Animals

After a Rough Start, SeaQuest Is Back in the Swim at Southwest Plaza

The entrance to SeaQuest Littleton in Southwest Plaza includes a souvenir shop.
The entrance to SeaQuest Littleton in Southwest Plaza includes a souvenir shop. Ken Hamblin
In addition to the Downtown Aquarium, metro Denver has one other aquatic attraction that's also been swamped by controversy. But SeaQuest Littleton may be turning the ship around, thanks to a new license from the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) program, created by the Colorado Legislature in 1994 and administered by the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

SeaQuest Littleton, which is inside Southwest Plaza, bills itself as an interactive aquarium that’s focused on providing guests with opportunities to touch and feed aquatic animals as well as mammals and birds. But it’s made several missteps in recent months, and its owners are still awash in complaints.

SeaQuest Littleton is part of a cross-country chain of SeaQuest aquariums. Owned by Vince Cavino, the company has a record of poor animal treatment and illegal activity; Vince’s brother Ammon was convicted of illegally trafficking wildlife before he helped open SeaQuest locations in Las Vegas and Layton, Utah. In 2013, 200 animals died in three months at the now-closed Portland Aquarium that was owned by the brothers. The animals succumbed to starvation, infection, attack by animals unsuitable to cohabitation, complications from a power outage and other unidentified causes, according to a death log obtained by The Oregonian.

SeaQuest Littleton got off to a rocky start when it failed to obtain the proper permit for housing birds from PACFA before opening in May 2018. By July 23 of that year, the CDA had ordered it to cease operations. The company sent its thirty birds elsewhere and managed to stay open because it still held licenses for the other animals.

By May 2019, though, Colorado Parks and Wildlife had suspended SeaQuest’s remaining state license — but not before the facility had reported over fifty injuries to staff and guests. The CPW license only regulated some of the species at SeaQuest — and those were removed and replaced, allowing the operation to continue without licensing simply by not having any regulated species on the site.

But the troubles didn’t stop there: In September 2019, the facility’s bird, reptile and mammal manager faced animal-abuse charges for failing to seek treatment for a sloth that was burned twice in one month.
“We obviously had some issues with due diligence when it came to animal permitting,” says Kelly Bistriceanu, national marketing director for SeaQuest, who wasn’t with the company in 2019.

SeaQuest Littleton learned from those problems, she adds, and currently strives to maintain as much communication with PACFA and Colorado Parks and Wildlife as possible.

According to Nick Fisher, section chief for the PACFA program, back in 2019, the state could only regulate the birds in the facility. Since then, PACFA has added a commercial pet animal facility license that allows it to regulate all the species at SeaQuest that are not considered wildlife.

That license was created because PACFA noticed several facilities like SeaQuest that needed oversight but didn’t fit under any of its licensing categories. “The definition of a commercial pet animal facility is a facility that is used for recreation, sport or exhibition,” Fisher says. “It was just a way to kind of put these facilities in a more appropriate category.”

SeaQuest applied for the new permit last August, and its application was accepted. As a result, PACFA now oversees the iguanas, fish and birds in the facility; those species account for most of the animals under SeaQuest’s care.
click to enlarge Soon after SeaQuest opened, Anna Bulanova was able to feed nectar to rainbow lorikeets. - KEN HAMBLIN
Soon after SeaQuest opened, Anna Bulanova was able to feed nectar to rainbow lorikeets.
Ken Hamblin
Colorado Parks and Wildlife previously regulated SeaQuest Littleton because of the sloths, capybaras and a few other species, but Travis Duncan, a public information supervisor with CPW, says that his department hasn’t regulated the facility for a couple of years. However, internal emails acquired through a CORA request indicate that there was ongoing communication between CPW and SeaQuest regarding oversight of many animals, including sloths, various tortoise species and crayfish.

“We are quick to follow and just stay in contact, ask questions, maybe over-communicate rather than, you know, assume that we know what we’re doing,” Bistriceanu says. That willingness to communicate led the company to receive a citation for possessing several state-regulated species in September 2021. David Slater, SeaQuest Littleton’s general manager, had reached out to CPW in August to notify the agency about plans to transport a Russian tortoise. Internal emails from CPW indicate that Slater’s email made CPW realize that SeaQuest had restricted species, including the tortoise, in its possession.

