Early Thursday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a request calling for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop SeaQuest, an aquarium and petting-zoo operator, from opening in Fort Lauderdale.
In a letter to Robert M. Gibbens, the USDA's director of animal welfare, the animal-rights group contends that SeaQuest has violated the requirements of Animal Welfare Act exhibitor licensing and that any additions to SeaQuest's current federal authorization would fly in the face of what PETA says are multiple cases of animal abuse, violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and failure to abide by state and local laws at SeaQuest's parks across the country.
SeaQuest is seeking approval to add a new Fort Lauderdale operation to its AWA license, along with new locations in Woodbridge, New Jersey; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Stonecrest, Georgia.
Ongoing efforts against SeaQuest, which was issued a city permit in February to open in The Galleria mall on East Sunrise Boulevard, include a lawsuit against the City of Fort Lauderdale regarding zoning laws.
Expecting to open before Thanksgiving, SeaQuest began construction early this month on the 23,000-square-foot space on the third floor of the Galleria that will feature 32 exhibits including stingray- and shark-touch tanks.
But Vince Covino recently told the South Florida Business Journal the grand opening might be pushed back to December.
"In just a few years, SeaQuest's rap sheet has grown to include a manager on trial for cruelty to animals and various violations of both local and state laws," PETA's Brittany Peet said in a statement released Thursday. "PETA is calling on the USDA to yank this cruel petting zoo's license."
Several SeaQuest locations have come under legal scrutiny, as have SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino and others at the corporate level.
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A SeaQuest location in Littleton, Colorado had its license suspended by state officials this past May, after a site manager was charged with animal cruelty. And earlier this year, animal-control officials in Las Vegas fined the SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium there $2,000 for bringing in unregistered animals and illegally breeding captive otters.
In an unrelated matter, on September 18, PETA and other groups petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Miami to revisit their challenge of a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit against the USDA. The Miami Seaquarium is the focus of that case, as the animal welfare coalition broadens its efforts to pressure the agency to revoke AWA licenses from interactive and animal-performance aquariums.
In July PETA staged "Until Lolita Is Home" rallies across the nation after appealing AWA licensing for Festival Fun Parks, the company that operates the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita, the venue's main attraction, is at the center of an ongoing legal battle. Since then, the orca, which was captured in Puget Sound in 1970 from what is now an endangered pod of whales, has been confined to an 80-by-35-by-20-foot tank said to be the smallest orca aquarium in the U.S.
The Eleventh Circuit in 2018 rejected a related petition to reopen a lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium over its treatment of Lolita. The court found that conditions of the orca's captivity did not appear to jeopardize the seaquarium's AWA licensing; additionally, judges ruled that returning the whale to its native waters would be detrimental, given Lolita's age, which is estimated at 52 or 53 years. Nor was the court convinced there was a realistic way to return Lolita to the wild without harming her.