In the wild, Asian water monitors — large lizards native to the southeastern part of the continent — eat fish, frogs, rodents, birds, crabs, snakes, turtles and even young crocodiles. They’ve been observed ripping the bodies of catfish apart, boring their heads into the skin and using their front legs to separate the meat into smaller chunks for easier consumption. With sharp teeth capable of gashing bites, they are territorial and fend for themselves.
An Asian water monitor named Gambino that lives in a small tank in a suburban shopping mall has a very different feeding ritual. Once or twice a day, a person takes him out of his tank and walks him through a colorful, noisy circle of other animals and humans, the latter of whom are allowed to pet him with two fingers as his handler dangles a piece of tilapia on a fishing pole to lure him along.
Gambino is just one of the popular attractions at SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium at Southwest Plaza in Littleton.
SeaQuest sits in the middle of the recently renovated mall. Surrounded by heavily perfumed halls and national chains like Victoria’s Secret and the Cheesecake Factory, 1,500 animals of 300 different species from around the globe make their home in this 22,000-square-foot corner of suburbia.
SeaQuest Littleton general manager David Slater is an earnest person who takes his job and its many challenges seriously. On a recent fall day, however, his sincerity about SeaQuest’s integrity is juxtaposed with fairly whimsical surroundings: a birthday party room for kids, decorated with a small fish tank and aquatic-themed balloons and streamers. In this room, birthday boys and girls can have their pick of party entertainment: a SeaQuest employee dressed as a pirate or a mermaid, or one of fifteen different species of exotic animals that party-goers can interact with and touch.
As he plops into a plastic chair at one of the many fold-up tables in the empty party room, Slater begins to explain why SeaQuest Littleton — which, within a year after opening, lost two licenses from the Colorado state government and became the target of national animal-rights activists — still deserves customer support and enthusiasm.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” he admits. “That’s the cut and dry.”
SeaQuest Littleton, which opened in June 2018, bills itself as an “interactive aquarium,” in which guests can “feed and hold animals from all over the world.” But animal-rights activists allege that the national chain has been a living hell for those creatures, aquatic and beyond.
PETA has been waging a full-fledged campaign against SeaQuest that’s increased in intensity as locations have popped up in malls around the country.
“SeaQuest is one of a kind,” says Michelle Sinnott, an attorney with PETA’s Captive Animal Law Enforcement Division. “There is a trash heap of legal violations and animal cruelty. It’s just a mess with this company.”
Unlike the Denver Zoo and the Downtown Aquarium, SeaQuest is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which stipulates relatively high standards of animal care and welfare based on wildlife expertise. Instead, SeaQuest is subject to a patchwork of state and federal rules. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture all issue licenses that mandate standards of care for facilities like SeaQuest. But each agency only regulates certain species, usually those that are more culturally valued, such as cats and dogs, or at risk of extinction. If a facility doesn’t have species covered by those agencies, it doesn’t need a license, but it can still be subject to animal-control investigations.
SeaQuest’s trouble in Colorado started before it even opened. According to a written summary of the April 1 hearing to suspend its CPW license, SeaQuest announced its grand opening before applying for the license required to have CPW-regulated species. In April 2018, it illegally imported animals — a two-toed sloth and two capybaras — into Colorado without a license or veterinary inspection and kept them in an employee’s basement until they could be approved for display. Once the Littleton location opened, it housed over a hundred birds in its Parakeet Paradise exhibit, more than what is allowed without a license from the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act program. As a result, the Colorado Department of Agriculture issued a cease-and-desist order, which SeaQuest then failed to report to CPW as required.
