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The San Antonio Aquarium was ordered to close in March of last year when police found it to be operating in defiance of lockdown orders.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is calling on the federal government to shut down the San Antonio Aquarium, alleging that a convicted wildlife trafficker is involved with its operations.
PETA's letter, addressed last Thursday to the director of Animal Welfare at the United States Department of Agriculture, argues that the feds should revoke the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) license the aquarium needs to operate. It also asks the USDA to pull the Austin Aquarium's AWA permit and to refuse to issue one to the Interactive Aquarium & Wildlife Preserve scheduled to open in Houston.
All three aquariums are officially owned by Crystal Covino, the wife of convicted wildlife trafficker Ammon Covino, according to PETA's letter. However, the animal rights group argues that "Crystal’s involvement appears to be a means for Ammon to contravene federal law prohibiting him from obtaining a license to exhibit animals."
Officials with the San Antonio Aquarium and the Houston facility didn't respond to a request for comment. However, Austin Aquarium spokesman Sebastian Griffin denied that Ammon Covino has any involvement with that operation, adding that Covino "retired" from the business in 2013.
"It's old news," Griffin said. "PETA is just trying to spread misinformation once again. They don't like the people who love the animals."
Griffin did confirm, however, that Crystal Covino owns the aquarium. He also said that during his month working in his current position, he's met both Crystal and Ammon Covino.
Ammon Covino's trouble with the law stretches back nearly a decade. In 2013, he was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks from Florida to an aquarium in Boise, Idaho, according to news reports
After his release, he was reportedly arrested twice for violating the conditions of his parole
— specifically, that he not engage in activity involving the possession or exhibition of fish or wildlife.
In addition to the facilities in Texas, Covino has also helped run aquariums in Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Utah, according to PETA's allegations.
The San Antonio Aquarium, located in Leon Valley, was cited and ordered to close
in March of last year when police found it operating in defiance of pandemic lockdown orders. In 2018, it was forced into temporary closure
after being cited with code violations by the Leon Valley Fire Department.
PETA lawyer Michelle Sinnott said her organization has collected solid evidence that Covino is behind the three Texas aquarium ventures.
"He got sloppy," Sinnott said. "There is a paper trail of social media posts, government records and public statements all pointing to the inevitable conclusion that Ammon's financial stake in these facilities has been intentionally concealed."
A 2018 Washington Post article
about an attempted shark heist at the San Antonio Aquarium identified Ammon Covino as the aquarium's owner. Similarly, a San Antonio Aquarium Facebook post
from 2018 identifies Ammon Covino as owner of the facility.
Additionally, a screen capture of a 2020 Facebook post also appears to show Covino trying to recruit performers to work at the Austin Aquarium.
Sinnott said PETA hasn't received a response to its letter from the USDA. She added that it will likely have to wait for one until the department has conducted its investigation of the allegations.
"The USDA shouldn't be issuing licenses for convicted wildlife traffickers to exhibit animals," Sinnott added.
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