ABC News & SeaQuest

A few weeks ago, ABC News contacted SeaQuest regarding a news story they were actively working on.
In the spirit of full transparency, we were happy to answer all questions. 

Below, you will find the questions presented to us by ABC and our response. They have not been altered or edited in any way. 


ABC News spoke with multiple people who used to be employed at SeaQuest. Kalen Whitney, who worked at the Woodbridge, New Jersey location between 2021-2022, and several other former employees provided us with photos and videos of animals that look sick or injured, saying that many animals at SeaQuest facilities did not receive proper veterinary treatment. 

What is your response to these allegations? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Between 2021 and 2022, SeaQuest Woodbridge acquired hundreds of rescue animals, many of whom were in very poor health. A guest contacted us to explain their husband was terminally ill and unable to care for his very large exotic animal collection. SeaQuest stepped in to help, and our team worked diligently to rescue these animals. Unfortunately, several of them were too unhealthy to save. Animals receive prioritized health care based upon Veterinarian and Husbandry director recommendations. In some cases, surgery or medicine was not advised due to the prognosis, the risk of treatment, and the expected post-recovery quality of life. Many animals at SeaQuest are rescues, and we have been asked to rehabilitate or care for them when previous owners can no longer provide for them. Oftentimes, The Department of Fish & Wildlife will contact SeaQuest specifically and inquire if we have the ability to foster or home a rescued animal. 


What are SeaQuest’s policies in maintaining the health of the animals under its care? 

SeaQuest Response: 

SeaQuest follows hundreds of carefully designed policies and procedures to ensure the health and welfare of our animal population. On-site Vet techs conduct daily health checks and USDA audits to ensure animals are thriving and healthy. Each location has dedicated Veterinary team members who do walk-throughs of all exhibits and enclosures. Licensed veterinarians assess each animal, provide care, and oversee dietary processes. Health concerns are reported to our veterinarians, and the appropriate treatment is administered.  


Kalen Whitney also told us of a “parakeet plague” that occurred at the Woodbridge, New Jersey facility, where, she says, dozens of birds died off rapidly. She alleges that there was a high number of animal deaths in the facility that went undocumented.

SeaQuest Response: 

Birds are regularly tested and monitored to maintain a healthy environment.  We adhere to strict USDA guidelines, including tracking and monitoring each bird. During a specific period lasting approximately three weeks, the population experienced several mortalities. Thorough tests and necropsies were conducted, revealing no evidence of any disease or epidemic among the parakeets. Our parakeet population is in a healthy state and has been assessed by USDA to be in compliance with all guidelines. 


How frequently did deaths occur across the SeaQuest locations? 

SeaQuest Response: 

The mortality rate at each location is determined based on the number of animal residents, the age and pre-existing health of rescued animals at the time of rescue, and the life expectancy of each species. Often, rescue animals come to us with visible signs of neglect. Many of our rescues are able to adapt to their new environment. Some have a more difficult adjustment period and need extensive rehabilitation, including proper nutrition, parameters, enrichment, and overall care. On occasion, animals come to us so sick that we are unable to rehabilitate them, unfortunately ending in unavoidable mortality.


Are all animal deaths at SeaQuest documented? If so, how are they documented? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Mortalities are recorded on official documentation on-site as well as digitally, and necropsies are performed by trained experts. These records are shared with the appropriate parties, including our National Husbandry Directors, local, state, and federal regulators, and our Veterinarians. 


Kalen Whitney acknowledges that she made mistakes during her employment and was ultimately fired, but she believes that her mistakes are not why she was terminated. She alleges that she was targeted for speaking up for the animals. What is your response? 