While SeaQuest was licensed by CPW, it reported over fifty injuries to staff and guests. Most were minor accidental incidents, like a scratch from an iguana or a bite from a tortoise, but some were more serious. In June 2018, for example, a guest became agitated in the bird-feeding enclosure and began kicking birds; five died from their injuries. In August 2018, video footage showed a customer reaching her hand into a fish tank and flinging a puffer fish out of the water (she claimed the fish had flopped out by itself); the woman later complained of difficulty breathing and numbness and called 911. Also in the summer of 2018, two kookaburras (birds native to Australia) died; one drowned in a water bowl, while the other was thought to have choked on a toy. A sloth named Flash also bit an employee, which SeaQuest initially failed to report.
Then, in the fall of 2018, Flash was accidentally burned by a heat lamp, twice. Instead of seeking veterinary care for the sloth’s bloody face, SeaQuest reptile, bird and mammal manager Ashleigh Belfiore treated the wound with honey, coconut oil and Neosporin. After an anonymous caller reported the sloth’s injuries to Jefferson County Animal Control, Colorado Parks and Wildlife charged Belfiore with animal neglect; she was found not guilty in Jefferson County Court on October 1, 2019.
All of these incidents have added up. CPW’s Zoological Parks License, which was required for SeaQuest to have the sloth, the capybaras and some other animals, works like a driver’s license: Violations result in points that accumulate against the license owner. SeaQuest accumulated the maximum forty points by January 2019; in May, CPW suspended its license for two years. But the aquarium quickly replaced the handful of species regulated by Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Agriculture with unregulated animals, and plans to stay open without the licenses for now.
At the end of September, PETA filed a request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pull SeaQuest’s exhibitor license required under the Animal Welfare Act, citing violations at SeaQuest Littleton as well as the company’s other locations around the U.S.
“They show up and play naive, like they don’t really know what the rules and regulations are, and then they’re breaking the law left and right,” Sinnott says.
Slater was hired as the general manager at SeaQuest Littleton in August 2018 in part to turn its track record around, he says. Previously, he worked in dog-food sales and pet-store management.
While Slater acknowledges that SeaQuest has made mistakes, he portrays them as minor misunderstandings rather than instances of cruelty, and says that if the bad press dies down, the experience that SeaQuest offers will win the public over. “I think you learn a lot more by being able to touch and feel a stingray than you would if it was just behind glass,” he offers. “Is it for everybody? No. But I think, overall, what we provide is a fun, interactive experience for people.”
People, especially families with young children, still flock to SeaQuest, and they seem to have mostly positive experiences. Despite the occasional bad review from an animal-rights activist, the place has a three-star rating on Yelp, and most reviews skew positive. A woman named Sandra posted that she took her granddaughter to the aquarium while visiting from Arizona, and while it was “a little weird” to see an aquarium in a mall, says she doesn’t “think it’s such a bad idea,” and it “was adorable to watch the kids.” Another reviewer, Tamila, gave SeaQuest five stars but wrote, “I was [warning] our child to not ‘go crazy’ on the animals and be gentle with [them], however there were some unsupervised kids who were a bit abusive.”
The entrance to SeaQuest Littleton is an elaborate souvenir shop, where aquatic-themed stuffed animals for purchase are arranged around gleaming plastic stingray statues and fake bubbles. After guests pay for a “passport” ($16.95 for adults, $12.95 for children ages two to eleven), they embark on a “quest” through various global locations such as Great Wall of China and Icelandic Fishing Village.
For another $10, guests can buy a pack of four feeding tokens, which allow them to feed and touch the animals in certain exhibits.
Although SeaQuest has plenty of fish, it’s less of an aquarium and more of a petting zoo for exotic creatures; Slater says the company is even considering dropping the word “aquarium” from its brand.
Guests can touch nearly all of the mammals and even many reptiles and fish. Some of the exhibits don’t have fences or barriers, allowing small children to wander in and go face-to-face with the animals. SeaQuest doesn’t instruct guests on how they are supposed to interact with the animals, Slater says, but he stations staff in each exhibit on busy days to supervise their interactions.
