Protesters gather following approval of SeaQuest Aquarium in Fort Lauderdale

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (WSVN) - A SeaQuest Aquarium has been approved to open at The Galleria in Fort Lauderdale despite objections and controversy.

Protesters gathered Tuesday outside City Hall in Fort Lauderdale, where they’ve vouched for over a year to stop the controversial aquarium from opening.

Inside City Hall, dozens of animal activists attended the city commission meeting to urge commissioners to reverse the approval.

“You are not beholden to an out-of-state company with a proven track record of animal deaths,” said activist Ana Campos at the meeting. “You are beholden to us, the residents.”

The city has given SeaQuest the green light to open the aquarium on the second floor of the mall, located along East Sunrise Boulevard.

Don Anthony with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida said, “Now they want to take this very shady operation and open it up in South Florida. We don’t need that. It’s a bad image. It’s a bad tourist attraction.”

7News obtained the blueprints for the planned aquarium, which will feature a shark touch tank, a capybara and sloth enclosure, a trout/duck tank and additional areas for hedgehogs, bearded dragons, pygmy goats and otters.

The blueprints also highlight an area called the Dr. Fish Manicure, where baby fish will nibble on visitors’ fingers.

“Once again, it boils down to using animals for commercial purposes to just make money with,” said protester Ken Pelton.

As 7News first reported, SeaQuest has a checkered past.

Former employees at the Las Vegas location said animals died there.

In June, after opening a SeaQuest location in Littleton, Colo., state inspectors failed the facility.

The inspection report stated that finches, “…did not have access to food and water” and “all three macaws were in makeshift cages that had violations.”

Video obtained by a TV station in Denver showed a murky water tank and an employee appearing to scatter birds by swiping at them with a dustpan.

SeaQuest was also fined after investigators found they illegally imported a sloth and two capybaras into the state.

The animals were reportedly kept in the basement of a manager’s home.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., was so concerned about SeaQuest that he sent the U.S. Department of Agriculture a letter asking them to investigate the company.

“We heard from some constituents who were concerned about what they had heard about the aquarium, and we just wanted to try to get to the bottom of it,” said Deutch.

Despite the controversies, SeaQuest has always maintained that they put animal care first.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis agreed to look into SeaQuest’s history at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

“The accusations that you’re making tonight are the first I’ve heard, and we will certainly investigate that,” Trantalis said.

The exact opening date of the new Fort Lauderdale location remains unknown.

When asked if she felt defeated, Campos said, “No, not at all. I’m actually gearing up for a very strong fight. We’re not going anywhere, and we will continue to fight.”

“I think it’s a black eye on Fort Lauderdale. That’s what I think,” Campos added.

7News additionally obtained emails between Vince Covino, SeaQuest’s CEO, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In November of last year, Covino wrote, “… the City of Fort Lauderdale is leaning towards our aquarium not fitting into the zoning set for the mall.”

The email continued, “As of now, it doesn’t look very promising…”

Two weeks later, Covino sent an email to FWC that said, “We met with the city yesterday, and it took an unexpected turn for the better!”

On SeaQuest’s approved Fort Lauderdale certificate, the city refers to the business as a museum.

“It was very surprising because no animal exhibits are allowed in that district, and they’re bending the rules and calling themselves a museum,” Campos said. “They are not a museum any day of the week.”

7News reached out to SeaQuest for a comment on the protesters but did not receive a response.

SeaQuest’s CEO, however, did tell the sun sentinel, “We’ll win the community over. We’re going to be there for decades.”

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