Animal advocates sue Fort Lauderdale, try to sink controversial SeaQuest Aquarium in court

(WSVN) - The fight over an aquarium inside a Fort Lauderdale shopping mall is going to court. Animal advocates have filed a lawsuit claiming the city broke their own rules during the approval process. 7’s Brian Entin investigates.

SeaQuest Aquarium calls itself an interactive experience where visitors are encouraged to touch animals.

Despite animal advocates protesting the aquarium’s proposed location in the Galleria Mall, the City of Fort Lauderdale approved the project last month.

Even as SeaQuest continues to make news in other states for all the wrong reasons.

Reporter (in Feb 27 news report from Denver): “Reports show a shark bite, stingray barb stuck in someone’s hand, an iguana jumping onto another person’s chest and clawing at their mouth, causing them to bleed.”

Reporter (in Feb. 25 news report from Las Vegas): “An otter dead, a capybara badly hurt after escaping from an improper transport and an animal control investigation just this month after employees were bitten by a coatimundi.”

The aquarium has a troubling track record of violations and reports of animal deaths in other parts of the country.

Animal advocates here in Florida, along with PETA, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the City of Fort Lauderdale, claiming the city never should have given SeaQuest the green light.

Ana Campos, animal advocate: “They didn’t just bend the rules. They threw the rules out the window.”

SeaQuest plans to have hundreds of animals in the mall, from stingrays and sloths, to pacific seals and pigs. But animal exhibits are not allowed in this part of Fort Lauderdale, so instead of calling itself an animal exhibit, SeaQuest is calling itself a museum.

Ana Campos: “This is not a museum. They’re grasping at straws. They are trying to circumvent the ban on displaying animals.”

City staff have also questioned whether SeaQuest is actually a museum.

In emails obtained by 7News, Fort Lauderdale’s Director of Sustainable Development Anthony Greg Fajardo wrote, “SeaQuest is starting to look more like a zoo to me…”

Fort Lauderdale’s Urban Design and Planning Manager Ella Parker wrote, “to qualify it as a museum is misleading” and that “it is very apparent that the changes to the application were specifically designed to get around the zoning, and I think they’re grasping at straws.”

Fort Lauderdale’s Public Affairs Manager Chaz Adams told us the emails we obtained “are erroneously being taken out of context.”

But he wouldn’t explain how the city determined SeaQuest is a museum, so we tried asking Fort Lauderdale’s City Manager Chris Lagerbloom at the Fort Lauderdale City Commission’s meeting, Tuesday night.

Chris Lagerbloom, Fort Lauderdale City Manager: “So it’s probably better than right before the beginning of a meeting that I get back to you after the meeting is done.”

So we waited until the end of the meeting.

Chris Lagerbloom: “I want to confer with our city attorney to make sure we don’t put our process in jeopardy by saying something, and then all of a sudden we have to come back and retract or try to say again.”

In a written statement, the city maintains it followed all guidelines in the approval process.

We reached out to SeaQuest but did not get a response.

Their location in the Galleria Mall is still empty, but their name and logo are already on the mall map.

On Wednesday, the city responded to our question about SeaQuest’s classification as a museum.

They said the business is similar to Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science, and for that reason, SeaQuest was issued a permit.

Fort Lauderdale’s full statement to 7News from Public Affairs Manager Chaz Adams:

“The emails you are presenting are erroneously being taken out of context. The Development Review Committee (DRC) evaluation is deliberative in nature and it is not unusual to have differing opinions particularly in the early stages of the process. In fact, in many instances, differing opinions are welcome as they provide the impetus for staff to ensure multiple perspectives are objectively considered and analyzed. In this case, the City conducted an extensive review of the SeaQuest application. Guidelines set forth in our Unified Land Development Regulations (ULDR) were followed, the appropriate code and laws were objectively applied, and the application permit was properly approved.”

“It is important to remember that the City’s code does not list every possible permitted use for a business. In evaluating the SeaQuest application, the City of Fort Lauderdale’s Development Review Committee identified a business with a similar use, the Museum of Discovery and Science, which operates as a museum, has animals on display, and interactive animal exhibits. Per the City’s code, when permitted uses are not specifically listed but are substantially similar to those already operating, a permit shall be issued.”

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