Internal records raise questions about safety of animals, guests at SeaQuest

Internal records raise questions about safety of animals, guests at SeaQuest

Internal records raise questions about safety of animals, guests at SeaQuest

Behind flashy advertisements selling the fun and excitement of interacting with exotic animals, there is growing scrutiny of SeaQuest — a chain of aquariums and petting zoos with locations inside shopping malls across the country, including one in the Twin Cities. 

The company says the health and safety of its animals is its “number one priority,” but former employees describe a company culture that prioritizes profits above all else. 

Now, a joint investigation by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS and ABC News has uncovered new allegations of animal neglect, cutting corners, and putting the public in danger.

“I think people are scared to say what’s been going on,” said one former employee who asked not to be identified. “I think ultimately, something has to be said about it.”

Vaccinations “past due”

At SeaQuest Roseville inside the Rosedale Center mall, guests are encouraged to purchase “interactions,” which allow them to touch and feed a wide variety of animals including fish, birds, potbelly pigs, snakes, wallabies, sloths, and otters.

In April 2023, a veterinarian notified managers that their otters were “past due” for their rabies shots, according to internal company messages obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Dr. Heather Douglas, an independent vet from Osseo who was contracted by SeaQuest, warned that the otters “cannot be on interactions until they are up to date.”

Katie Hastings, who describes herself online as Director of Wildlife for SeaQuest, responded by questioning whether the otters needed to be vaccinated at all.

“Our interactions are set up in a way that a bite would be nearly impossible,” Hastings wrote. “Would it be possible to continue interactions so that they do not lose that enrichment or training?”

The response from the vet was unequivocal.

“The otters need to have their rabies vaccines and off interactions or the facility won’t be in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act,” Douglas wrote.

Yet three sources who received the messages tell 5 INVESTIGATES that interactions between guests and the otters continued during that time.

In several posts on the SeaQuest Roseville Facebook page, the company continued to promote its otter interactions. 

“I was kind of flabbergasted that they would even go as far as to do something like that,” one former employee said.

Months later, Douglas admonished SeaQuest managers in a follow-up message.

“It has come to my attention that interactions had been occurring prior to the end of their quarantine,” Douglas wrote. “This is directly in violation of… the Animal Welfare Act.”

In a statement, SeaQuest now denies violating the law.

“There was no direct public interaction with the otters during this time,” the company wrote. “Human contact with any public guest was strictly prohibited.” 

Douglas says she parted ways with SeaQuest last year “for professional reasons,” but declined to comment further.

Repeatedly cited

Concerns about animals biting guests at SeaQuest are well documented.

ABC News found people reported being bitten or scratched by the animals at various SeaQuest locations at least 76 times since the company opened its first location in Layton, Utah, in 2016. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that licenses zoos and aquariums, has cited SeaQuest more than once after guests were bitten by otters, according to a 5 INVESTIGATES review of public records.

Parents of children who visited SeaQuest locations in Texas and California say their children were bitten by fish.

At the stingray touch exhibit at SeaQuest Fort Worth in 2022, Helen Demore-Callejas told ABC News that her daughter was bitten by a grouper.

“All of a sudden, she shrieked and she was in pain,” Demore-Callejas said. “It wasn’t until I was holding her and she moved her hand that I saw blood on my shirt and I realized like, ‘oh, she really got hurt.’”

SeaQuest says guest injuries are taken “very seriously,” but that was not the impression of parents who spoke with ABC.

“The way that the staff reacted was really shocking. It kind of seemed like it was no big deal to them,” Demore-Callejas said. 

The USDA cited SeaQuest more than 80 times over the past five years for issues ranging from human injuries to potential disease hazards as well as inadequate care of the animals at their facilities.

“It’s dangerous”

At SeaQuest Roseville, employees repeatedly documented injured and dead animals in dozens of photos and videos obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Those images include bleeding reptiles, potbelly pigs with skin disease, and a sloth employees said was shaking from stress. 

A former SeaQuest employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed particular concern for wallabies at the Roseville location.

“They’re in a very small pen where they only get let out about ten minutes per day,” the employee said. “They’re in a mall with no sunlight and just have to sit there and let people pet them.”

SeaQuest says it follows all USDA guidelines and that exhibits are sized in a way that “ensures the animals have adequate room for their health and mental stimulation,” but advocates and wildlife experts are not satisfied with that answer.

Jill Fritz, Senior Director of Wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States, describes SeaQuest as an “unaccredited wild animal petting zoo.”

Fritz and others are pushing for new legislation on the federal and state levels that would allow for better enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and potentially ban direct contact between animals and the public at facilities such as SeaQuest. 

“It’s dangerous for the public, it’s dangerous for the animals,” Fritz said. “It’s an exploitative business model. It forces these sensitive wild animals into repeated, traumatic, and dangerous encounters with people.”

Pressure from the top

Vince Covino, the founder and CEO of SeaQuest, initially agreed to an interview with ABC News, but later backed out.

In a written response to questions, the company defended its business model of charging customers up to $500 dollars for premium interactions, or “EpicQuests,” with animals. 

“Direct interactions are a superb source of enrichment for our animals and allow our guests to develop a deeper connection with wildlife and the wonders of our planet,” SeaQuest said in its statement. 

But in Minnesota and other locations across the country, former employees say they were under extreme pressure to sell as many of those interactions as possible.

“Every single day was the pressure of meeting the ‘KPI’ or kind of like the number standard for interactions,” a former Roseville employee said. “People would get certain bonuses for selling interactions.”

Former employees say they were also threatened with termination for talking to others about what was happening at SeaQuest.

Covino specifically addressed Roseville employees last year after a power outage at the facility and the death of an arapaima, a large fish. 

“This was sabotage,” Covino said in an internal video obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES. “There’s a confidentiality requirement that we don’t talk about these things outside of the team. Apparently, that happened this morning – it’s very important, it’s very sensitive, and it could lead to termination.”

Covino blamed “animal rights crazy people.”

In a statement, the company called the incident a “crime” and said it informed mall management, but Roseville Police says they have no record of anyone filing a report. 

Calls for action

Activists have long accused SeaQuest of exploiting animals.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) take credit for the closure of SeaQuest locations in Colorado and Connecticut after the group filed several complaints with state and federal authorities. 

Other experts say broader accountability could come from those who choose to spend their money elsewhere.

“It’s not the animal protection groups that the owner should be concerned about,” Fritz said. “It’s the public.”