In Iguana Nirvana, children mingle with lizards half their size. In a feeding exhibit for rainbow lorikeets, guests are given a plastic cup filled with nectar, told to shuffle their feet as they enter to avoid stomping on the colorful Australian parrots, and are consequently swarmed by sugar-crazed birds, which also peck at guests’ feet and each other (staff say that the nectar gets stuck on the floor and in the birds’ feathers). In the cage just next to the lorikeets, two giant Flemish rabbits lounge lazily on the ground, and two energetic mini-pigs chase people around their small, hay-filled enclosure.
Slater says the animals are well cared for. SeaQuest doesn’t have a veterinarian on staff, but he explains that it has three animal-husbandry teams trained to recognize problems in animal health, as well as a marine veterinarian who does monthly rounds and attends to animals that get sick or injured. He explains that the animals have grown accustomed to busy days, when they are met by the touch of hundreds of guests, and quiet nights, when everyone leaves by 10 p.m. “We do not have a person who stays in our facility to watch the animals at night, as that has not ever proven to be a necessity,” Slater says.
Animal-rights activists point to SeaQuest’s legal trouble, in Colorado and elsewhere, to argue that the entire setup puts the locations on the brink of disaster.
In February 2019, animal-rights activists filed a challenge to SeaQuest’s permit at a mall in Fort Lauderdale, arguing that SeaQuest obtained the permit under the pretense of being a museum. In Fort Worth, the USDA issued citations twice because SeaQuest allowed the public to interact with a small-clawed otter without restraint, resulting in at least four minor injuries to the public. And in Las Vegas, SeaQuest lost its exotic-animal permit because the facility bred otters, which was not allowed under Nevada regulations. Former employees also accused the aquarium of throwing dead animals in the trash so it didn’t have to record their deaths.
SeaQuest’s sordid history with animal rights predates the company itself. Before he started SeaQuest — the first facility was opened in Layton, Utah, in 2016 — CEO Vince Covino founded the Portland Aquarium in 2012 with his brother, Ammon. Ammon Covino was also president of the Idaho Aquarium; in 2012, he was indicted for buying poached lemon sharks and spotted eagle rays. His nephew, Pete Covino, subsequently spent two months in prison for trying to destroy evidence against Ammon, who spent a year in jail.
Then in 2015, a former Portland Aquarium employee showed a death log to a local newspaper, which revealed that 200 animals had died in a three-month span. The aquarium was subject to protests and investigations, and finally closed in 2016. Around that time, authorities discovered that Ammon and Vince were trying to open SeaQuest locations in Nevada and Utah, even though working in the aquarium business was against the terms of Ammon’s probation. He spent another eight months in prison.
SeaQuest says that many of its animals are rescued from irresponsible pet owners who otherwise would have released them into the wild; although Slater doesn’t know exactly how many animals were obtained this way, he estimates about 30 percent. The rest of SeaQuest’s animals are obtained through global animal trades, a complex network of transactions. The same eight-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation that targeted Ammon Covino also revealed that the aquarium trade in general has been fraught with poaching and illegal importation. David Pharo, the agent in charge of the operation, told National Geographic that the situation has resulted in “tremendous impacts to the marine life [ecosystem], as well as creating such a competitive market that legal marine-life collectors could not sustain their business and make an honest living without poaching.”
SeaQuest adamantly defends its track record, partly by framing PETA as a radical extremist group; a page on SeaQuest’s website states, “SeaQuest does not abuse animals and is actually the victim of abuse by animal rights activists and PETA, who support a motto of ‘death before captivity.’”
“The choices aren’t death or captivity,” clarifies Brooke Rossi, a PETA spokesperson. But the group does oppose zoos and aquariums at large, arguing that animals should be left in the wild rather than exploited for human entertainment. According to Sinnott, PETA urges that if animals “must be kept in captivity” (because of injury or habitat destruction), they should stay in “reputable, accredited facilities” over those that she says equate to “roadside petting zoos.”
