The planned opening of a SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium at Woodbridge Center mall this fall sparked a small group of protestors to take up signs near the retail complex amid an animal rights group's concerns with the company's track record in other states.

Denise Morgan, of Sayreville, organized Sunday's demonstration at the corner of Woodbridge Center Drive and Woodbridge Center Terrace, a clip of which she live-streamed on Facebook.

Supporters plan to gather again in the same spot on Sunday, Aug. 18, from 2 to 4 p.m.

The website for SeaQuest Woodbridge has a description of planned exhibits.

"Guests are encouraged to connect with animals and learn about their ecosystems through various hands-on activities which include hand-feeding sharks, stingrays, birds and exotic animals. Adventurers in search of a more daring experience can enjoy walk-in aviaries, behind the scenes tours, feeding caiman alligators or snorkeling with reef sharks, stingrays and hundreds of tropical fish."

"An organization that claims to care about their animals would not have complaint after complaint about animal neglect, cruelty and death," Morgan said.

"I do not condone aquariums. From what we now understand about animals living in captivity, they should be a thing of the past. But if an old-fashioned aquarium is to be built, it should be by an upstanding organization that cares about the wellbeing of their animals, their staff and their patrons."

In a statement, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that "SeaQuest is a chain of sleazy aquariums that's racking up an ever-growing list of dead animals, illegal conduct, and injuries to its employees as well as to the public. PETA has been working to expose this company's aquariums for what they are: shady, lawless death traps. When local activist Denise Morgan asked for our support to protest in Woodbridge, we immediately shipped her materials for her campaign."

In response, a spokeswoman for SeaQuest said many activists "have never set foot inside a SeaQuest facility and it is likely difficult for them to see beyond the false 'captivity kills' rhetoric they use against aquariums and zoos."

"Animals at SeaQuest receive dedicated veterinary care, daily supervision for health, and routine checkups and screenings for possible illnesses," Elsa MacDonald said Tuesday. "They are also provided with dietary supplements and specially customized diets for optimal health. Every month, our vet documents any concerns pertaining to the cleanliness or suitability of each habitat, and any animals with health concerns. In addition, interaction guidelines are followed by team members to ensure a fun and safe experience, as we educate guests on the importance of caring for these animals and their habitats in the wild."

Among concerns raised by PETA, two SeaQuest facilities lost permits earlier this year.

A SeaQuest aquarium in Littleton, Colorado, had its license suspended by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials for two years this spring, less than a year after its opening at a mall there, according to The Denver Post.

The same report said dozens of complaints and reports of injuries were recorded at the facility before it opted to replace some species with new animals that don’t require state licensing.

SeaQuest Las Vegas had its exotic-animal permit revoked in April, as the facility possessed otters and coatimundis without proper permits. A Las Vegas ABC affiliate reported in February about fines for the Asian small-clawed otters, and concerns among former employees and animal advocates about conditions at the Las Vegas aquarium.

In February and again in June, SeaQuest Fort Worth was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing members of the public to come into contact with an Asian small-clawed otter without an adequate barrier in-place, resulting in at least four incidents in which visitors were hurt, according to the USDA report.

PETA also points to SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino, whose brother Ammon Covino has been federally convicted for illegally buying and transporting lemon sharks and spotted eagle rays from the Florida Keys for exhibit at the Idaho Aquarium in 2012.

In 2016, Ammon Covino was sentenced to an additional three months in prison for violating conditions of his release, by helping set up two aquariums in Texas, using false names and false claims of employment, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in southern Florida.

While SeaQuest has stated that Ammon Covino has never been involved with the company, South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in August 2018 that Ammon Covino's relationship with Vince Covino's aquarium business dealings has remained unclear.

MacDonald said Tuesday that the company is committed to conservation and rescuing local animals.

"SeaQuest will continue to focus on the issues that matter most, such as vulnerable species we successfully breed, the overfishing crisis, the slaughter taking place due to unregulated shark finning, and many more threats which greatly impact the future of this planet," she said.

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