PETA rap sheet lists 87 brushes with the law in only nine years
DENVER, LYNCHBURG, FORT LAUDERDALE––SeaQuest Interactive Aquariums chain founders Vincenzo “Vince” and Ammon Covino might prefer right now that attention be focused on soon-to-open locations in Lynchburg, Virginia and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as well as on locations in Roseville, Minnesota; Trumbull, Connecticut, and Westfield, New Jersey that opened earlier in 2019.
But, possibly upstaging the SeaQuest promotional hoopla, the most recent of dozens of Covino family business brushes with the law is soon to go to court in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado.
Manager charged over burned sloth
SeaQuest Littleton bird, reptile and mammal manager Ashleigh Belfiore is to face misdemeanor cruelty charges in a jury trial set for September 30, 2019. Belfiore allegedly failed to seek appropriate veterinary care after a two-toed sloth was burned by a heat lamp in his enclosure twice in a month.
Flash the sloth initially suffered facial burns on October 18, 2018.
“Belfiore originally told Colorado Division of Parks & Wildlife investigators that she had consulted with the facility’s veterinarian regarding the injury, and SeaQuest staff treated Flash with honey, coconut oil and Neosporin,” reported Westword editorial fellow Sara Fleming on September 5, 2019.
“After the sloth was burned again, more severely, around November 8, 2018,” Fleming continued, “an anonymous caller reported to Jefferson County animal control that his face appeared ‘swollen and bloody.’
Colorado license suspended
“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,” Fleming summarized. “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.,” Fleming recounted. “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.”
“The sloth-burning incident,” Fleming recalled, “is the latest in a slew of violations that led to Colorado Parks & Wildlife [on March 7, 2019] suspending SeaQuest’s license for two years,” less than nine months after the Littleton location opened at the Southwest Plaza mall on June 2, 2018.
Injuries to visitors & animals
“SeaQuest hadn’t applied for its license in a timely manner in the first place,” Fleming said, “resulting in three citations for illegally importing and possessing wildlife — including Flash the sloth,” who after being burned twice was transferred to the SeaQuest facility in Roseville, Minnesota, opened in May 2019.
“SeaQuest Littleton was subsequently cited for failing the two inspections required for a license, failing to report the death of a kookaburra (a bird native to Australia) , and failing to report five injuries to staff and visitors,” Fleming added.
Incidents at SeaQuest Littleton involving harm to both visitors and resident animals began only three days after the facility opened, according to a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) online log of issues involving the founders, brothers Vince and Ammon Covino.
The first two such incidents came on June 5, 2018, when “A patron kicked and stomped on birds in the aviary,” PETA said, “resulting in the deaths of five birds and injuries to others. In addition, a sloth bit an employee on her arm while she was attempting to move the animal to a crate.”
Iguanas bit or scratched visitors and staff at SeaQuest Littleton on at least 15 occasions, according to the PETA log. Also injuring either visitors or staff were a horn shark, a tortoise, an Asian water monitor, a pufferfish, a cockatoo, a lorikeet, a pacu, a tegu, a wallaby, a Burmese python, a bamboo shark, and a pig named Yelp.
Parakeets “free to good home”
On June 23, 2018, according to PETA, “Colorado Parks and Wildlife cited and fined SeaQuest for unlawful importation and possession of a two-toed sloth [Flash] and failure to obtain a zoological park license for the animal. SeaQuest was also issued warnings for the unlawful importation and possession of two capybaras. Officials found the sloth and capybaras in the basement of a SeaQuest manager’s home. Ten days after SeaQuest was told that [the sloth and capybaras] were not to be moved to its facility until a license had been issued, officials found all three animals on display.”
Ordered to close the interactive aviary where the five birds had been stomped on June 5, 2018, “SeaQuest stored approximately 80 parakeets in an underage teenager’s garage,” PETA continued. “The teenager’s family then advertised them on Facebook as being available for free, and most of the birds were given away in a hardware store parking lot,” in alleged violation of a Colorado Department of Agriculture cease and desist order.
Asian otters in Las Vegas
Similar allegations surfaced in February 22, 2019 involving SeaQuest Las Vegas, opened by Vince and Ammon Covino at the Boulevard Mall in October 2016.
