Skeptics Question Aquarium Owners' Record

Groups ask city to investigate animal welfare

Ammon Covino, outside the proposed Austin Aquarium
Ammon Covino, outside the proposed Austin Aquarium (Photo by Jana Birchum)

A proposed aquarium in Northwest Austin isn't expected to open until the end of the year, but the private enterprise is already drawing close scrutiny from city officials, and has generated local and national concern from marine life experts and animal rights advocates.

Brothers Vince and Ammon Covino intend to bring a full-scale public aquarium to an old Lacks furniture store site at 13530 Highway 183 N. Whether their plan is legitimate is at issue after the death of more than 200 aquatic species at another Covino-owned aquarium in Oregon. The deaths sparked renewed interest in the pair's business dealings – including one brother's federal indictment for illegally procuring animals, and their compliance (or lack thereof) with city ordinances and state and federal laws as the brothers prepare to open their Austin operation.

On Monday, Delcianna Winders of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote letters to the city's Animal Services and the Health and Human Services Department – citing an Aug. 23 Chronicle blog post and other backup information – asking for city officials to inspect the proposed Austin Aquarium in far Northwest Austin to ensure that the Covinos are complying with state animal welfare law and with the city's wild animal ordinance.

In response, the city says that the Covinos were issued a citation by Code Enforcement in July for keeping animals on-site without a permit, and report that a subsequent permit application to do so was denied. City inspectors followed up last week and "confirmed that the animals were removed," according to the city email. "Any time there is an accusation of animal cruelty, it is a situation the City of Austin takes seriously," reads the email. Those accusations are investigated by the Austin Police Department, the email continued, which to date has not received a "complaint or request for inspection of the Austin Aquarium." Whether PETA will file a new complaint directly to APD remains unknown.

According to Vince Covino, who, with his brother Ammon, owns public aquariums in Boise, Idaho, and Portland, Ore., their proposed Austin Aquarium will give residents a chance to see and interact with 2,500 different species. But a report on the brothers' operations in Portland, published in The Oregonian, raises questions about the Covinos' ability to care for the species. The report revealed that in a roughly three-month period this year more than 200 marine animals died at the Portland Aquarium, which opened in Dec. 2012. The Oregon Humane Society, which has enforcement power there, is investigating. That is significant, says Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, but an exception to the rule: There is virtually no oversight of captive marine animals at the federal level – unless an animal is endangered – and regulations in the states are a patchwork of protections and enforcement schemes. That makes it even more important that aquariums follow best practices – embodied in accreditation standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – and employ "exceptionally knowledgeable and observant, qualified and experienced people to take care of these animals," Wathne said.

Because marine animals are delicate and can be tricky to care for, animal experts say attention to animal welfare is heightened. Human safety and animal welfare "come before everything else," says Rich Toth, director of animal husbandry at the New Orleans Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, who works on accrediting facilities through the AZA. Thirty-eight aquariums nationwide are accredited by the agency, a rigorous process that covers all facility operations, including finances and procurements; neither Covino aquarium is accredited.

On the issue of procurement, it seems unlikely the Covino brothers' actions would meet the ethical standards required by the AZA. Ammon Covino is currently under federal indictment in Florida for illegally procuring animals for both the Boise and Portland aquariums. Ammon remained free of pretrial detention on bond until Feb. 2013, when he allegedly attempted to procure additional animals from Florida. Ammon was then jailed until June when he was again granted pretrial release, first to travel to Portland and then, on June 15, to move to Steiner Ranch near Austin. We found him in North Austin on Aug. 21, inside the former Lacks store with a host of contractors from KDR Electrical Services, Inc. Covino declined to comment on the allegations of shoddy care in Portland.

According to the city's Planning and Development Review Department, the Covinos to date have not filed for a building permit for the site. Nonetheless, the interior of the facility was strewn with supplies and several contractors walked in and out carrying tools. According to department spokeswoman Sylvia Arzola, the brothers were given one permit, to demolish one interior wall. Unless and until a building permit is actually issued, the Covinos will not be able to have the place inspected or to get a certificate of occupancy.

Ammon Covino told the Chronicle that he has "talked" with the city, and suggested he has made an application to do work on the place, although he says he had no site plan. He said the contractors were there last week because he is taking bids for work inside the facility. According to the Austin Aquarium Facebook page, it would seem there's already been a lot of work done, chronicled in pictures posted to the site – including one taken July 1 of Vince Covino, with a caption that says fish quarantine tanks "are on-site, being plumbed this week."

The photos may in part have prompted a complaint to the city's Code Compliance office on July 18; inspectors issued two notices of violation, a spokeswoman said, including one for failing to have an occupancy permit that would allow for the on-site "stocking" of animals. Last week, Ammon Covino first told us that the brothers had never stored any animals at the property before conceding that they had; they've since removed all fish to another location that he would not disclose. Nonetheless, a photo posted to the aquarium's Facebook page on Aug. 2 shows three men moving a large black tank into the front doors of the store. The caption reads: "Do you think we got this 5,000-pound crocodile tank in thru the front door?"

It is also unclear whether the Covino brothers' business complies with either federal or state animal protection laws. According to the Austin Aquarium website, the facility will have sea otters and sea turtles – both animals that are protected by federal law and require a permit to show. Federal law does not protect the majority of marine animals. State law requires a zoological permit for some aquatic species.

To obtain any state animal permit, an applicant must also be accredited by the AZA; the Covinos have not applied for any state permits. Of course, and particularly with aquarium operations, both state and federal permitting laws can be legally circumvented if the facility avoids collecting or holding any of the species they cover. In other words, the Covinos could escape regulation by carefully curating their collection, which would necessarily require that they avoid adding any mammals, like the promised sea otters. But according to a Facebook post, it appears they've already acquired at least one mammal, a young kinkajou named Dexter, who has already been posing for public photo ops.

Kinkajou that are exhibited publicly are regulated by the federal Animal Welfare Act, says U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa. To date, the Covinos have not made an application for an AWA license. Although the aquarium may not yet be open, displaying the kinkajou to drive business would nonetheless run afoul of federal law, which requires the USDA license when individuals use mammals "for monetary gain," she said. USDA investigates licensed and unlicensed facilities. "We rely on the public, and our stakeholders, to let us know what is going on," she said.

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News, Vince Covino, Ammon Covino, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Austin Animal Services, Austin Health and Human Services Department, Delcianna Winders, Lisa Wathne, Humane Society of the United States, Portland Aquarium, Tanya Espinosa

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