SeaQuest Littleton must remove hundreds of animals after state officials issued a two-year license suspension, according to a ruling from the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.
Inspectors found the aquarium and zoo housed in Southwest Plaza Mall exhibited a “negligent and intentional disregard for human safety and for wildlife,” according to the ruling.
Staff failed to report numerous injuries to visitors and animals, according to a CPW investigation, and repeatedly failed to comply with orders from inspectors to improve conditions.
The facility will be required to remove roughly two dozen species of fish, birds and mammals that fall under CPW's definition of wildlife, totaling roughly 200 animals, said agency spokesman Jason Clay.
“We care about the care of the animals,” Clay said. “It's one of our missions to ensure the protection of our natural resources, including wildlife, and the safety of the public around animals.”
The ruling, issued on April 1, gives SeaQuest 60 days to remove animals that fall under the facility's state zoological license.
The ruling was first published be People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, who received it as a result of an open records request. PETA is suing the city of Fort Lauderdale to challenge its issuance of a zoning permit for a proposed new SeaQuest aquarium there, according to a news release.
The affected animals have already been sent to SeaQuest's other locations in other states, said Elsa MacDonald, SeaQuest's vice president of marketing.
SeaQuest Littleton plans to stay open, MacDonald said, and has already replaced the removed animals with others that don't fall under the CPW licensing umbrella.
“We're making changes to ensure a happy, fun experience,” MacDonald said.
CPW inspectors have not yet confirmed that the animals have been removed, Clay said.
CPW's concerns with SeaQuest Littleton date back to the facility's opening in spring 2018, according to the department's ruling.
A SeaQuest representative called CPW in January 2018 to inform the agency of their planned opening, and was told that obtaining a license for such a facility could take months and required proof that the animals would be properly cared for.
No license was issued, but two months later, CPW personnel learned the facility was opening from a news article.
The facility was exhibiting hundreds of exotic species, investigators found. Management also did not inform Jefferson County officials that the facility would house numerous animals that would interact with visitors.
One manager was found to be keeping a two-toed sloth and two capybaras in her house, and later moved the animals to SeaQuest in violation of a state order.
The facility was issued a cease and desist order by the Colorado Department of Agriculture for numerous violations including exhibiting birds in overcrowded cages in July 2018, according to the ruling, but SeaQuest staff did not inform the CPW of the order as required by law.
Staff also failed to report the death of an Australian kookaburra bird in August 2018, according to the ruling.
In September 2018, a newly hired manager informed CPW that he found numerous unreported injuries to visitors in company files, including animal bites.
Staff also failed to report a sloth that burned itself on a heat lamp in October 2018, investigators found. They also failed to report when the sloth burned itself more severely on the same heat lamp weeks later.
Upon learning of the injuries, “SeaQuest staff misled investigators in reporting that a veterinarian had been consulted, with turned out to be false,” the ruling found.
The sloth has since been moved to SeaQuest's newly-opened Minnesota location, MacDonald said.
“Slash is doing awesome, and doing a great job of interacting with customers,” MacDonald said of the sloth.
MacDonald chalked up the issues to misunderstanding of state rules and regulations.
“In terms of those incidents and injuries, when you consider the hundreds of thousands of people who flow through the facility, a lot of those were relatively minor,” MacDonald said. “Everything is treated equally and everything is reported.”
SeaQuest Littleton is one of seven SeaQuest locations nationwide, according to the company's website. Three more locations are slated to open in coming months.
The chain's other locations have drawn numerous violations and public protests, according to news reports.
SeaQuest offers guests the chance to get up close and personal with a variety of animals, according to its website. Guests can snorkel in a large pool with stingrays, for example, or feed a variety of animals.
MacDonald said the facility is going strong.
“There are still many animals for guests to interact with,” MacDonald said.
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