SeaQuest Awash in Complaints From Colorado Officials, Visitors

Watch out, kids! You're at an aquarium 1,000 miles from any ocean!
Watch out, kids! You're at an aquarium 1,000 miles from any ocean! SeaQuest
Despite failing two inspections and receiving a cease-and-desist order from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the new SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium is still open in Littleton. According to Christi Lightcap, the department’s director of communications, SeaQuest had been operating without a license mandated by Colorado's Pet Animal Care Facility Act since it opened on June 2. When SeaQuest could not pass a licensing inspection, the department ordered it to remove many of its birds.

On May 9, SeaQuest had filed an application with the CDA for a PACFA license that would allow it to house more than thirty birds, and also requested an exemption so that it could operate until that license was approved. The request was denied, but the aquarium opened anyway. It subsequently failed two inspections for the license, and on July 23, the agriculture department ordered SeaQuest to stop operating, with more than thirty birds in the facility.

The SeaQuest in Southwest Plaza Mall is the most recent addition in a seven-city chain. All SeaQuest aquariums promise visitors an “interactive” aquarium experience, where they can touch and feed animals as well as enjoy aquatic-themed attractions like “Marina the Mermaid.” In addition to traditional aquarium inhabitants such as fish, reptiles and aquatic animals, SeaQuest houses many mammals and birds.

In a Skype interview with Denver7, SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino said the facility immediately complied with the inspector's request to remove excess birds from the facility, adding that “the only thing in question here was the birds.”

According to a SeaQuest spokesperson, the birds that went over Colorado's limits were removed to a private facility and will be transferred to other SeaQuest locations. But in the Denver7 interview, Covino indicated that SeaQuest would like to bring the parakeets back to Littleton’s “Parakeet Paradise,” where visitors hold small cups of bird feed as birds flock to them, until the parakeets are swatted away by an employee with a dustpan; he said no birds had been injured before the cease-and-desist order arrived. For now, the exhibit has been replaced with the “exciting experience” of feeding green peas and blueberries to a toucan.

Despite Covino’s claims, the number of birds is not the agriculture department's only issue with the facility, and the department's investigation is ongoing. (Lightcap says she cannot comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation.)

Fox31 obtained documents from an agriculture inspector who observed back rooms where “they were keeping birds and animals that had unsealed concrete floors as well as areas where macaws were tearing into drywall. All three macaws were in makeshift cages that all had violations.” The station also reported that SeaQuest paid several fines for bringing three mammals (a two-toed sloth and two capybaras) into Colorado illegally; these mammals were kept in an employee’s basement until SeaQuest could obtain permits to display them.

click to enlarge A boy holds a snake at an Ancient Egypt-themed exhibit at SeaQuest. - SEAQUEST
A boy holds a snake at an Ancient Egypt-themed exhibit at SeaQuest.
According to Stephanie Shaw, senior corporate liaison at PETA, Covino “has an appalling record of apparent animal neglect.”

Vince Covino and his brother, Ammon, have been operating aquariums for years...and collecting complaints in the process. The now-closed Portland Aquarium faced public outcry in 2013 when 200 animals died in its care in the span of three months, reportedly from starvation, infection, depression, attack from other animals unsuitable to cohabitation, complications from a power outage and other unidentified causes, according to a death log obtained by The Oregonian. That same year, Ammon Covino was convicted of illegally trafficking wildlife to the Idaho Aquarium and sentenced to a year in prison; the terms of his parole prohibited him from being involved with any wildlife management activity. But according to Shaw, he continually violated the terms of his probation. After Ammon was involved in the opening of SeaQuest Aquariums in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Layton, Utah, Texas police arrested him on a federal warrant in 2016.

SeaQuest claims its Colorado aquarium is now not only in compliance with the law, but striving to provide “safe, happy and healthy habitats for our animals,” according to a statement that SeaQuest Littleton managers sent to Westword. (They declined to answer specific questions.) But some customers disagree.

Lakewood resident Christina Earl took her three-year-old daughter, an animal lover, to SeaQuest in early July, and immediately became concerned by a lack of oversight during the human-animal interactions. She says she observed 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 trying to touch it. She also saw a sloth in the same cage as a toucan, which was continually pecking at the sloth.

“I said something to one of the employees, and she laughed about it and said she’d never seen them interacting before, so they’re just getting to know each other, it’s fine,” Earl recalls. Later, Earl explained to her daughter that they would not be going back to SeaQuest.

Covino told Denver7 that SeaQuest was being asked to comply with Colorado rules that “are not written anywhere,” for “things we’ve been doing that have never been done, and there’s not a rule for them.”

But Shaw applauds Colorado for its proactive stance with SeaQuest. “We wish that other states had regulatory arms as effective as this one," she says, then adds, “I don’t think even coming up to legal requirements, which is really a low bar, should quell anyone’s fears about SeaQuest’s treatment of animals. ... We would prefer that SeaQuest evolve its business to use virtual reality instead of showcasing animals for profit.”

Covino told Denver7 that visitors keep coming despite the controversy. “What we see on a daily basis is thousands of people having an amazing time and the animals embracing it, eating out of their hands, coming up close," he said. "They’re not avoiding the guests, by any means. A lot of people say, ‘The stingrays, they’re just like puppy dogs.’”

Those who have seen both stingrays and puppies might beg to differ, however.

Here's the Colorado Department of Agriculture's cease-and-desist order:
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming