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PETA urges investigation of Folsom SeaQuest aquarium, says videos show inhumane treatment

PETA video shows fish flopping on floor of Folsom’s SeaQuest aquarium after jumping out of tank

PETA is calling for an investigation into the SeaQuest aquarium for inhumane animal treatment. The organization provided videos of alleged mistreatment. PETA blurred faces in the video and added on-screen captions.
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PETA is calling for an investigation into the SeaQuest aquarium for inhumane animal treatment. The organization provided videos of alleged mistreatment. PETA blurred faces in the video and added on-screen captions.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on Thursday called for city of Folsom animal services to investigate what they allege is the “inhumane care and treatment” of animals at the SeaQuest aquarium, attaching video clips in a letter to city officials of four alleged instances in which visitors found marine wildlife dead or injured while on display.

A copy of the letter, emailed to Folsom Animal Services, was provided to The Sacramento Bee on Thursday by PETA. Written on behalf of PETA by attorney Michelle Sinnott, the letter accuses SeaQuest of “failure to provide veterinary care to multiple animals,” then describes four alleged incidents between Dec. 9 and Jan. 3 at the recently opened aquarium.

The incidents detailed in PETA’s letter include: a fish jumping out of a tank and remaining there for about two minutes before being returned to the water by an employee using a sweat shirt; fish seen motionless and breathing rapidly in a cloudy tank; reports that a stingray, eel, seahorse and snake have all been found dead by visitors; and a tortoise with an allegedly injured shell being touched by children.

Photos and videos of each event were attached with the emailed letter, as well as visitors’ written accounts on social media sites including Facebook and Yelp.

The letter says all four of these alleged incidents are violations of animal care provisions in Folsom’s municipal code.

Speaking generally of SeaQuest’s procedure for handling dead or injured animals, SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino defended his employees and policies.

“So the animal dies after 10 a.m., and it’s impossible for you to be looking at every animal in every tank every minute of the day, so it’s going to mean at any zoo or any aquarium, an animal can die and it might be a guest that found it,” Covino said.

Marine animals undergo a “life check” at 10 a.m. each day and another each night, SeaQuest Folsom general manager Pete Mordwinow told The Bee in December. Covino said SeaQuest Folsom has roughly 70 stingrays and more than 1,000 animals total. Each location employs one veterinarian, Covino said.

The city of Folsom sent a response letter to PETA on Thursday saying the complaint has been forwarded to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which issued SeaQuest its permits, for investigation.

“The City is confident that CDFW has the expertise and resources to appropriately handle this matter,” Folsom City Manager Elaine Andersen wrote in a letter to attorney Sinnott and PETA that was also provided to The Bee by city spokeswoman Christine Brainerd. Brainerd declined to comment further.

PETA on Thursday posted a YouTube video showing the Dec. 9 incident involving a fish falling out of its tank.

The clip shows a handful of guests starting to surround a large fish flopping on the floor outside of two display tanks, each approximately 6 feet tall.

One employee looks down at the fish with arms outstretched, then says, “I don’t even know which one (tank) he came out of,” telling the person filming that she is not supposed to touch the animals, the video shows. “I’m not husbandry,” she adds. “I’m not trained on touching them, unfortunately.”

About a minute into the video, a second employee appears and picks up the fish using a sweat shirt, then places it back into one of the tanks. It then swims to the opposite end of the tank. Observers tell employees that the fish appeared to be out of water for about two minutes. PETA says the video was taken by a guest. The video clip was published with all guests’ and employees’ faces blurred.

The YouTube video’s description and PETA’s letter claim, citing the opinion of wildlife veterinarian Heather Rally that a fall from the tank’s height could have been “enough to daze, disorient, or even kill this fish,” and that the time spent out of water could cause “suffocation, hypoxia, brain damage, and death.”

Mordwinow, the facility general manager, did not respond to requests for comment regarding this incident.

The incident was reportedly observed Dec. 9 – the same day a stingray was found dead in a touch tank by a visitor, as confirmed to The Bee later that week by Mordwinow. He told The Bee at the time that the stingray’s death was under internal investigation.

Covino defended his aquariums’ protocol in handling the stingray’s death.

“There is no reason to change protocol,” Covino said. “There is no need to change protocol, because what happened with the stingray is not preventable, so there is nothing to change ... It’s like saying, ‘What can I do to prevent my great-grandparent’s death?’”