SeaQuest Response: 

The first requirement for employment at SeaQuest is a love for animals. Disrespect toward or neglect of animals is subject to disciplinary action, including termination. Our company upholds an open-door policy, encouraging employees to voice any issues to their department manager, assistant manager, general manager, or HR. Additionally, our home office is actively involved in our primary communications, providing a unique opportunity for employees to communicate directly with national directors. Kalen ultimately was terminated due to subpar performance and lack of safety adherence. There is no record or recollection of Kalen raising any concerns during her employment time. The disciplinary progression is thoroughly documented and available in her file. Subsequently, Kalen contacted SeaQuest shortly after her termination and expressed a desire to return to SeaQuest, despite having been terminated for cause. The HR record reports this request was not considered due to the severity of her actions, which resulted in her termination.


Several employees also provided us with photos and videos of roach infestations at the facilities, saying that these infestations lead to concerns among employees about infections. What is your response to these allegations? 

SeaQuest Response: 

When animals and food are present in any capacity, there is the risk of an infestation. We take the necessary precautions to eradicate exposures by using third-party services to ensure roach-free environments. Routine and regular visits from our pest control providers help us eliminate these pest concerns, and daily cleaning and maintenance routines exist to avoid these types of infestations.


What are SeaQuest policies to ensure clean hygiene of its facilities?

SeaQuest Response: 

SeaQuest has elaborate cleaning checklists as well as local and national inspections by the Home Office. Licensed veterinarians and local, state, and federal regulators have policies to ensure compliance with regulatory bodies and cleanliness for the animals, guests, and employees. SeaQuest is in full compliance with all regulatory bodies.


What policies does SeaQuest have in place to ensure that there is no transfer of infection or diseases between the animals and people? 

SeaQuest Response: 

There are several policies, inspections, parameter and chemistry tests, and checklists ensuring a disease-free environment and eliminating the risk of transfer of any possible infections. 


SeaQuest has an array of animals at its locations – including endangered species like sloths. Where do you source these animals from? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Our animal population is comprised of rescues, donations, and acquisition of surplus animals from other zoos and aquariums. We also acquire animals from reputable breeders. All endangered species at SeaQuest are captive-bred. 


Employees and customers of multiple SeaQuests describe it as a converted shopping mall, with animals having no access to daylight or fresh air. One employee in Folsom, California, described a Flemish rabbit having no room to run around, causing her bottom area to become covered in feces and matted – so much so the rabbit couldn’t properly defecate. 

What is your response to these allegations? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Lighting and exhibit design include the use of UVB lights, which gives the animal the same benefits that the sun does and ensures proper health is maintained. Our exhibits are also sized and developed in a way that ensures the animals have adequate room for their health and mental stimulation. The USDA, State Fish and Wildlife Departments, and several licensed veterinarians have approved of the full spectrum UV bulbs utilized to replicate sunlight in habitats as well as the size of every exhibit.  

The size and dimensions of the Flemish Rabbit (named Nutmeg) exhibit have been approved by the State of California Fish and Wildlife Department, the USDA, local animal control regulators, and several licensed veterinarians. Nutmeg’s exhibit, as with all exhibits at SeaQuest, is well within industry standards and exceeds all regulatory size requirements. Like most SeaQuest animals, Nutmeg also enjoys time outside of her exhibit. Under supervision, she likes taking regular walks and hopping around the site. Guests have frequently complimented on her friendly and peaceful demeanor. She always draws a crowd when she is seen out and about.

Nutmeg has had previous issues with her fur matting due to her strong desire to sleep in her litter box. This is very common for rabbits. We maintain her health and prevent matting with daily brushing and changing her litter box substrate. Nutmeg has always been able to defecate without issue. The attending veterinarian conducts routine examinations on Nutmeg and expressed that she is in good health and has no concerns. 


Former employees from several SeaQuest facilities described to ABC feeling overwhelmed and understaffed. 

One told our Sacramento station that they didn’t have time to properly take care of animals since they also were overwhelmed and pushed to do interactions with customers to bring in money, which ultimately resulted in animals suffering. An employee said there were “a lot of animal deaths” at her facility due to this – but when she went to HR and management, her team was told they needed to “manage their time better.” 

What is your response? 

SeaQuest Response: 

The allocation of hours required to ensure all animal welfare and safety needs are met has been carefully calculated. Internal national surveys of our team members reveal that our team feels they have adequate time, resources, and training to complete their jobs effectively.  

