Ashleigh Belfiore burst into tears of relief as the judge read the jury's verdict: not guilty of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
Belfiore, 28, stood accused of abusing and neglecting a sloth under her care at SeaQuest, an “interactive aquarium” at Southwest Plaza shopping mall in south Jefferson County. A jury of six acquitted her on Oct 1.
The sloth, named Flash, suffered two burns on a heat lamp in its enclosure about a month apart in late 2018, according to testimony from investigators from Jefferson County Animal Control and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.
In a two-day trial, prosecutors alleged that Belfiore — who still works as a manager for SeaQuest — had misled investigators about when the burns occurred and about whether a veterinarian had been notified.
Dr. Jena Questen, who runs Aspen Park Veterinary Hospital in Conifer and is SeaQuest's contracted veterinarian, testified in the trial that she wasn't alarmed that she wasn't contacted after Flash was burned. Belfiore's response to the sloth's injuries — treating Flash's burns with honey, coconut oil and antibiotic cream — was appropriate, she said.
Questen said she trusts SeaQuest staff to make good decisions.
“I'm staking my reputation as a veterinarian on this,” Questen testified. “I would not be affiliated with this organization in any way if I felt they were jeopardizing the health or safety of animals.”
Mistakes were made
David Slater, SeaQuest Littleton's general manager, said he hopes Belfiore's acquittal is a turning point for the combination aquarium and zoo.
“We made mistakes,” Slater said. “I'm trying to own up to them. We've put in processes and procedures to prevent those things from happening again. I'd like to move on.”
SeaQuest, part of a nationwide chain, offers visitors an interactive experience with animals. Guests can feed iguanas and tropical birds, and even go snorkeling with stingrays. The facility is home to 250 species, Slater said — many donated by locals who could no longer care for them — spread across 45 exhibits.
But almost as soon as the facility opened in spring 2018, it drew controversy and condemnation.
The company failed to obtain necessary permits to keep and show exotic animals, according to the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, or CPW. Investigators found cages illegally overcrowded with birds. Staff failed to report animal deaths and visitor injuries. One manager was found to be keeping a two-toed sloth and two capybaras in her house.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture issued a cease-and-desist order to the facility in summer 2018, demanding the number of birds be reduced. A local news station later found a teenage employee selling some of the birds from the back of a van in a parking lot.
SeaQuest fired the facility's general manager and assistant manager in August 2018, Slater said, and brought him and Belfiore on board.
Two days after he started, according to a CPW investigation, the facility's general manager Slater turned over incident reports for numerous earlier injuries that had not previously been reported to state officials as required.
“My hope was to do the right thing and clear everything up,” Slater said.
Instead, after Flash received burns from the heat lamp in October and November, CPW charged Belfiore with animal cruelty. At a hearing in early 2019, CPW revoked SeaQuest's permit to show exotic animals, citing numerous violations.
SeaQuest was forced to remove numerous species, including snakes, otters, capybaras, and Flash the sloth. Flash now lives at SeaQuest's Minnesota location, where visitors can pay $24.95 each to spend a few minutes petting and feeding him in his enclosure, according to the facility's website.
SeaQuest Littleton replaced the removed species with non-exotic animals that didn't fall under CPW's jurisdiction, Slater said, including pigs, ducks and Savannah cats.
Since then, SeaQuest has drawn a handful of complaints to Jefferson County Animal Control, according to county records. Two visitors were bitten by a pig, in April and July. The offending pig has since been sent to a farm near Kiowa, Slater said.
In early August, investigators said a rubber band around a lobster's claw was too tight, but wrote that the issue was resolved. A report that a macaw parrot was plucking its feathers out was listed as “unfounded.”
Department of Agriculture investigators have not turned up any further violations since the cease-and-desist order in summer 2018, said Nick Fisher, who enforces the department's Pet Animal Care Facilities Act.
Slater changed the facility's policy after Flash's injuries, he said, and all animal injuries are now required to be reported to a veterinarian, regardless of severity.
Meanwhile, the SeaQuest chain continues to draw condemnation from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. The animal welfare group broke the story of the charges against Belfiore, and said in a news release that her case is why “PETA urges everyone to stay away from” SeaQuest.
Southwest Plaza manager Greg Sims did not respond to a request for comment about SeaQuest Littleton.
SeaQuest locations in other states have drawn controversy as well. The chain's Las Vegas location was cited for illegally breeding otters, according to news reports, and lost an exotic animal permit. In a news report, former employees alleged animal mistreatment, neglect and unreported deaths.
SeaQuest now has seven open locations nationwide, according to the company's website, with three locations slated to open soon. PETA recently filed a request with the federal Department of Agriculture to shut the company down, according to a news release.
Slater said he hopes SeaQuest Littleton's problems are behind it.
“I like coming to work here,” Slater said. “These are good people, and this is a good place. I want people to see that we're clean.”
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