Lawmaker wants federal probe of SeaQuest after 5 INVESTIGATES report

Lawmaker wants federal probe of SeaQuest after 5 INVESTIGATES report

Lawmaker wants federal probe of SeaQuest after 5 INVESTIGATES report

A Minnesota member of Congress is calling for a federal investigation of SeaQuest — a chain of aquariums and petting zoos recently accused of animal neglect and putting guests in danger.

The formal request from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is part of a wave of reaction to a joint investigation by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS and ABC News in February. 

More guests and more former employees of SeaQuest have since come forward to share their experiences.

The company sells hands-on “interactions” with a variety of exotic animals at seven locations found inside shopping malls across the country, including the Rosedale Center in Roseville. Public records show inspectors have repeatedly cited SeaQuest for issues involving the health and safety of both animals and people.

“Substantial violations”

McCollum says she was compelled to write to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack after watching the investigative reports that aired on 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS and ABC’s Nightline.  

“It was shocking, it was disappointing and it was heartbreaking,” McCollum said. 

In her letter to the USDA, McCollum called out “substantial violations of the Animal Welfare Act,” citing internal company messages obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Last year, a veterinarian contracted by SeaQuest Roseville admonished managers for allowing guests to interact with a pair of otters that were “past due” for their rabies vaccinations. 

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for inspecting facilities such as SeaQuest and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). 

“It is clear from the AWA violations described in these reports that SeaQuest is not an honest partner in working with the USDA,” McCollum wrote. 

When contacted for comment about McCollum’s letter, a spokesperson for SeaQuest wrote that the company “maintains an amenable and receptive working relationship with the USDA.”

In an email, the USDA did not specifically respond to the call for an investigation, but said, “APHIS takes its mission to ensure the humane treatment of animals covered by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) very seriously.”

The agency recently entered into a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice to better enforce the Animal Welfare Act. Regulators are also considering new rules around the exhibition of exotic animals.

“In Minnesota, we tend to think we’ve covered all of our bases and I think we’ve found, in this instance, we haven’t,” McCollum said. “We have an Animal Welfare Act that was written decades ago before these types of businesses even existed. And so, that’s why it needs to be refreshed.”

“In harm’s way”

Kayla Wolfe, a former SeaQuest Roseville employee, put her concerns in writing to the USDA more than two years ago. 

“What I saw there, what I experienced, it still hurts,” Wolfe said. “So, I’m just thankful that there are people still speaking out.”

Wolfe says she helped open the SeaQuest location at the Rosedale Center in 2019 and says problems began almost immediately.

“SeaQuest repeatedly and knowingly makes mistakes that puts the animals and humans in harm’s way,” Wolfe said. 

Among more than a dozen serious incidents documented by Wolfe, internal communications at SeaQuest reveal a veterinarian ordered the company to quarantine its sloth, named Flash, after the animal bit a guest on the finger in July 2019. 

But another email from a SeaQuest manager told employees that “sloth interactions are back on,” more than two weeks before the quarantine was to be lifted. 

Wolfe says the move could have forced SeaQuest to euthanize the animal.

“To be found out that you’re doing this?” Wolfe said. “You’re risking the animal’s life.”

SeaQuest did not respond to questions about the incident, but referred 5 INVESTIGATES to the company’s Animal Care Guide online. 

Wolfe saved hundreds of files documenting her concerns about the handling of otters, iguanas, birds, and a variety of other animals before she says she and several others were laid off later in 2019.

“I’ve worked with animals for over a decade, and in six months that’s what I had,” Wolfe said. “I only sent you the things that I knew I had documentation for. There’s more.”

Call to action

The renewed focus on SeaQuest comes at a time when animal advocates are calling on the government to tighten regulations of unaccredited petting zoos across the country. 

The Humane Society of the United States supports a total ban on public contact with wild animals and is now among those lobbying the USDA to make changes to the Animal Welfare Act.

“We believe that wild animals, no matter their age, their size, their species, can cause harm to the public, but also be harmed by the public,” said Danielle Palermo, the Humane Society’s regulatory specialist for federal affairs.

Last year, the Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service received thousands of comments as it considered amendments to “Dangerous Animal Handling, Enrichment and Training Regulations.”

SeaQuest repeatedly appears in several of those comments.

“As new types of interactions are being brought to the public and presented as an opportunity for these places to make money, the USDA can evaluate that and be like, ‘maybe this isn’t the best idea’ and propose a regulation,” Palermo said. “That’s what we’re hoping they do here.”

As regulators consider what changes to make, advocates with the Humane Society Legislative Fund say members of the public can continue to make their voices heard by emailing the USDA here.