The vast majority of our animals’ deaths have been from natural causes, such as old age or cancer, that couldn’t have been reasonably prevented. In some cases, animals have perished from preventable causes such as rare accidents, accidental team member negligence, or team members’ disregard for established best practices. Guidelines and instructions from upper management are non-negotiable and must be adhered to. 


Several former employees described a company culture that pressured employees to sell interactions at the expense of the animal’s health. 

Our station in Sacramento, CA interviewed a former employee from your Folsom location. The employees told the station that SeaQuest’s business model prioritizes money over animal welfare and quality of life. They said the number one priority is getting customers to sign up for interactions and/or memberships as it would bring in “thousands of dollars in a day.” Despite the USDA regulations requiring breaks for animals, employees told us SeaQuest’s animals often went with no break and were forced to “interact” with customers – often causing the animals to lash out, become depressed, get overwhelmed and even pass away.  What’s your response?

Would you say SeaQuest prioritizes profit over its animals quality of life? 

SeaQuest Response: 

The number one priority for SeaQuest, above all, is to ensure the health and safety of our animals and provide a high quality of life. One of the keys to a successful animal and guest encounter is a happy, well-trained animal. Ensuring the animals are consistently thriving and receiving proper enrichment is essential to the guest experiences we create.  


How do you schedule “breaks” for the animals? The USDA has very clear and specific rules for animal breaks.  

SeaQuest Response: 

We adhere to all USDA-required breaks, giving our animals break time equal to the time they spend doing interactions that provide enrichment and stimulation for the animal.  Daily activity and time logs are carefully tracked and recorded. Our animals are also provided a hidden space where they can rest and get privacy at their leisure. The number of guest interactions with the animals is carefully monitored to ensure they are not overwhelmed or distressed. We never force animals to interact; if they do not voluntarily exhibit a desire to interact or show any signs of discomfort, the interaction is suspended. 


Another former employee told our Minneapolis ABC station in regards to the Roseville location: “Every single day was the pressure of meeting the KPI, or kind of like the number standard for interactions. We were compared to all of the other sites and kind of – they would say whether you’re doing good or bad in terms of selling interactions.” They said that they were pressured to sell interactions because it made the company money.

What was the company’s procedure on animal interactions with guests? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Our Safari team members (guest services) are encouraged to share the joy and benefits of animal encounters. Direct interactions are a superb source of enrichment for our animals and allow our guests to develop a deeper connection with wildlife and the wonders of our planet. Our Marine and Wildlife teams (animal care teams) work diligently to ensure each animal is happy and healthy and receives sufficient enrichment. Our guests get to participate in this enrichment, resulting in a better animal and guest experience. We follow USDA guidelines for all animal interactions, including the correct way to approach the animal and how to feed and pet the animals properly. 


What is the response to the allegation that SeaQuest prioritizes these ‘interactions’ over the safety of its guests and employees? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Safety takes priority when it applies to our interactions. Guest and staff injuries are extremely rare, but if one does occur, we have standard protocols in place to address the injury and evaluate the overall safety around the occurrence. 


ABC News reviewed USDA records and found that since 2019, SeaQuest has been cited over 80 times for various issues ranging from human injuries, potential disease hazards, the inadequate care of animals at their facilities, and a number of animal deaths. 

What is your response?

SeaQuest Response: 

Throughout its history, SeaQuest has had 10 locations, and is host to millions of visitors each year. With hundreds of employees and thousands of animals, injury, and mortality, though very rare, exist. We continually implement training and procedures to ensure we are working to prevent citations. All locations complete USDA daily and weekly audit checks in keeping with all regulations and requirements. 


Have you taken steps to address any of those complaints? If so, what have they been? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Each complaint and/or citation is taken seriously, carefully reviewed, and addressed accordingly. Corrections and improvements are swiftly implemented.


