SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale remains little more than a rumor with a Facebook page as the City of Fort Lauderdale and animal welfare activists head back to court over the controversial marine-life exhibitor's plan to open a local store.
Local activist Ana Campos will appear in Broward County court in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday afternoon, along with lawyers for People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, as their joint lawsuit against the city was shifted to the civil court docket.
The case was transferred in November after a circuit court panel ruled Campos, of Fort Lauderdale, did not have the legal standing to sue the city over its permitting of SeaQuest.
Michelle Sinnott, an attorney for PETA, said the plaintiffs want the zoning permit to be tossed. Campos says Wednesday's hearing could determine whether the case moves forward.
"The first part got kicked out on 'standing,' not on merit," Campos said regarding the three counts at the heart of the lawsuit. While the city is seeking dismissal of the case, Campos hopes suit moves forward.
"I once thought the City of Fort Lauderdale was a champion for animal advocacy issues, but I no longer think that," Campos says. City officials, she argues, "threw their own zoning rules out the window in favor of a sleazy animal-neglecting enterprise."
A rally is planned outside Broward County Courthouse ahead of the hearing. Campos, who in December received PETA's 2019 Outstanding Activist Award, says more than 40 protesters are expected to gather on the courthouse steps before heading inside for the half-hour hearing.
SeaQuest announced plans to open inside the Galleria in 2018. Since then, the company has repeatedly pushed back its estimated opening here. On December 16, the Facebook page for SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale featured a new post, announcing the store is expected to open "in early 2020."
SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Galleria declined comment.
PETA in September petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to deny SeaQuest's request to add Fort Lauderdale to its federal Animal Welfare Act exhibitor license. SeaQuest also was seeking approval to have new locations in New Jersey, Virginia, and Georgia covered by its AWA license.
R. Andre Bell, spokesman for the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees exhibitor licensing as well as the care and handling of marine animals, on Tuesday said, "APHIS has not inspected SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale, and therefore it is not approved" for inclusion on the company's exhibitor's license.
Bell did not say whether APHIS had plans to inspect the Fort Lauderdale site, nor whether SeaQuest's license was under review.
Previously Bell said the agency was looking into complaints against SeaQuest at the request of U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), whose district includes the area of Fort Lauderdale where the mall is located. Last year, Deutch called for an investigation of SeaQuest for what he described as "very serious and disturbing allegations of animal mistreatment." The congressman cited media reports of animal deaths, visitors and employees injured by animals, and other violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
"This organization and its owners have a long-documented history of disregard for the law and for animal welfare,” Deutch said.
SeaQuest's planned 23,000-square-foot venue inside the Galleria on East Sunrise Boulevard already has passed muster with city inspectors and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the New Times reported in October. The store is expected to feature roughly 1,200 animals and 32 exhibits.
SeaQuest operates interactive aquariums in nine locations across the U.S. Fort Lauderdale would be No. 10.
The New Jersey store, which opened in Woodbridge Center Mall in November, is currently at the center of multiple animal abuse and neglect allegations. Visitors to SeaQuest Woodbridge and local activists have reported, among many complaints, a duck going untended at the aquarium even though its leg was broken, an overstressed kinkajou racing madly around its enclosure, and pygmy goats in obvious distress, struggling to adjust to captivity. SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino stepped in, according to local press reports, closing the goat exhibit and handing its three goats to a rescue group.
A Change.org petition posted this month, calling for SeaQuest Woodbridge's closure, quickly reached its initial 5,000-signature goal, and by late Tuesday had drawn more than 9,200 signers.
Campos would like to see Fort Lauderdale avoid a fate similar to Woodbridge and other SeaQuest locations that have come under scrutiny.
"It is my pleasure to help expose them," Campos says, "and hopefully prevent them from abusing animals in Fort Lauderdale."