By John Di Leonardo
When the venerable National Geographic has little but scathing condemnation for an industry, people take notice. Such is the case in a recent piece detailing an eight-year eyewitness investigation of the aquarium trade, which found rampant illegal trafficking of marine life by those who supply aquariums’ “inventory.” The investigation found that some players stood out in the ugly world of procuring sea animals—notably, the Covino family.
Vince Covino has applied to open one of his SeaQuest aquarium locations on Long Island. People who care about animals have long known about this shady chain’s disreputable history and the magnitude of alleged animal suffering and deaths in its wake. The aquarium’s appalling track record should prompt city planners to slam the door shut on this proposal.
SeaQuest forces animals into stressful and dangerous situations. Its “hands-on encounters” include feeding sharks, stingrays, capybara, otters, tortoises, birds and other animals. In touch tanks, animals have no way to escape the constant onslaught of groping hands. These touch tanks aren’t just harmful to the trapped animals—they also put visitors at risk. In November, a patron of the SeaQuest in Littleton, CO, reportedly sustained serious hand lacerations after being bitten by a monitor lizard kept in an open tank that didn’t have any warnings posted.
Visitors to SeaQuest’s existing locations have complained openly about a lack of oversight during public interactions. One patron at the Littleton location reported seeing kids trying to pull sharks and fish out of the water as well as a turtle “flush up against a concrete barrier” in an attempt to avoid people’s touch. The person also reported seeing a tucan continually pecking a sloth who was kept in the same cage. In October, a capybara escaped on the way to a veterinarian from the SeaQuest facility in Las Vegas. The animal was found two blocks away in a Target parking lot.
There’s much more.
In 2013, Ammon Covino, Vince’s brother, was sentenced in federal court to more than a year in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit illegal wildlife trafficking. He was sent back to prison in early 2016 after violating his parole, which prohibited any activity involving the possession, display, purchase, or sale of fish or wildlife. Despite that prohibition, Ammon was involved in the opening of SeaQuest aquariums in Utah and Nevada, which led to his return to prison, yet again, in November 2016.
At the Covinos’ now-defunct Portland Aquarium, more than 200 animals reportedly died during a three-month span, allegedly because of starvation, infection, complications from a power outage, falling rocks, attacks by incompatible tankmates and other seemingly preventable causes.
In 2017, Vince was fined $5,000 for securities violations after failing to reveal a prior disciplinary action to potential investors. And, former SeaQuest employees came forward with reports of animal neglect at the Las Vegas aquarium, one alleging that he saw hundreds of animals die. On a separate occasion, the Las Vegas Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Unit issued violations to SeaQuest following complaints.
Last year, the Littleton location reportedly failed multiple inspections. Also, in an attempt to come into compliance with Colorado law, the company gave 80 birds to a teenage employee, who reportedly gave the birds away for free in a Lowe’s parking lot. The fate of these irresponsibly discarded birds is unknown, and the state is conducting an investigation.
Eyewitnesses at SeaQuest’s Folsom, CA, location—which just opened in November—have reported serious incidents, including one in which a fish jumped out of a tank and struggled on the ground for minutes before finally being placed back in the tank by a staff member. In addition, a dead eel and a dead stingray were reportedly found by visitors, and fish whose breathing appeared rapid and labored were floating motionless in another cloudy tank. PETA is asking city officials to investigate these occurrences. Even the United States Congress has taken notice. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida’s 22nd district is so concerned about the potential for SeaQuest to open up in his district that he sent the U.S. Department of Agriculture a letter asking it to investigate the company, saying, “This organization and its owners have a long-documented history of disregard for the law and for animal welfare.”
Visitors often leave SeaQuest’s aquariums appalled and outraged. Some comments from online review sites include the following: “The glass on all the tanks was beyond filthy[…]and looked like the tanks had been there for years instead of days;” “The state of this ‘aquarium’ is atrocious. Unsafe, unclean, and inhumane living conditions for the animals, and a crowded, depressing situation for the patrons. If I could give them zero stars, I would;” and “It’s a mad house with zero control and they are really aggressive about getting the lori’s and parakeets off the ground so they can shuffle loads of visitors though[…]Feeding the sharks and stingrays is a total free for all with no supervision.”
Allowing people to harass and endanger animals, failing to provide them with even minimal protection, and neglecting their overall well-being in such a reckless and cavalier manner is indefensible. Long Island officials must immediately put the brakes on this plan.
John is an anthrozoologist and President of Long Island Orchestrating for Nature (LION), a Malverne-based animal advocacy group. He is also Manager of Animals in Entertainment Campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).