ABC News sat down with Helen Demore-Callejas, who said she took her two children to SeaQuest Ft. Worth in 2022. She said that despite being encouraged to interact with animals, that there wasn’t anyone around to show them what to do or how to interact. 

What are SeaQuest’s policies for monitoring interactive exhibits with animals?

SeaQuest Response: 

Our sites have a very high guest-to-employee ratio. On peak busy days, we may host up to 20,000 visitors across all sites. These days may give us limitations to having an assigned team member for every single exhibit. Instead, a team member may be assisting in multiple encounters. However, any exhibit that requires a team member for the safety of the guest or animal is always staffed, or the exhibit will not be accessible to the general public until a team member can assist. This staffing process is a USDA requirement we take very seriously. In addition, SeaQuest has provided and posted signage to give general directions and instructions on what to do in that exhibit if the exhibit requires it. 


What kind of training or certification do SeaQuest employees have to work with animals? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Our team members undergo extensive training through our National Husbandry Directors, local mentorships, industry symposiums, programs with other zoos and aquariums, licensed veterinarians, vet techs, and other carefully designed policies and resources. Our husbandry team members often have years, if not decades, of experience in animal care and wildlife/marine biology.


Helen says that at the stingray touch exhibit, her 8-month-old daughter was bitten by a grouper, drawing blood. She alleges that when she told a staff member, that their reaction was shocking to her, as they acted as if it was a normal occurrence and just offered a few Band-Aids. 

What are SeaQuest’s policies when a guest is hurt by an animal during an interaction? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Guest injuries are taken very seriously. When an accident involving a guest occurs, our immediate priority is to address any injuries sustained. Our staff are trained to remain calm and triage the situation. They gather comprehensive details and complete an incident report.  Guests receive necessary medical attention promptly. All incidents, however minor, are meticulously documented, and any needed corrective or preventative measures are promptly enacted.


ABC News was able to find at least 70 incidents reported on or cited by state or federal agencies of people getting hurt at SeaQuest facilities. 

What is the total number that SeaQuest has for the number of people who have gotten hurt at SeaQuest since the first store opened in Utah in 2016? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Though rare, work-related injuries with exotic animals are a job hazard. Our safety team works to minimize incidents by conducting ongoing safety training and safety inspections. 


The ABC station in Minneapolis acquired internal communications between Dr. Heather Douglas and the Roseville, MN facility. In early 2023, Dr. Douglas sent a message saying, “The otters are past due for rabies…”
The Director of Wildlife, Katie Hastings, wrote back asking if they could continue interactions anyway:  “Would it be possible to continue interactions so that they (the otters) do not lose that enrichment and training?”
After some back and forth over a few months, Dr. Douglas followed up: “It has come to my attention that interactions had been occurring prior to the end of their quarantine. This is directly in violation of what I have advised the facility (of) the Animal Welfare Act.” 

Why did SeaQuest continue allowing the public to interact with these animals against its own veterinarian’s advice? 

SeaQuest Response: 

There was no direct public interaction with the otters during this time. Human contact with any public guest was strictly prohibited. Instead, the otters were separated by a tall, protective acrylic wall that guests could throw food over to feed the otters and provide enrichment. Only approved staff and veterinary staff entered the exhibit during the quarantine period. Dr. Douglas was fully aware of this arrangement. There was no violation of the Animal Welfare Act. 


Follow-Up Question: 

In your statement, you said that there was no direct public interaction with otters before they were fully vaccinated, and that human contact with any public guests was strictly prohibited. I am attaching photos posted by your SeaQuest Roseville’s facility page that shows photos of otter interactions as well as a screen shot from video the company posted before the quarantine period had ended. As your director said in the messages, the interactions are set up so that a bite would be nearly impossible, but not impossible. Why did you make the decision to continue those interactions during the quarantine period?

SeaQuest Response: 

We can confirm the specific images you have referenced are not from our Roseville location. Our marketing team manages social media across all sites and often utilizes imagery, photos, and videos from our creative library to promote every location. We cross-post on all of our social channels. Some images or content are used on multiple occasions for marketing purposes. This is to showcase to our thousands of followers the variety of interactions guests experience at SeaQuest. 

