SeaQuest Littleton is up against the latest wave in an ocean of legal snafus and public complaints. In a jury trial set for September 30, an employee will face misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges for the alleged medical neglect of a two-toed sloth. Ashleigh Belfiore, the facility's bird, reptile and mammal manager, stands accused of failing to seek appropriate veterinary care after the sloth was burned twice within a month.
SeaQuest has been edging its way around licensing requirements and stirring up controversy since before it opened in June 2018. The sloth-burning incident is the latest in a slew of violations that led to Colorado Parks and Wildlife suspending SeaQuest’s license for two years.
"This cruelty charge is the latest revelation about a company that in just a few years has solidified its reputation as a lawless death trap," says Michelle Sinnott, an attorney with the Captive Animal Law Enforcement Division at PETA, which has organized campaigns against multiple SeaQuest locations. "The Colorado location has been ignoring the law from the start."
Unlike many other commercial animal exhibits, SeaQuest is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In Colorado, two state agencies have been involved in regulating SeaQuest: the Division of Parks and Wildlife, and the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) program. (Jefferson County’s animal-control division has also inspected the facility after reports of violations.) But those two agencies only regulate certain species. SeaQuest can house other unregulated species, no license necessary.
Consequently, the “interactive” aquarium is still up and running in Littleton’s Southwest Plaza mall, inviting visitors to an “immersive” experience where they can touch, pet and interact with creatures of and beyond the aquatic world.
The Division of Parks and Wildlife's case report of the latest incident details how SeaQuest responded when the sloth, whose name is Flash, accidentally burned its nose and facial area on a heat lamp inside its enclosure, first on October 18, 2018. Belfiore originally told investigators that she had consulted with the facility’s veterinarian regarding the injury, and SeaQuest staff treated it with honey, coconut oil and Neosporin.
After the sloth was burned again, more severely, around November 8, 2018, an anonymous caller reported to Jefferson County animal control that its face appeared “swollen and bloody.”
Animal-control officers visited SeaQuest the next day and began an investigation, in which they noted “sloughing of the skin” and oozing from the sloth’s face. One officer stated that she was concerned that the facial swelling impaired the animal’s ability to eat and breathe comfortably.
When the officers contacted the facility veterinarian, she said she hadn’t heard about either burn incident, despite SeaQuest staff’s insistence that they had consulted her. She added that she would not have recommended using honey and coconut oil to treat the burn, and instead would have considered pain medication and antibiotics.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued SeaQuest a citation for mishandling the sloth’s injury. The incident was the fifth in a series of episodes that brought SeaQuest’s total up to forty points toward the suspension of its license. At a hearing on March 7, SeaQuest’s license was suspended. It had to move the fifteen species regulated by Parks and Wildlife to other locations, and won’t be able to reapply for that license for two years. A spokesperson for Parks and Wildlife said the agency could not comment on matters related to SeaQuest at this time.
According to a Parks and Wildlife written summary of that hearing, SeaQuest hadn’t applied for its license in a timely manner in the first place, resulting in three initial citations for illegally importing and possessing wildlife — including Flash, the sloth that was later burned. SeaQuest was subsequently cited for failing the two inspections required for a PACFA license, failing to report the death of a kookaburra (a bird native to Australia), and failing to report five injuries to staff and visitors. In February, Denver7 obtained documents showing over thirty reported injuries in the first seven months SeaQuest was open, ranging from minor scratches to more serious incidents such as iguana bites.
The SeaQuest chain has faced such problems since it started. CEO Vince Covino and his brother, Ammon, were co-owners of the now-defunct Portland Aquarium, which faced public outcry in 2013 after 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, yet he was involved in opening SeaQuest locations. Since then, former employees have spoken against conditions at the Las Vegas location, and a visitor discovered a dead stingray in a tank at the SeaQuest Folsom aquarium in California three weeks after it opened.
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"The company is rotten to the core, and this is its standard operating procedure. Hopefully the public will stop supporting them. ... We would urge Colorado families to stay far away from SeaQuest," says PETA's Sinnott.
In a statement emailed to Westword, SeaQuest spokesperson Elsa MacDonald said that each animal is examined during a daily health check. “Heat lamps are still present at our facilities, however given the unfortunate incident with Flash, we have modified where those are placed so that there is even more separation between the heat source and the animals at all of our locations,” she elaborated.
Belfiore, MacDonald wrote, “continues to be a trusted member of the SeaQuest Littleton team. The care she provided to Flash the sloth was in line with treatment for a minor burn.”
Flash has since been transferred to SeaQuest Roseville in Minnesota.