TRUMBULL — The announcement that SeaQuest is closing its Trumbull location Sunday comes just weeks after the USDA's latest inspection reports, in which the department cited the company again for its animal handling practices and for an animal biting a guest during an exhibition.
The last inspection report was from June 20 and it cited an insufficient barrier or distance between families and wallabies at an exhibit.
Officials at the Boise-based company did not return email messages seeking comment Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday, staff at the Trumbull location declined comment.
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According to the report, a wallaby was in an exhibit space and the employee responsible at the time was on their phone and engaged in a conversation with another staff member when three children were petting it and trying to feed it food. The complaint details the safety risks for both children and animals by allowing children to physically interact with the animals without supervision of a staff member.
“Lack of sufficient distance and/or control of an animal during public interactions poses a risk of harm to the animals and/or the public,” said a statement from the report. “Correct by ensuring that employees present during animal interactions follow this requirement to assure the safety of the animals and the public.”
In the prior inspection report, dated May 24, the inspector noted that a sugar glider, a small tree-dwelling opposum, had bitten a 12-year-old child during an interactive session. At the time there was one staff member monitoring five gliders and two guests, with the gliders allowed to run freely over the guest.
During the interaction, which happened on May 13, the child closed their hand over one of the animals, which then bit the child, according to the report. The inspector noted that "Failure to handle animals as carefully as possible can result in behavioral stress, physical harm, and/or unnecessarydiscomfort to the animals, and can result in injury to members of the public."
The animals in question were quarantined by state health officials and the inspector advised the company to assign adequate staff for interactive exhibits.
The incidents were the latest in a string of occurrences in which animals bit guests or were mishandled, according to the USDA.
PETA, the animal rights organization, has been opposing the Trumbull SeaQuest location since before it opened. The organization on Wednesday celebrated the announcement that the Trumbull location would be closing its doors Sunday.
Reportedly, the animals will be transferred to other SeaQuest locations, including one in Woodbridge, N.J.
“On Aug. 20 there will be one less SeaQuest in the world and that is cause for celebration for sure,” said Michelle Sinnott, director of captive animal law enforcement at PETA.
Since SeaQuest opened in Trumbull Mall in 2019, PETA has filed eight USDA complaints. The group's most recent complaint was filed in April, and officials said they are still awaiting updates.
But their hope is that although the Trumbull location is closing, it will continue to be investigated.
“What we hope for at this point is for the USDA to continue fully investigating the allegations from that whistleblower to ensure that past conduct that’s occurred at this facility is cited and face consequences for that behavior,” Michelle Sinnott, the PETA Foundation's director of captive animal enforcement, said. “They’re not allowed to just shut their doors, walk away and never face the music.”
Gregg Dancho, director at Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, pointed out that the exhibits at SeaQuest differed greatly from those at the zoo.
“We uphold standards from AZA — Associations of Zoos and Aquariums. We don’t use our animals for that kind of programming, there’s really no hands-on kind of connection," he said.
The main difference, he said, is that the zoo is a non-profit organization and SeaQuest is a for-profit business.
"We uphold our standards, and whatever their standards were, is what they uphold," he said.
SeaQuest has not only been under PETA and other animal-rights activists’ radar for several years, but was also embroiled in a tax battle with the town of Trumbull in 2021.
According to reports, Trumbull filed a lawsuit claiming that SeaQuest owed $167,158.33 in back taxes, interest and attorney fees.
SeaQuest responded with a lawsuit of its own that claimed the town's $4 million assessment was overvalued.
Trumbull First Selectman Vicki Tesoro said she did not expect the loss of a tenant in the mall to affect the facility's overall health.
“I don’t think it’s really going to have a huge impact on the future of the mall and I don’t see it having any significant impact on our effort to set a vision for the mall and the mall area for the future," Tesoro said.