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Controversial Animal Attraction Booted From Florida Mall; PETA Vows To Fight Its Other Locations

Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were celebrating Tuesday after a planned animal attraction agreed to ditch plans for opening in Fort Lauderdale's Galleria Mall. Animal activists had sued the city and SeaQuest, which at one point called for pygmy goats and Chinese pigs, plus fish and marine animals, to live inside the mall. 

In an announcement, PETA called SeaQuest's retreat a major victory for animals and vowed to continue fighting the company, which has nine other locations in Utah, Texas, Nevada, Minnesota, Virginia, New Jersey, Colorado and California.

"At SeaQuest locations across the country, numerous animals have suffered and died, including a sloth named Flash and an otter named Jelly," PETA announced in a news release.

The Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

SeaQuest, which is variously described as a petting zoo, an aquarium and an animal rescue service in its marketing materials, planned a Fort Lauderdale location since at least 2018. A resident, Ana Campos, was alarmed at plans for 1,200 animals to fit into a 22K SF space that Lord & Taylor had vacated.

PETA and other animal rights activists had long been sharing horror stories about SeaQuest's treatment of animals at its various sites. There were claims that birds were stepped on and killed, turtles were crushed by children, and an octopus was boiled to death in a tank. A capybara once escaped from the Las Vegas SeaQuest and was found in a Target parking lot. 

For the Fort Lauderdale location, SeaQuest began selling passes long before the attraction was even built out, resulting in customer complaints, and advertised fish pedicures, which are illegal in the state. 

Campos, along with PETA and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, in 2019 filed a lawsuit against SeaQuest and the city, alleging that Fort Lauderdale had unlawfully issued SeaQuest a development permit under false pretenses. The attraction had initially applied as an aquarium, which is not allowed under city zoning laws, then moved to be considered a museum, which is allowed.

As the lawsuit wound through the court system, the coronavirus pandemic further hindered SeaQuest's opening plans. Contractors who claimed they were owed $218K filed construction liens, which was a violation of SeaQuest's lease. In August, Galleria Mall's owner, Keystone-Florida Property Holding Corp., which is owned by Pennsylvania's State Employment Retirement System, moved to evict SeaQuest.

SeaQuest owner Vinco Covino told the Sun-Sentinel that three of the company's nine locations closed due to the pandemic, but his attractions have 35,000 animals that must be cared for and fed. The company received $2.35M in coronavirus-related federal relief money.

“We used our [Paycheck Protection Program] money to keep our sites open,” Covino said. “We have 35,000 animals we have to feed whether we have visitors or not. Our expenses didn’t go down, but our revenue went down to zero for some of our locations.”

On Dec. 8, as part of a settlement with Campos, PETA and ARFF, SeaQuest agreed not to pursue a site in the Galleria Mall and the city agreed to vacate the development order it had issued. 

“The champagne corks are popping at PETA and ARFF over the news that Fort Lauderdale will be a SeaQuest-free zone,” PETA Foundation Associate Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Michelle Sinnott said in a statement. “Everywhere SeaQuest goes, dysfunction, controversy, and animal neglect follow — and PETA won’t rest until this shady business goes under.”

In recent weeks, PETA asked authorities to investigate SeaQuest's Snorkel with the Stingrays program, and possible illegal fish pedicures, at the Boulevard Mall in Las Vegas.

SeaQuest played up educational aspects of its programs, offering a 12-month, cost-free educational program for female, minority students interested in marine science.

Campos planned a "Bye, SeaQuest!" victory celebration from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at City Hall today, and another one at the Galleria Mall at noon Saturday, with vegan cookies provided.