Op-Ed: SeaQuest Should Stay Off Long Island

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    (Photo courtesy of John Di Leonardo)

    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).

    15 COMMENTS

    1. Thank you for posting this op-ed, and thanks very much to the author of it. I hope the Long Island powers-that-be will heed it. Public attitudes toward animals are changing for the better, and people are increasingly opposed to keeping wildlife captive for amusement. There are far better ways to learn about these animals than by exploiting them so.

    2. Some of the parakeets in the Littleton Colorado location were given to The Gabriel Foundation after the state Dept of Agriculture stepped in. The teenage employee is the son of one of our damn politicians here in Colorado. SeaQuest was operating without a license to keep birds, which meant they could not have more than 30. We did a protest today at the Littleton SeaQuest, headed by the local chapter of Sea Shepherd.

    3. Once again…What is the threshold? How many animals have to suffer & die? These aren’t just convicted criminal/s operating, they are responsible for subjecting animals to cruel and inhumane conditions. How much more has to be said or proven about SeaQuest? The author has covered it ALL! Nassau County has the ability to make a clear statement: ANIMAL ABUSE IS NOT WELCOME HERE ON LONG ISLAND. I really hope Town Officials vote against SeaQuest coming to LI.
      This should be an easy NO!

    4. As a Long Island resident and animal lover, I will be super disappointed if SeaQuests comes here. With the amount of broken laws by the owner and countless animal deaths I can not believe that this idea is even on the table. How many more animals have to suffer? What will it take for people to see that animals are not here to entertain us. If this passes we will be out there protesting till the place is shut down. Do the right thing and DO NOT let SeaQuest come here!

    5. Thank you for the Op-Ed piece. Increasing awareness about Seaquest to the community is extremely important and this Op-Ed provided valuable information. As a mother and community member, I am disappointed that this type of business may come to Long Island with the history it has and will be located close to my home. I hope that the people making the decisions on whether it comes here or not do their research and listen to the community Long Island community members are compassionate and this type of treatment to animals is not acceptable.

    6. No being should be used for profit nor entertainment. SeaQuest abuses innocent animals. All beings deserve respect, freedom and should not be exploited.

    7. Aquariums, seaquariums, zoos, and circuses thatbuse animals, all must go. We need to evolve culturally and morally to where we shun using other animals for nothing but unimportant entertainment. It is morally reprehensible to confine and imprison animals so we can touch them or gawk at them, when we can learn far more of their natural lives with the wonderful gift of the Internet. All of these existing despicable facilities should be shut down, and certainly no new ones should be built.

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