Residents gathered outside of the Westfield Sunrise Mall in Massapequa on Saturday to protest a proposed interactive wildlife facility by SeaQuest Holdings LLC. KAYLA MCKISKI/THE STATESMAN

On a chilly November afternoon, dozens of residents and PETA advocates in hats and winter jackets gathered on Carmans Road outside of the Westfield Sunrise Mall in Massapequa. All were armed with signs. One read: “Animals will never see the sun rise at Sunrise.”

The Nov. 10 protest comes about a month after the Idaho company, SeaQuest Holdings LLC, proposed to open a branch of its interactive wildlife facilities in a 27,300 square foot space at the mall. The Town of Oyster Bay has yet to rule on the $5 million facility.

“SeaQuests are like mini SeaWorld parks and they flout the law wherever they go,” John Di Leonardo, president of Long Island Orchestrating for Nature and Animals in Entertainment Campaigner for PETA said.

Erin Taylor, marketing coordinator at SeaQuest, described the business as a “quest of edutainment” in an email.

Guests are invited to snorkel with stingrays, observe sharks and interact with animals from rainforests and deserts. The company hopes to bring all of these features to Long Island.

“It is our belief that through positive interactions, guests will develop a sense of connection with animals and, therefore, will be inspired to take better care of them and the planet we share,” Taylor said.

There are currently four open locations in the United States in Utah, Texas, Colorado and Nevada with four impending openings. The Colorado and Nevada locations are under heavy scrutiny for animal negligence.

“Clean, comfortable, naturalistic habitats are part of our animal care,” Taylor said.

However, according to reports by an inspector from Colorado state’s Department of Agriculture, Katheryn Kirk, the Colorado facility “had multiple back rooms where they were keeping birds and animals that had unsealed concrete floors as well as areas where Macaws were tearing into drywall” and that “all three Macaws were in makeshift cages.”  

“A computerized life-support system controls temperature, salinity, filtration, and other parameters, guaranteeing animals’ specific needs are met, from chilled saltwater to tropical freshwater environments. Our team members clean all exhibits and habitats, daily, with additional weekly deep cleanings,” Taylor continued.

Photos from a citation report show a capybara and a sloth living in one SeaQuest manager’s basement. At the Las Vegas location, a capybara briefly escaped on Oct. 23.

“We don’t want this aquarium in the mall,” Alisha Armellini, a Massapequa resident at the protest with her 10-year-old son, Vash, said. “They’re run by high school kids, young kids. No one has authority.”

The Colorado location was under fire this summer for failing two animal welfare inspections and receiving a cease and desist order. After the Colorado Department of Agriculture told SeaQuest to reduced the bird population to under 30, nearly 80 parakeets were given to a teenage employee to hold in his garage.

A former employee at the Las Vegas location said he saw hundreds of animals die while employed there.

“If you work at an aquarium for a year and you don’t see deaths, then your eyes aren’t open,” CEO of SeaQuest, Vince Covino said in his interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Maria Grima, a Stony Brook University graduate and project aide for the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program, was not at the protest, but she defended the seafaring creatures.

“Aquariums often contain pelagic fish and marine mammals that swim miles and miles a day, that we confine to a small cage for the purposes of education,” Grima said. “With the technology we have now, there is no excuse for capturing animals for educational supplementation.”

At the National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey in Times Square, augmented reality is put to the test. Visitors are virtually transported from the South Pacific to the coast of California through photorealistic animation.

“[SeaQuest] is not a form of education,” Armellini said and looked at her son, who held a “CAPTIVITY KILLS” sign alongside her. “My son is able to learn about wildlife through nature channels on YouTube.”

The town is welcoming public comment before considering SeaQuest’s application.

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