“After a litter of Asian small-clawed otters was born,” PETA recounts, “Clark County Animal Control fined the facility $2,000 and issued it a citation for having unpermitted animals. SeaQuest’s permit also prohibited it from breeding the otters. The hearing clerk upholding the fine stated, “Instead of remedying this violation, SeaQuest Aquariums attempted to capitalize and profit from it” and “willfully tried to take advantage of the situation by marketing and attempting to exhibit the baby otters.”
One of the otters reportedly drowned after her arm became stuck in a pool filtration vent.
“At least 300 animals” died in six months
Five former SeaQuest employees subsequently told KNTV that as one of them stated, “Oftentimes because they let people walk around [among the birds], kids would stomp on the birds and kill them. And then [staff] would throw the birds in the garbage so they didn’t have to record it or show that the birds were dead.”
Another former employee alleged that turtles “were actually crushed by kids.”
Still another former employee testified to KNTV that an octopus “cooked alive and burned to death in [his or her] own water” overnight.
SeaQuest Las Vegas appears to have first run into allegations of animal neglect in March 2017 when educator Chris Stansell, then 29, resigned, telling Sandra Lopez of the Las Vegas Review Journal, Lopez recounted, that he had witnessed the deaths of “about a dozen eels, roughly 20 sea stars and sea anemones, 11 stingrays and two octopuses, among other animals.”
Charged Stansell, “They had numerous deaths since before they opened. They were trying to move things around opening day, so the place looked filled. I estimate that at least 300 animals have died since before they opened. They kept insisting that it was because they’re a new company.”
“If you don’t see deaths, your eyes aren’t open”
Wrote Lopez, “SeaQuest chief executive Vince Covino disputes the allegations, calling Stansell a disgruntled employee who was passed up for a promotion before he quit.
Said Vince Covino, to Lopez, “If you work at an aquarium for a year and you don’t see deaths, then your eyes aren’t open. Animals die in nature as well as inside aquariums. This doesn’t indicate that it was a preventable death.”
Noted Lopez, “He would not disclose the number of animals that have died at SeaQuest.”
Alleged another SeaQuest Las Vegas employee, Leeann Spencer, to Lopez, “I don’t know where they purchased their animals from, but they didn’t look healthy. There were also animals that weren’t fed properly, so that they would eat when customers fed them. I once saw a stingray try to eat another stingray because it was so hungry.”
“Doing things that have never been done”
Not accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, SeaQuest is subject to USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service and state wildlife agency regulation, “but those agencies only regulate certain species,” Sara Fleming of Westword noted. “SeaQuest can house other unregulated species, no license necessary.”
Vince Covino meanwhile complained to Denver 7, Fleming wrote, 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.”
What exactly Vince Covino imagines that SeaQuest is doing that has “never been done” is unclear, especially since the for-profit SeaQuest chain has been rapidly cloning itself in shopping malls around the U.S.
“Hand-feed a sloth” in Lynchburg
The latest incarnation of SeaQuest, at the River Ridge Mall in Lynchburg, “is expected to open in October 2019,” reported Hannah McComsey of WSET on September 4, 2019.
“Crews are installing exhibits that will soon be home to about 1,500 animals like turtles, sloths, sharks, stingrays, and snakes,” McComsey enthused.
“Crews will start to bring in the animals at the end of September, once they get the go ahead from veterinarians,” McComsey added.
“Very, very few people on this planet will be able to hand-feed a sloth. People that come to Lynchburg will,” Vince Covino told WSIS Lynchburg bureau reporter Magdala Louissaint.
Vince Covino reassured Louissaint, she said, that “There will be a local veterinarian who will supervise the on-site team and do monthly checks with the animals.”
Vince Covino has used that line before, while Covino family-operated aquariums have repeatedly run into trouble for alleged lack of veterinary care for sick and injured animals.
SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale “to open before Thanksgiving”
Meanwhile, reported Matthew Arrojas of the South Florida Business Journal, “Construction has begun” on a SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium on the third floor of Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale, “expected to open before Thanksgiving,” Vince Covino said.
“About half of the animals will come from SeaQuest’s other nine locations in the U.S.,” Arrojas continued, including 160 birds and a variety of sharks.