As stated in our first response, during the quarantine period, the otters were unavailable to the public. All direct contact interaction abilities were offline and not offered to guests, This was reflected on our website, our internal communications between the home office and the site, and in our booking system. Dr. Douglas was informed of this and knew we were in compliance with the quarantine policy. 


Are all the animals at your facilities up to date on vaccinations? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Yes, all animals are current for all of their vaccinations.  


After the death of a large fish (an arapaima) at the Roseville location in May 2023, Vince Covino sent an internal video message to employees. In that video which ABC News obtained, Covino calls the death the result of “sabotage” by “animal rights crazy people” and says, “Hopefully that person will go to prison.”

Did SeaQuest ever contact police or other authorities to report an animal rights organization? 

SeaQuest Response: 

SeaQuest Roseville immediately contacted and informed our mall management when the apparent sabotage had occurred. A perpetrator cut power to the exhibit via a breaker box maintained by the mall. The crime resulted in the death of an Arapaima, a species that is at risk of extinction due to overfishing. The mall obtained footage of the perpetrator cutting the power but were never able to identify him. The team took it very hard. The CEO wanted to accurately explain what happened. He let the team know that they were not responsible for this tragic death and commended their swift action when the situation was discovered. The individual who turned the video over to ABC was fully aware of the sabotage. In the state of Minnesota, intentional animal cruelty that results in death is subject to legal action, including a fine or imprisonment. 

SeaQuest is offering $10k to any tip that leads to the indictment of this perpetrator. 


Follow-Up Question: 

You also said that the power outage that caused the death of an arapaima was due to an apparent sabotage. We have reached out to the Roseville police and did not find any report regarding such an incident. What law enforcement agency did you report this to? You said that you are offering a $10,000 reward for any tips regarding this incident; we searched and did not find any information about the offer of a reward online or on your website. Where did you publicize that offer?  Can you share with us material about the reward from that time period.

SeaQuest Response:  

In the past, we have filed police reports when we have been the victim of animal rights sabotage. These efforts have been to no avail. These incidents are very taxing to the emotional well-being of our dedicated team members who personally suffer the loss. The animals are their family.   

Each time animal rights saboteurs victimize us, we notify mall leadership and security.  In this particular case of sabotage, which, by all appearances, led to the death of the arapaima, we have time-stamped footage and mall correspondence on the very date of the incident. The mall increased security relative to our off-site power breakers in response to this attack.

With ABC’s help, SeaQuest is offering $10k to any tip that leads to the indictment of this perpetrator. 


Additionally, Covino threatens to fire anyone who talks about the incident: “There’s a confidentiality requirement that we don’t talk about these things outside of the team. Apparently that happened this morning (and) is very important is very sensitive and could lead to termination,” Covino said in the video. 

What policies does SeaQuest have to ensure employees report problems to the proper local, state, and federal authorities without fear of retaliation from management? 

SeaQuest Response: 

Team members are encouraged to voice concerns if they feel managers or leaders are not creating a safe and healthy space for associates, guests, or animals. Team members are directed to contact HR or members of the executive team if they do not feel their concerns have been adequately addressed. There has never been a policy precluding employees from talking to regulators or authorities. 

Confidential policies protect team members from retaliation. This includes protecting our team members from animal rights proponents who have made ongoing threats (including death threats) to our employees. If an employee feels threatened in any way, they are encouraged to notify the proper authorities immediately. 


Through the course of our reporting, we found that Vince Covino’s brother Ammon Covino was sentenced in 2013 to a year in prison for the illegal trafficking of marine wildlife.

Is Ammon Covino involved with running SeaQuest in any way?

SeaQuest Response:   

Since being founded in 2016, Ammon Covino has not ever been, nor is currently, involved in any way with SeaQuest, SeaQuest LLC, or SeaQuest Holdings. Vince Covino maintains an amicable family relationship outside of their common dealings in the zoo and aquarium industry. 


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