Austin Aquarium is under investigation by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife (courtesy Larry D. Moore)
the besieged Austin Aquarium is once again under fire from regulators, including the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlifeafter a scathing investigation report by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals earlier this year. From March to July, the undercover PETA investigator, who worked as an aquarium employee, documented a long list of animal welfare and worker safety violations, now detailed on the company’s website. organization. Among them are claims of an iguana and several lizards abandoned in an alley, stray snakes, serious bites on employees, and more.
michelle sinottan attorney for PETA, says, “There’s a lot that’s on display to the general public as soon as they walk through the doors of this facility, [and] there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that is horrible and cruel.” Sinnott said PETA is following Ammon Covino (husband of Austin Aquarium owner Covino Crystal) and the family brand of “sleazy children’s zoos/aquariums” for several years, and that Austin authorities should “slap them” with charges of criminal cruelty. PETA also calls for United States Department of Agriculture to terminate the Covino family’s animal protection law licenses for its operations in San Antonio and Houston as well as Austin. Austin Aquarium’s Lawyer, Michael J. Smithdenies “any allegation that an animal has ever been neglected or abused at [those] facilities.”
This isn’t the first time PETA has sounded the alarm about the Austin Aquarium, and last time they were right. Ammon Covino, who opened the Austin facility with his brother in 2013, was convicted of trafficking wildlife from a Boise aquarium later that year and sentenced to federal prison. He then returned to prison for violating his parole in 2016 by helping other Covinos open aquariums in Utah and Nevada.
Although the Austin Aquarium is legally owned by Crystal Covino, in a letter to the USDA, PETA alleges that Ammon is not only “openly referred to by employees as an owner,” but is also involved in the transportation of animals from Vince Covino’s farm. Sea Quest, which has many franchise locations in the United States, including Fort. The pain. Smith told the the Chronicle that “Ammon Covino’s role in the Austin, San Antonio, and Houston facilities is exhibit design and construction. He does not dictate breeding practices or have a role regarding encounters with animals.”
“What may seem simple can often lead to knowledge of the activity warranting longer-term examination.” – Christopher Maldonado of TPWD
The USDA has previously cited the aquarium for minor violations or “teachable moments” during routine inspections, and recently cited the San Antonio Aquarium for code violations related to potentially dangerous temperature. Over the past few months, PETA has submitted requests for investigation to several regulators, including alerting Austin County Animal Control/Travis and the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration in July to more than 20 bites from lemurs, kinkajous, capybaras and otters that aquarium management allegedly failed to report, and a letter to TPWD alleging that Asian vine snakes are “going missing all the time”.
In the OSHA letter, PETA alleges that employees are “regularly” attacked and that there are “intentional efforts to avoid reporting or documenting these attacks, which means that employees may not receive proper diagnosis and treatment”. In 2019, a local family sued the aquarium when a potentially unvaccinated lemur bit a child during an educational visit, after USDA veterinary inspectors documented improper barriers between the public and the animals.
In an email to the Chronicle, Smith denies numerous specific PETA allegations regarding number of employee bites and reasons for certain animal injuries; for example, he says, “Although snakes have occasionally escaped, there have not been ‘dozens’ of them and none have been found dead anywhere. Any exit point was promptly closed and secured .” Some of the disputes may simply be differences in interpretation; when we asked for comment on an iguana that PETA said had been “put in a cage outside and left to die [for] three days,” Smith replied, “a veterinarian…has instructed the facility to place Igor in an outdoor enclosure to provide him with additional sunlight. Based on his advanced age, Igor died of natural causes.” Smith also disputes the validity of a PETA video compiled of undercover interviews with alleged employees, “because it was obviously edited or manipulated…making impossible for the Austin Aquarium to determine whether the individuals are actually employees or simply individuals that PETA has recruited. But it’s hard to know what employees really think, because AA asks them to sign nondisclosure agreements. (The the Chronicle contacted several former employees, but none had responded by press time.)
“If either agency finds that an animal has been neglected or has not received adequate care, the animal will be removed or the facility will be closed,” Smith said. “Instead, these facilities continually pass their inspections and have never had any animals removed.” USDA says PETA’s request for investigation is under review, and Christopher Maldonadoa TPWD wildlife permit specialist, said the agency is currently reviewing the claims: “If the circumstances warrant it, a full investigation can take a long time; what may seem simple can often lead to knowledge of an activity warranting a longer-term review”.