SeaQuest’s quest to build an interactive aquarium, though on hold, continues to draw opposition.
Animal advocates from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Long Island Orchestrating for Nature (LION) held protest signs before and during the March 26 Town of Oyster Bay Town Board meeting.
The protesters were not discouraged because the application was not on the agenda that evening.
What mattered was that it was a night meeting, and therefore, more people could attend.
Based in Boise, Idaho, SeaQuest Holdings, Inc., has applied to make use of a 27,300-square-foot space at the Westfield Sunrise Mall in Massapequa. If approved for the special use permit it seeks, it will spend about $5 million to bring it into operation and employ more than 80 people.
SeaQuest operates aquariums in Utah, Texas, Colorado and Nevada and California.
At a public hearing last October, Vince Covino, founder and CEO of SeaQuest, flew in from Boise to make a case for his facility.
“The idea with the SeaQuest is to take a journey around five different continents, to contrast the Caribbean islands with the Egyptian desert and the animals that are found there, to go through the Amazon rain forest and Mayan jungles, to experience an Icelandic fishing village,” Covino told the board. “We actually have a section in our Amazon [exhibit], an enclave where we have lots of fossils and dinosaur statues and we talk about animal extinction.”
His exhibits, Covino emphasized, were not just about entertainment and education, but to impress on visitors the fragility of the ocean environment and raise ecological awareness.
Other speakers at that hearing noted that, with a challenging retail environment and malls declining and closing all over the country, such attractions were crucial to keeping malls (and by implication local economies) healthy.
During the public comment period at the March 26 meeting, John Di Leonardo, PETA’s manager of Animals in Entertainment Campaigns, anthrozoologist and executive director of LION, spoke for the protesters.
After urging the board to deny the application, he stated, “Since I last appeared before you, ABC Las Vegas published an explosive investigation detailing alarming allegations from former SeaQuest employees, including black mold; a dead turtle left to rot for days; children crushing and stomping on animals; and staff throwing dead birds in the trash so their deaths would not be documented. In May 2018, an otter died at SeaQuest’s Las Vegas location. The ABC story reports that several garden eels and an octopus—who was reportedly “cooked alive” when the tank water temperature changed—also died. A capybara from the facility escaped while being transported in a dog carrier in an open-bed truck, and sustained multiple injuries.”
He added, “Not long after this news broke, SeaQuest Las Vegas was reportedly cited by Clark County Animal Control and fined $2,000 for illegally breeding otters. A recently released inspection report from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that SeaQuest Fort Worth was cited for allowing members of the public to interact with an Asian small-clawed otter without an adequate barrier in place, resulting in visitors sustaining two wounds in one month.”
Di Leonardo charged that Covino “has a long history of legal violations and his aquariums are notorious for animal neglect, a hotbed for injuries to the public and employees, and have been plagued by negative media attention.”
The most prominent critic has been the actor Alec Baldwin, whose letter to the board last October noted that he grew up in Massapequa.
“Please do not allow this awful operation in town,” Baldwin wrote.
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino, responding to Di Leonardo, said, “There’s a simple explanation as to why we haven’t acted on this application yet. And it is one of legal process. Currently, the town attorney has consulted with the applicant’s attorney that the applicant requires an amendment before it could come to the town board. So we’re waiting on them to make their amendment before we can legally act on the request.”
Councilwoman Michele Johnson informed the SeaQuest opponents that, per law, the town board cannot comment on the application, “which is perhaps why you haven’t heard our opinion one way or the other,” she said.
Councilman Anthony Macagnone asked Saladino if it would be possible to have the town attorney give a drop-dead date to SeaQuest to complete the application.
Matt Rozea, a deputy town attorney, agreed to look into the issue.
In a statement to the Massapequa Observer, Covino wrote, “Recent news stories have brought to light inaccurate and misleading information about SeaQuest and how we care for the animals at our facilities. Just as these activists are passionate in their views, we are passionate and committed to delivering a safe, educational, and fun experience at each of our facilities for the animals, our guests, and team members. We demonstrate that daily not only to our guests, but by partnering on community efforts to support animal rescue and adoptions, foster children programs, food and school supply drives, among other many other initiatives at each of our facilities.”
He added, “SeaQuest delivers the ultimate interactive animal experience for millions of guests each year. Each site has vet supervision, a team of biology and zoology experts with over 100 years combined experience at every location, and follows strict standard operating procedures and processes. In addition, each facility works closely with local, county, state, and federal agencies to ensure all regulations and guidelines are in compliance, and the same will be true for Massapequa.”
Di Leonardo said his groups will not stop their resistance.
“SeaQuest will not be on the agenda again until a vote is to be taken, but we will continue to speak out until this sordid aquarium is denied,” he told the Massapequa Observer. “SeaQuest has no place in our community and we are not going to wait until this abuse is in our backyards before we urge the town to do something about it. LION and PETA have attended daytime meetings with our members and supporters about this issue before, but attended the evening meeting this week to give others who are not able to attend daytime meetings the opportunity to speak out against SeaQuest.”
Additional reporting by Chris Birsner. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: This article was updated on April 8, 2019, to remove Florida from the list of current SeaQuest locations.