, according to a letter obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
In June, the Galleria mall announced that SeaQuest would open in November. It will be the first attraction in Florida for the Idaho-based company, which operates aquariums in four other states.
“This organization and its owners have a longdocumented history of disregard for the law and for animal welfare,” Deutch wrote in the Aug. 1 letter, citing news reports on the deaths of 300
animals before SeaQuest’s Las Vegas aquarium opened in 2017.
Deutch’s letter points to “very serious and disturbing allegations of animal mistreatment by SeaQuest at its aquariums.” The congressman represents Florida’s 22nd District, which includes the mall on East Sunrise Boulevard.
SeaQuest operates aquariums in Las Vegas; Layton, Utah; Fort Worth, Texas; and Littleton, Colo. An aquarium in Folsom, Calif., is scheduled to open this fall.
The Fort Lauderdale attraction, which plans to house 1,200 animals in a 23,000-square-foot area at the east end of the mall, will include stingray and shark touch tanks and animal exhibits. Other SeaQuest attractions host children’s birthday parties and let visitors snorkel with stingrays and fish, and displays birds, sloths, otters, caimans and reptiles, among other critters.
In his letter, Deutch asked for the status of SeaQuest’s USDA permit for the new facility, inspection reports and whether past violations have been considered in review of the permit.
Questions and controversy about animal welfare practices surround SeaQuest.
In 2017, a former employee at the Las Vegas aquarium alleged he saw hundreds of animals die before the aquarium opened, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. The Las Vegas police department’s animal cruelty unit issued minor violations, which were corrected, according to the newspaper.
“Three hundred animals absolutely did not die at our Las Vegas facility,” said Elsa MacDonald, SeaQuest’s national marketing director. “We encourage humane societies, the media, veterinarians and animal control to inspect the health, habitats and happiness of our animals anytime. All such organizations that have ever done so have given high marks.” MacDonald has since left the company.
Problems at the SeaQuest in Colorado, which opened in June, have been getting plenty of airtime on local TV.
In May, Colorado Parks and Wildlife fined the business for unlawfully importing two capybaras and a two-toed sloth into Colorado without permits, records show. The agency also cited SeaQuest after it found that the manager in charge of reptiles, birds and mammals was keeping the three animals in her basement after they had been brought into the state illegally, records show. SeaQuest paid the fines and permits were acquired.
In July, the Colorado Department of Agriculture served SeaQuest with a cease and desist order for operating without a valid license because it had too many birds in its aviary in violation of the state’s Pet Animal Care Facility Act.
SeaQuest complied by reducing the number of birds kept in its aviary to less than 30. The TV station reported SeaQuest gave about 80 parakeets to a teenage employee who stored them in his father’s garage as he tried to find homes for them. On Thursday, the Department of Agriculture said it has two open investigations of SeaQuest’s handling of birds.
“Our company takes full responsibility for not meeting permit requirements in Littleton and we are working closely with regulatory agencies to be fully compliant,” SeaQuest Chief Executive Officer Vince Covino said in an emailed statement.
Over the years, accusations of animal abuse and legal troubles have followed Covino and his brother Ammon Covino.
In 2017, Vince Covino paid a
$5,000 fine for securities violations in Idaho, where the business is headquartered, for misleading investors. He also had his securities broker license suspended in
2011, records show. The state said Covino failed to disclose his Financial Industry Regulatory Authority suspension to potential SeaQuest investors who had paid
$950,000 for ownership interests in the business. Records show Covino is not currently registered as a broker in Idaho. The company said Vince Covino is not now involved in finding backers, pointing out SeaQuest is privately funded.
When asked about Ammon Covino’s role with the current business, MacDonald said, “Ammon Covino is not and has never been involved with SeaQuest.”
Court documents tell a different story.
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-West Boca
Ammon Covino has served multiple sentences in federal prison. In 2013, he pleaded guilty in Miami Federal Court for conspiracy to illegally purchase and sell fish/wildlife from the Florida Keys to stock Idaho Aquarium, which was not a SeaQuest venture, with illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks, court records show.
After his first prison term, Ammon Covino was twice sent back to federal prison in 2016 for violating the terms of his release, once after he helped his brother open SeaQuest aquariums in Las Vegas and Utah, records show. He also was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation. During his supervised release, the court had barred Ammon Covino from any involvement in the possession, display, transportation, exhibition, purchase or sale of wildlife.
Government investigators said Covino was emailing supervisors at the Las Vegas SeaQuest aquarium discussing construction details days after being released from federal prison. The judge sent Covino back to prison on violating the terms of his release. He was released from prison in early 2017.
Before the SeaQuest ventures, Vince Covino owned other aquariums in San Antonio and Austin, Texas, and another near Portland, Ore. Ammon Covino was president of the now-defunct Idaho Aquarium through 2013 and was accused of mismanagement by the state attorney general. The attorney general did not take any action, but by then the court had barred Covino from being associated with the aquarium. The Idaho Aquarium was renamed and taken over by new management.
“SeaQuest, with no affiliation with Ammon Covino, condemns the mistreatment of wildlife and with a professional team of experts adheres to strict guidelines of animal care,” Vince Covino said.
SeaQuest holds a USDA license that covers all of the company’s aquariums operating around the country and has notified the agency as required that it plans to open in Fort Lauderdale, said R. Andre Bell, a USDA spokesman.
The agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services division is reviewing Deutch’s letter. “We’re looking into complaints on SeaQuest, but we do not have an open investigation,” Bell said. The agency regulates the care of mammals, but not fish. SeaQuest must pass an inspection before it can open.
SeaQuest has not yet filed for a permit with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is required for wildlife possession, exhibition and sale.
SeaQuest said animals in Fort Lauderdale will have a veterinarian, daily supervision for health, routine checkups and screenings for possible illnesses.
“Assisting in Fort Lauderdale will be a team of over a dozen biologists and zoologists with vast experience and advanced degrees, with training in identifying and treating illnesses or disease which occur in the wild, thereby extending their lives in a safe and healthy environment,” MacDonald said. “These professionals are animal lovers, drawn to jobs in husbandry due to their passion for caring for animals.”
Since it announced it was coming to the area, SeaQuest as been selling discount admissions on its website.
While the company said it is on track to open in November, it has not announced an opening date.
A Fort Lauderdale city official said it is unlikely it would be able to obtain the necessary permits for a November opening.
SeaQuest recently requested a building permit, according to Anthony Gregory Fajardo, director of Fort Lauderdale’s Department of Sustainable Development. But before it can be approved, it must submit a detailed plan to the city’s Development Review Committee. At least a dozen city departments will have to sign off on the plan, Fajardo said. That could take months since the city has never approved an aquarium with large amounts of water inside a structure before, he said.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, which has about 5,000 members, and has been staging protests at the mall, sent a letter to the Galleria asking it to reconsider housing the aquarium. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also has circulated a “fact sheet” about SeaQuest’s alleged animal neglect.
“SeaQuest is successfully operating at retail locations in other markets,” said Mark Trouba, Galleria’s general manager. “Their professional team is knowledgeable and focused on delivering an educational and interactive experience in Fort Lauderdale.”
The Galleria said it is closely monitoring the initial phase of development and that “SeaQuest seems to be investing more time and resources to do its due diligence to meet all governmental guidelines and regulations.”
“The mall is a few steps away from a state park and the ocean and the Everglades,” said ARFF spokesman Don Anthony. “Instead of exploiting captive animals at the mall, the Galleria should support people seeing animals in their natural habitat.”
“This organization [SeaQuest] and its owners have a long-documented history of disregard for the law and for animal welfare.”
In July, the Colorado Department of Agriculture served SeaQuest with a cease and desist order for operating there without a valid license because it had too many birds in its aviary, in violation of state law.