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There's Experiential Retail, Then There's Pygmy Goats: Planned Animal Exhibit At Florida Mall Draws Controversy

"Does city ordinance allow for livestock (goats) to live inside a mall in a commercial building?"

That is what Ana Campos asked Fort Lauderdale officials after she became aware of plans for 1,200 animals to fit into a 22K SF space at The Galleria at Fort Lauderdale, an upscale mall where an animal-encounter attraction called SeaQuest hopes to open soon.

Campos and others have been protesting the business, and next week will go before the City Commission and ask that it be prevented from opening.

Fish pedicures are popular in Asia.

SeaQuest and the mall's ownership have sought to downplay the protestors' concerns. 

"SeaQuest will be required to meet local and state guidelines and manage the daily operations of the venue," said a spokesperson for The Galleria.

SeaQuest already operates in retail spaces in Utah, Texas, Nevada, Colorado and California. Plans for a Fort Lauderdale location were announced last year.

"You’ll be able to feed stingrays, birds and reptiles, encounter the caimans, marvel at the sharks, take selfies with the snakes and much more," SeaQuest's Fort Lauderdale web page promises. The website also advertises "fish spas" — pedicures that involve small carp eating dead skin off of customers' feet — although those were banned in Florida in 2009. 

Blueprints for the attraction that were submitted to the city show areas designated for a shark touch tank, a stingray tank, Chinese pigs, pygmy goats, capybara, kinkajou, tortoises, birds, fish and more. The plans specify that water depths in some tanks will be 44 inches. 

But animal rights activists including PETA, the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and a grassroots collection of concerned citizens on Facebook have spoken out against SeaQuest. Actor Alec Baldwin wrote to officials in Oyster Bay, New York, asking that SeaQuest not be allowed to open there.

Architectural drawings for SeaQuest submitted to Fort Lauderdale's Development Review Board

Some activists believe that it is unethical to hold wild animals in captivity for entertainment, but beyond that, they are concerned that the mall structurally cannot hold heavy water tanks on its third floor. They have raised concerns that the animals would never see sunlight and could not be cared for during a hurricane (the mall is in an evacuation zone) and that animal food, blood and feces could cause sanitation problems and are potentially hazardous to human health.

There are more concerns around the troubling history of the family tied to SeaQuest.

SeaQuest is owned by Vince Covino. His brother, Ammon Covino, is an aquarium owner who has served time in jail on wildlife trafficking charges. Their companies have faced various complaints and violations related to their aquarium operations. In Portland, a "death log" detailed how more than 200 animals died in months at a facility run by the brothers. In Colorado, SeaQuest failed inspections and was given a cease-and-desist order. Last October, a capybara escaped from the Las Vegas SeaQuest and was found under a car in a nearby Target parking lot.

Ana Campos, who is leading the grassroots effort, said that in South Florida, when it comes to animals and commercial activity, "We go five steps forward and 10 steps back. We just passed a bill to stop pet stores from selling animals from puppy mills, but we'll allow an out-of-state con man to put wild animals in a mall to get petted."

Campos shared screenshots showing that SeaQuest was already selling annual passes and refusing to issue refunds to people who hadn't realized the exhibit isn't yet open. She said that her group plans to attend city meetings and keep pressuring officials.

Campos provided a copy of an October report from Fort Lauderdale's Design Review Committee, which laid out criteria the applicants must meet. The report specifies that the request being considered is "change of use from retail use to aquarium use."

One item says, "Please note animal exhibits are not permitted uses in the Boulevard Business (B-1) zoning district. An aquarium typically relates to tanks or enclosures which contain fish and other water creatures and plants while the proposed plans include a variety of mammals and bird species. Please provide a narrative explanation of how this use is permitted within the B-1 zoning district."

Another item asks the applicant how it would address other city ordinances that prohibit the keeping and feeding of wild animals.

A representative for the Galleria, which is owned by Keystone-Florida Property Holding Corp., suggested that SeaQuest's website is not accurate. There also will be no fish pedicures, the mall's spokesperson said in an emailed statement. The spokesperson contradicted the information in SeaQuest's own blueprints. 

"Their website information applies to existing locations and will be updated to reflect the offerings here, which will be more education focused," The Galleria's spokesperson said. "For example, there will be no large water tanks at this location."

It is "not true" that goats will be allowed, the mall's spokesperson wrote. "An updated list of areas of interest within the venue will be announced very soon."

Campos said a coalition of groups will likely sue the city if SeaQuest is allowed to open.

A screenshot of SeaQuest's online interaction provided by Ana Campos

Galleria Mall is located on a major road, Sunrise Boulevard, in between Fort Lauderdale's downtown and its beach. It is a major asset in the city. In addition to recognizable mall stores like Dillard's and Victoria's Secret, the mall has some nontraditional tenants including a gym and a children's theater. 

Campos suggested that Sea Quest's tenancy is a symptom of brick-and-mortar retail outlets struggling to adapt to a digital age. 

"They think that bringing goats into a mall is going to save the mall," she said. 

"We are committed to providing an enjoyable environment for shoppers who have a wide-range of preferences," the mall's spokesperson wrote. "As part of this commitment, we offer a variety of retailers, restaurants and entertainment offerings. Family entertainment attractions are becoming common in shopping centers and this new location will be a dynamic showcase for our guests. SeaQuest, which already operates several venues, attracts local residents and area visitors, provides significant employment opportunities and serves as an educational platform to promote animal welfare and nature conservation."

SeaQuest spokesperson Elsa MacDonald did not answer specific questions about the Fort Lauderdale location.

“We are excited to become part of the South Florida community and are doing our due diligence to comply with city and state guidelines," she wrote in a statement. "We anticipate that construction will commence soon on our interactive and educational experience which will teach the importance of environmental awareness and animal welfare. Our philanthropic platform, SeaQuest Cares, will be an added benefit to the community in collaboration with and in support of not-for-profit organizations, educational venues and other entities.”

Meeting minutes from 2013 show that Pennsylvania's State Employment Retirement System was the sole shareholder of Keystone-Florida. A related document explains that PSERS purchased the Galleria Mall in 1993 for $125.6M and that it was valued six years ago at $231M. PSERS' board recommended working with developers to build condos on the property.

Keystone-Florida went on to propose a plan to develop seven residential buildings on its land adjacent to the mall but the plan was dropped in 2017 after neighbors complained. The Real Deal reported that the company intended to return with a scaled-down proposal. 

"There are no updates to share at this time" on the residential plans, The Galleria's spokesperson said.

A city of Fort Lauderdale spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.