Covino said Thursday that all of SeaQuest’s locations have “extensive protocol in place” to handle animals that die while exhibited, and rejected any claims that animals were decomposing in their enclosures.

“We tested for ammonia in that tank,” Covino said, referring to the tank holding the stingray that died Dec. 9. “If there were an animal that were decomposing – which is complete bullcrap – there would be an ammonia spike. That’s a verifiable spike. There was not.”

The cloudy tank, dead eel and injured tortoise were reportedly all observed on Dec. 17. A dead seahorse and dead snake were allegedly both found by visitors Jan. 1.

Three shorter video clips provided to The Bee by a PETA spokesperson document the other reported incidents.

A 9-second clip shows a tortoise with a patch of red on its shell that appears to be huddled in the corner of its enclosure. In the letter, the veterinarian is cited as saying the injury could be an infection or burn. A separate attached photo shows a child who appears to be petting the tortoise’s shell about an inch away from the red spot.

A 24-second clip shows a SeaQuest employee retrieving a motionless eel from a tank using his bare hand. PETA’s letter alleges that an employee said, “Oops, yeah, he looks dead, I’ll take care of it,” but this is not captured on video.

Finally, a 19-second clip shows about eight small fish in a tank at SeaQuest’s gift shop on Dec. 17. The fish are positioned diagonally near the tank’s corner with little movement. The veterinarian cited in the letter says the fish in the video appear to show signs of strained respiration, which could be caused by poor water quality. According to a different visitor’s account, the gift shop tank was seen empty on Jan. 3.

The end of PETA’s letter reiterates the allegation that SeaQuest is in violation of city code:

“While the cause of death is unknown, the mere fact that SeaQuest Folsom staff failed to discover these dead animals raises serious questions about whether employees are appropriately identifying sick animals in a timely manner and providing them with veterinary care needed to prevent suffering.

“It also raises concerns about whether SeaQuest Folsom has an adequate number of employees to monitor, and humanely care for the approximately 1,200 animals at the aquarium.”

SeaQuest Folsom opened in late November. It was a community controversy before the doors opened; protest groups demonstrated at City Council meetings and at the mall before the private aquarium’s grand opening, with concerns centered on the business’s history of legal problems and troubling practices.

A group of about a dozen protesters – not directly associated with PETA, though PETA issued a statement supporting their demonstrations – gathered near the busy intersection of Iron Point Road and East Bidwell Street at the corner of the Palladio, carrying signs with slogans like “Fish are friends, not profit,” during SeaQuest’s official grand opening on Nov. 20.

Covino ran the Portland Aquarium with his brother, Ammon Covino, until it was closed in 2016. Ammon Covino pleaded guilty in 2013 to conspiring to buy rays and lemon sharks that had been illegally poached from the Florida Keys.

Portland Aquarium employees, as well as employees of SeaQuest Las Vegas, have accused the Covinos of instituting cost-cutting business tactics that they allege have resulted in hundreds of preventable animal deaths at their aquariums, as previously reported by The Oregonian and the Idaho Statesman.

Additionally, SeaQuest Littleton near Denver failed three Colorado Department of Agriculture inspections due to overcrowding and licensing issues, as reported by multiple sources.

The 2013 report by The Oregonian published a “death list” of 200 animals that died at the Portland Aquarium in a four-month span. This would equate to a roughly 8 percent annual mortality rate.

Published opinions by aquarists, marine biologists and other experts available online seem to estimate widely varying figures for acceptable mortality rates at zoos and aquariums. While one aquarium claimed it had a death rate lower than 1 percent, some experts said mortality rates up to 12 or 15 percent could be reasonably expected at private or public aquariums.

Vince Covino attended SeaQuest Folsom’s grand opening in November. He told The Bee at the time he believed the animals there were “thriving,” and said animals “do better in an aquarium, because you have a perfectly controlled environment.”

In a summer 2018 interview with The Bee, Vince Covino denied his brother’s involvement with SeaQuest operations.

SeaQuest’s first location opened in Las Vegas in December 2016. It currently has six locations with two more planned to open later this year, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Rosevlle, Minn.

PETA is calling for an investigation into the SeaQuest aquarium for inhumane animal treatment. The organization provided videos of alleged mistreatment.

SeaQuest Folsom celebrated its grand opening at the Palladio mall, while animal rights advocates picketed in protest of the new interactive aquarium, which has a troubled history including allegations of animal neglect at other locations.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.