By Meg McIntire and Nicole Rivard  

The Atlantic sturgeon has five rows of bony plates that run along its body for protection against its natural predators.  

Unfortunately, they don’t protect sturgoens imprisoned in the touch tank at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn., from being stirred and grabbed by kids brought there by nannies and parents desperate for summertime, rainy day- or after-school entertainment. 

On a rainy Aug. 7, Friends of Animals visited the Aquarium—it also has stingray and jellyfish touch tanks—and the “interactive” aquarium SeaQuest 20 minutes away at the Trumbull Mall.  

We wanted to expose how these modern-day petting zoos—which allow people to interact with and feed exotic wild animals and marine species from around the globe—are spreading misinformation to people of all ages about wildlife and why they belong not in captivity but in nature.  

Encouraging visitors to manhandle and take selfies with wild animals sends the message that their purpose in life is to entertain humans and that it’s ok to disrespect them and strip them of their dignity. 

“What FoA staff couldn’t stop thinking about is how stressful the interactions with kids must be to the wild animals, who normally would be trying to avoid interacting with humans,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “These places don’t care if the stress kills the animals or not. They just care about raking in money. It’s so disrespectful to animals and parents shouldn’t be teaching their kids to be insensitive to wildlife or any animal.” 

Not to mention it’s dangerous to profit off teaching the public that it’s safe to get up close and personal with wildlife. The Ultimate Safari Bundle at SeaQuest—which gets you three animal interactions, costs a whopping $54.99. That’s in addition to the $13.99 general admission fee. 

No wonder there’s been an uptick in disturbing human-wildlife encounters because people are getting too close to animals at places like Yellowstone National Park. They think the rules of staying 100 yards away from species such as bear or wolves and 25 yards from bison and all other wildlife do not apply to them.  

Shedding light on the dark world of Seaquest 

Two weeks after our visit, SeaQuest Trumbull shuttered for good. While we hailed the closure, we won’t be satisfied until the other eight locations of this nationwide chain are out of business.  

SeaQuest, which opened its first location in 2016 and has a record of poor animal treatment and illegal activity, was more seedy and atrocious than we imagined. Harsh artificial lights, a cacophony of guest and staff members’ voices echoing off concrete walls that have no windows to let in natural light, cramped enclosures and murky overcrowded tanks stunned us. We couldn’t fathom that society had taken such a leap backwards.  

In 2013, the documentary “Blackfish” caused a moral uprising—it not only put an end to the captive breeding of killer whales, but it caused people to turn their backs on places like SeaWorld because they understood that the Shamu show was not acceptable, lighthearted family entertainment.  

Neither is seeing curious, complex animals like fish, wallabies, sloths, African spurred tortoises, birds and lizards in small plexiglass enclosures. They are deprived of participating in the natural activities that are vital for their health in the wild—creating social connections, foraging for food, hiding when they sense danger or swimming long distances for migrations. 

Seeing Atlantic sturgeon swim in small, shallow circles at the Maritime Aquarium was particularly disheartening since FoA, along with WildEarth Guardians, succeeded in getting their relatives—five sturgeon species native to Europe and Asia—protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2013. These magnificent fish have survived more than 200 million years, yet are heading toward extinction because of the caviar trade. Nowhere did the Aquarium mention that people should stop eating caviar; instead signs described the proper way to “touch” a sturgeon. 

Touch tanks are deadly 

Ironically, visitors are asked to wash their hands after “jiggling the jellies” and harassing the stingrays at the Maritime Aquarium. Yet there’s no concern about bacteria from human hands contaminating the tanks. 

In 2021, a dozen stingrays died in a touch tank at Zoo Tampa. In 2019, more than 30 stingrays died at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. In July 2015, 54 rays in the Brookfield Zoo’s “Stingray Bay” exhibit in Illinois died after a malfunction caused oxygen levels to drop.  

The fish who manage to avoid death have no quality of life—unless you consider thrashing around and climbing over one another for a scrap of food from a guest is thriving. Adding insult to injury, we heard kids labeling them as “aggressive and scary.” 

A laundry list of violations 

We first took notice of SeaQuest because the Littleton, Colo., facility, which opened in 2018, has been cited frequently for violating state and federal laws. In April 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife suspended its license for two years after the facility unlawfully imported a sloth without a required permit, failed to report the death of a bird who reportedly had drowned in a water bowl and allowed a sloth to be burned twice by a heat lamp. In 2021, the Littleton Seaquest was hit with a federal violation after a wallaby drowned in an aquarium tank that had no stairs leading out of it.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that the Connecticut location, which opened in 2019, had been the site of animal mishandling, including a tree-dwelling opossum called a glider that bit a 12-year-old child. Last year, a child sustained a scratch from a rain forest animal similar to a raccoon called a kinkajou

According to Hearst Media Connecticut reports, complaints resulted in the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection revoking its exhibitor privileges. SeaQuest demanded an administrative hearing, which led to a pre-hearing mediation in which SeaQuest agreed to transfer two kinkajous and a porcupine out of state. 

The interactions with Bengal cats, Asian clawed otters, wallabies and a sloth were allowed to continue. 

And therein lies another sickening part of the animal entertainment industry.  

USDA’s resources and the Animal Welfare Act are inadequate. The mental health of the animals at Seaquest and other entertainment parks is not considered, let alone protected. The Act’s standards set forth only basic minimal requirements for food, water, housing and sanitation.  

Making matters worse, repeat violators, such as Vince Cavino, who owns SeaQuest, continue to possess and exhibit animals despite the fact that they regularly do not comply with the laws. 

It is mind blowing to us that Cavino was allowed to open SeaQuest. In 2013, 200 animals died in three months from starvation, infection and attack by animals unsuitable to cohabitation at the now-closed Portland Aquarium, which was owned by Cavino and his brother Ammon. 

Say no to animal exploitation & entertainment 

Don’t give your money to or enable any petting zoo/interactive aquarium, or similar attraction. 

Instead watch documentaries with the young people in your life that show animals in their natural habitats living their best life. 

Grab a pair of binoculars and take them for a nature walk along the beach, in the woods or in a land trust property.  

Plan a family vacation to a National Park.  

No matter where you observe wildlife, wildlife selfies are selfish. 

Professor Philip Seddon, the director of Otago University’s wildlife management program, told attendees at the International Penguin Conference in New Zealand a few years ago that the normalization of wildlife selfies was “scary” and was harming animals, including causing physical and emotional stress, interrupting feeding and breeding habits, and even potentially lowering birth rates. 

“We’re losing respect for wildlife, we don’t understand the wild at all,” Seddon said.