Vince Covino “said SeaQuest began looking at the Fort Lauderdale market two and a half years ago and finally broke ground about 10 months ago,” Arrojas continued. “Part of the reason it took so long to start, Covino said, was the pushback SeaQuest got from outside groups like PETA.”
Complaining about cost overruns, Vince Covino “said it’s possible the opening date could be pushed back to December,” Arrojas finished.
Lemur bit girl in Austin
In addition to the running series of animal care and safety violations at SeaQuest Littleton and SeaQuest Las Vegas, the SeaQuest chain ran into trouble during 2018 at facilities in Austin, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; and Folsom, California, a Sacramento suburb known chiefly––since 1880––as the location of Folsom Prison.
Pending in Austin, Texas is a lawsuit originating when a 10-year-old girl was allegedly bitten by a lemur in December 2018 at the Austin Aquarium, a Covino facility.
Filed in June 2019, “The lawsuit alleges that the aquarium initially told the parents that the lemur was vaccinated, but later informed them that this was not the case, leading to thousands of dollars in medical expenses,” according to a PETA case summary.
The Austin Aquarium was previously cited in May 2019 by the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service “failing to consult an attending veterinarian to determine the cause of ear problems exhibited by kangaroos prior to treating them,” says the PETA rap sheet. “The manager stated that the animals were undergoing an ear mite treatment recommended by a facility employee.”
“Borrowed money improperly”
The Covinos have had legal issues involving more than visitor safety and animal care.
The Idaho Department of Finance in March 2017 fined Vince Covino and SeaQuest $5,000, reported Cynthia Sewell of the Idaho Statesmen, “for failing to disclose a previous securities disciplinary action while selling nearly a million dollars’ worth of membership interests in SeaQuest to investors.
“A former broker, [Vince] Covino had been in trouble before over investors’ money,” Sewell explained. “He was registered in Idaho as a securities broker/dealer from January 1998 through December 2011, when his registration was suspended for 30 days after the securities industry’s self-regulation body, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, ruled that he had borrowed money improperly from a client to buy a home.”
Trafficking sharks & rays
Ammon Covino, meanwhile, was in trouble originating with the Covino brothers first venture into the aquarium business, as cofounders of the Idaho Aquarium.
The Idaho Aquarium, three years in development, opened in Boise in December 2011––the same month in which another cofounder, Christopher Conk, and his ex-wife Deirda Davison, pleaded guilty to trafficking in smuggled coral. For that offense Conk was sentenced to serve six years on supervised probation.
The Idaho Aquarium was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. While it was under construction, Ammon and Vincent Covino in December 2012 opened the for-profit Portland Aquarium in Milwaukie, Oregon, a Portland suburb.
Within less than eight months both the Idaho and Portland aquariums ran into trouble.
Ammon Covino and Conk on September 24, 2013 pleaded guilty in federal district court in Key West, Florida, to illegally conspiring to acquire eagle rays and lemon sharks from the Florida Keys. Ammon Covino was sentenced to a year plus a day in prison, followed by two years of supervised release. Conk was sentenced to four months in prison plus two years of supervised release.
A Covino nephew, Peter C. Covino IV, 20, was sentenced to serve 100 days of home detention for obstruction of justice, in connection with seeking to destroy records pertaining to the case.
19 months in federal prison
A new Idaho Aquarium management team had already succeeded the Covinos and Conk, coinciding with allegations of neglect of animals reaching media in both Boise and the Portland area–––and ANIMALS 24-7 and the Oregon Humane Society.
While Ammon Covino served 10 months in federal prison for his Key West convictions, Vincent Covino opened the Austin and San Antonio aquariums in December 2014.
Released on parole, on conditions that included “an agreement not to buy, sell or possess fish or wildlife,” according to Katie Terhune of KTVB-Boise, Ammon Covino was arrested for parole violations in Texas in late October 2015 “after he remained engaged in activities at the Austin, Portland, and San Antonio aquariums,” summarized PETA.
A federal judge returned Ammon Covino to prison for 30 days in February 2016, and again in November 2016, this time for eight months, after he “was involved in opening two SeaQuest aquariums,” PETA said. One of those was the one in Layton, Utah; the other, the one in Las Vegas.