SeaQuest relocated the tortoise and sent CPW an inventory list of every animal in its possession to ensure there were no other issues. But there were: CPW requested that SeaQuest remove other state-regulated species from the facility, including a painted turtle, a yellow-bellied slider and an ocellated skink.

Also on the list was a snapping turtle, which SeaQuest Littleton eventually pleaded guilty to purchasing illegally. Bistriceanu says that SeaQuest Littleton’s leadership misinterpreted a CPW rule that says it is legal for anyone to possess a snapping turtle in Colorado but doesn’t allow the purchase of snapping turtles. The previous owner of the turtle has requested a rehoming fee, which Bistriceanu says is a common practice in the industry. However, when SeaQuest paid that fee, it became a transaction, making the snapping turtle illegal.

As a result, SeaQuest implemented an internal policy for SeaQuest Littleton. The location is now specifically required to get CPW permission when adding any new species to avoid further problems. But issues connected to the snapping turtle situation aren’t yet resolved.

SeaQuest Littleton reapplied for a new zoological license through CPW in September 2021. According to Bistriceanu, because SeaQuest Littleton didn’t contest the charge of illegally purchasing the snapping turtle, it received points against its potential license, similar to receiving points against a driver’s license. Once CPW sets a time, Slater will appear in front of a CPW board to explain what happened, and CPW will then rule on how those points impact SeaQuest’s ability to receive the new license.

The last PACFA inspection report showed that the facility was compliant with PACFA regulations. Fisher notes that other states, such as Florida, have much less stringent rules regarding pet trade.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, the United States Department of Agriculture regulates any facility with warm-blooded mammals. But while SeaQuest is licensed by the USDA, the agency only oversees some of the species there, and none of the fish, birds or reptiles. The USDA hasn’t taken any enforcement action on a SeaQuest facility since 2019, though it did issue SeaQuest Littleton a citation after a wallaby drowned there in 2020.

Despite the relatively clear record, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to the USDA on January 12 requesting that it terminate SeaQuest’s Animal Welfare Act license. PETA filed a similar request in September 2019 — partly because of infractions in Littleton, but also because of issues at other locations. This PETA complaint followed SeaQuest Littleton’s illegal purchase of the snapping turtle.

Michelle Sinnott, associate director of captive animal law enforcement at PETA, says that the organization has been concerned about SeaQuest since the first location opened in 2016 because of the Cavino brothers’ history. “This is not the first time this location…has been in trouble for treating animals as merchandise, treating them as products to display for profit,” Sinnott says of the snapping turtle incident.

The USDA has not responded to PETA’s letter. According to Sinnott, if the USDA doesn’t terminate SeaQuest’s license now, PETA is hoping that the company’s license is not renewed after it expires later in 2022.

According to Fisher, though, the company has turned things around at SeaQuest Littleton. “From a regulatory perspective, these are really hard, because the goal of SeaQuest is to be an interactive aquarium,” Fisher says. “That poses challenges for a regulatory agency like us or Colorado Parks and Wildlife, because when kids are handling animals, there’s the propensity for them to get injured and also for the kids to get injured.”

Fisher says that PACFA worked with SeaQuest to minimize interaction between people and species that could be aggressive, such as water monitors, a type of large lizard. PACFA also required SeaQuest to own fewer animals.

Fisher’s optimism isn’t shared by PETA, and that organization is asking the public to stop visiting SeaQuest locations. “Enough is enough for this company,” Sinnott says. “It’s important for the public to know that your ticket is what allows this company to exploit animals.”

But Bistriceanu says the company is doing everything it can to ensure the animals in its care are treated well. “SeaQuest, the fastest-growing zoo-aquarium concept globally, is naturally at odds with an organization like PETA, which supports a motto of ‘Death before captivity.’ Conversely,” she notes, “SeaQuest strives to rescue and save animal lives by providing them a home where they receive an expert level of care.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire