Aquar­ium at mall ac­cused of abuse

Gal­le­ria to get SeaQuest; fed­eral inquiry sought

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Doreen Chris­tensen | Staff writer

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.”

ANDY CROSS/THE DEN­VER POST

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.

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