Speaking over the phone, Vince Covino defends SeaQuest’s track record. He insists that most injuries to staff and the public are mere scratches, and that many of them occur when employees are grooming animals.
“In the first few months that a location is open, as the animals are acclimating to their environment, there are more incidents,” Covino says. As for Belfiore, the employee who was tried for animal neglect, he says she did a “wonderful job” handling the sloth’s burn. “The treatment she provided to the sloth — coconut oil, honey and Neosporin — was effective. Our vet report showed that a day or two later, it was entirely gone,” he says.
(According to trial documents, the veterinarian who contracts with SeaQuest told investigators she would not have used coconut oil and honey, and would have considered antibiotics to treat the sloth.)
Slater says that in states where SeaQuest first launched, regulations were looser: “Our first aquariums were in Las Vegas, Utah and Texas. In Texas you can have any animal you want in the world, and there’s hardly any permitting. In Utah there’s not really that much, either, and in Vegas they’ve got some restrictions, but still not as many.”
And, argues Covino, Colorado’s regulations are markedly stricter: “I don’t know of any other state that has that [Pet Animal Facilities Care Act] type of organization,” he says. “That’s unique just to Colorado. … SeaQuest is not the only company out there to have exhibits with 100 or 200 birds. There are probably hundreds of those. We’ve not had any other problems.”
According to Sinnott, Colorado doesn’t necessarily have more animal-welfare laws than other states. The regulatory agencies, CPW and the Department of Agriculture, have just been better about enforcing their rules. “You have officials that are doing a great job paying attention — actually holding these guys accountable for their violations,” Sinnott says.
The only formal license that SeaQuest still has (the one PETA is now lobbying against) is issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act, which is the only federal law — and thus the minimum standard — for regulating the treatment of animals.
Yet even in the unlikely case that the USDA heeds its request, PETA may not succeed in its efforts to shut down SeaQuest. Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966, and it’s since been modified with a patchwork of amendments intended to broaden its protections. But still, not all animals are protected under the law: Most of the species that are included are warm-blooded. When it comes to fish, reptiles, amphibians, rats, mice and even some birds in captivity, as long as they aren’t endangered species, people have broad liberties to buy, sell and do with them what they wish.
Covino argues that above all, SeaQuest is serving a larger cause. “You’re interacting, touching, engaging,” he says. “We’ve seen it with millions of guests. When they leave, they’re better connected to the planet. If we can help them to understand some of the big problems we face, then that’s a massive victory.”
SeaQuest touts its initiative that donates to children’s foundations and gives discounts for teachers, but it doesn’t have a designated partner conservation fund, as many zoos and aquariums do. And while there are a few signs and billboards at the Littleton location that mention endangered whales or the benefits of hydroponic farming, most of the species displayed come with not so much as an identifier, much less a description of where they’re from and the threats they face as a result of human activity.
Many young kids and their families may get a kick (or a fright) out of seeing Gambino the Asian water monitor follow a piece of tilapia on a fishing pole through the halls of SeaQuest, past the pigs and the Savannah cats, the stingrays and the young woman dressed as a mermaid, singing high-pitched songs to admiring children.
But SeaQuest guests won’t learn from the exhibit that the water monitor is protected in Thailand, or that many villages place high cultural value on monitors, partly because they eat smaller pests that would otherwise threaten flora and crops. Nor will they learn that monitors are sought out by the fashion industry for their scaly skin, or that, as human encroachment grows, their role in the ecosystem is threatened by over-hunting and loss of habitat.
Nor will SeaQuest visitors walk away knowing that Asian water monitors are one of the most commonly trafficked animals in the global animal trade, often taken from their homeland to shiny new worlds.
Local activists, sponsored by PETA, will be quietly protesting SeaQuest on Saturday, October 26, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Bowles Avenue, at the entrance to the Southwest Plaza Mall. Organizer Ellen Kessler tells Westword that they're trying to raise awareness of animal welfare concerns and dissuade people from visiting the aquarium.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.