'Can't be quiet anymore': SeaQuest aquariums have issues, some former employees say

The mall aquarium operator says it prioritizes safety, but some say otherwise.

As Helen DeMore-Callejas and her family walked around the Ridgmar Mall in Fort Worth, Texas, they came across an unexpected sight: signs and pictures for an interactive aquarium called SeaQuest.

Excited to take her two young daughters, Lola and D'Anna, to their first aquarium in the summer of 2022, the family walked in. Inside, they were greeted not only by an array of fishes, but also a variety of different exotic animals?including a?capybara, tortoise and Bengal cats.

"I was expecting mostly fish in such a small place in a mall," DeMore-Callejas told ABC News. "I was really surprised to see so many little mammals and farm animals. It was kind of surprising and sort of strange."

PHOTO: One of the interactive exhibits that SeaQuest offers is with the iguanas.
One of the interactive exhibits that SeaQuest offers is with the iguanas.
ABC News

As the family made their way around the aquarium, DeMore-Callejas said they were approached by staff and encouraged to interact with the animals.

"A staff member actually came up to us and said, 'You can touch all the animals,'" DeMore-Callejas said. "But as we were walking around, there wasn't really anyone around to show us what to do or how to interact."

The family purchased tokens for animal food and went around to feed the fish at various exhibits. As Lola was playing with the water at the stingray touch exhibit, DeMore-Callejas said she was startled to hear her daughter shriek.

PHOTO: SeaQuest encourages guests to buy tokens to feed the animals.
SeaQuest encourages guests to buy tokens to feed the animals.
ABC News

"At first, I thought, 'OK, it was a fish bite.' It wasn't until I was holding her and she moved her hand that I saw blood on my shirt, and I realized like, 'Oh, she really got hurt,'" DeMore-Callejas said.

DeMore-Callejas says Lola was bitten by a grouper, causing her finger to bleed. As she looked to SeaQuest staff members for help, she said she was even more surprised by what she described as the staff's reaction to her daughter's injury.

"I know injuries happen. Sometimes animals bite. But to me, the way that the staff reacted was really shocking," she said, saying they were offered a few bandages. "It just seemed almost like it was a normal occurrence."

"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," SeaQuest told ABC News in a statement.

In past interviews, including with Denver ABC affiliate KMGH in 2018, Vince Covino, the CEO and founder of SeaQuest, has said the vast majority of guests have a great experience at SeaQuest. The company currently operates seven aquariums across the United States.

But an ABC News investigation in collaboration with three of its affiliate stations found the DeMore-Callejas family's experience was not an isolated one, uncovering at least 75 other incidents where people reported being injured by animals at various SeaQuest locations since the company's first aquarium opened in 2016.

Kitty Block, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, says these incidents show that public interaction with exotic animals should be limited.

"Wild animals are just that. They're wild," Block told ABC News. "They can hurt people. It's not because they're intending to do it. They're wild animals, and a lot of the time they just want to get away from you."

PHOTO: An interactive exhibit that SeaQuest offers is snorkeling with the stingrays.
An interactive exhibit that SeaQuest offers is snorkeling with the stingrays.
ABC News

A review of state and federal documents found that SeaQuest has been cited more than 80 times in the past five years by several government agencies -- including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection -- for issues ranging from human injuries, potential disease hazards, the inadequate care of animals and, in some cases, conditions that lead to animal deaths.

"They keep operating when they get fines. This is about profit," Block said.

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SeaQuest maintains that the health and safety of its animals is its top priority, telling ABC News in a statement that "with hundreds of employees and thousands of animals, injury and [animal] mortality, though very rare, exist."

But several people formerly employed at SeaQuest told ABC News the pressure from management to sell "interactions," where guests can interact with animals for an additional fee, caused issues at the aquarium.

PHOTO: SeaQuest has seven locations across the U.S. and says it's the fastest-growing aquarium in the world.
SeaQuest has seven locations across the U.S. and says it's the fastest-growing aquarium in the world.
KXTV

At the SeaQuest facility in Roseville, Minnesota, ABC affiliate KSTP obtained internal messages sent among some employees in April 2023 through June?of that year?discussing the otter exhibit and whether or not the otters were current on their rabies vaccinations.

According to the internal messages, a veterinarian flagged to the director of wildlife last April that "the otters are past due for rabies since January and cannot be on interaction until they are up to date."

The director asked if they could continue the interaction because the plexiglass made a bite "nearly impossible," the messages showed; the vet said no.

Two months later, in June 2023, the vet warned that she learned the "interactions had been occurring" while the otters were supposed to be in quarantine following their vaccination, "directly in violation … of the Animal Welfare Act," according to the internal messages.

SeaQuest disputed this, telling ABC News "there was no direct public interaction with otters during this time" at the Roseville facility.

Some former employees say?that?it was?the deaths of animals that motivated them to speak out.

"It was like a dice roll what animals got to see the vet," Kalen Whitney, who used to work at the SeaQuest location in Woodbridge, New Jersey, told ABC News, adding there were also roach infestations in the facility and that management was "super out for money."

SeaQuest told ABC News many of their animals at their Woodbridge location were rescues, and they had acquired many that were in poor health that they "worked diligently to rescue," but several were "too unhealthy to save."

SeaQuest said each of its locations has a dedicated veterinary team that does?regular walkthroughs of all exhibits and enclosures?as part of their veterinary protocols.

Whitney,?who was fired after working at Seaquest for a year, said?she believes that?bringing up concerns about the animals' health to management eventually cost her her job. She said she had made mistakes, including leaving an iguana's enclosure open at closing time, but believes she was ultimately terminated for speaking out.

"I didn't start working on fighting against SeaQuest because I got fired," Whitney said, and that she had been raising concerns while still an employee. "It took a lot of things happening where I was like, 'That's it. I can't be quiet anymore.'"

SeaQuest told ABC News that Whitney "was terminated due to subpar performance and lack of safety adherence," and that there was no record of Whitney raising any concerns during her employment time.

Back in Texas, DeMore-Callejas and her family hope their experience serves as a warning to other families.

"It's understandable that a parent would think, 'This is a really fun thing to do with my family,'" DeMore-Callejas said. "But I would just like to tell them, it's not."

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