Ammon Covino

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Last month, the University ceased its preliminary discussions with the Austin Aquarium about a possible partnership because of a controversy involving the alleged mistreatment of animals.

Austin Aquarium co-owner Ammon Covino was indicted in February for three counts of illegal purchase of wildlife, including three spotted eagle rays and two lemon sharks. According to court documents, his nephew Peter Covino IV is being tried for and obstruction of justice for supposedly erasing evidence of the purchases at his uncle’s request. Peter Covino’s sentencing is scheduled for Thursday, and Ammon Covino’s next trial date is Monday.

Faith Singer-Villalobos, Texas Advanced Computing Center communications coordinator, said the University stopped considering working with the aquarium when the University found out in the news about the allegations against Ammon Covino.

Biology senior Nana-Ama Anang said she was initially excited about the aquarium coming to Austin, but after learning about the owners’ backgrounds, she disapproves of the aquarium’s management.

“I believe they are irresponsible and do not care for the well-being of the animals,” Anang said. “The fact that Ammon Covino was arrested for obtaining animals illegally shows that the brothers have no respect for marine animals … Unless different, more experienced, trusted and responsible management takes over, I do not support it.”

Wayne Hall, biology senior and Marine Science Institute research assistant, said although aquariums are important for education, he is unsure about the Austin Aquarium’s owners’ credibility.

“Aquariums are great for educational purposes and intriguing the public about marine and freshwater habitats and organisms and the jeopardy they face,” Hall said. “The Covino brothers may be trying to educate the public, but they need to follow ethical guidelines when it comes to obtaining and managing their aquarium.”

Ammon and Vince Covino also own an aquarium in Portland, Ore. The Oregon Humane Society is investigating that aquarium because of allegations from former employees that the owners failed to provide adequate animal care.

Co-owner Vince Covino said the former employees’ allegations that the Portland Aquarium mistreated animals were untrue.

“It was just all erroneous,” Vince Covino said. “I don’t know where they came up with that information.”

Former Portland Aquarium employees did not return requests for comment.

David Lytle, Oregon Humane Society public affairs manager, said representatives of the society cannot discuss the investigation because disclosing details may compromise their findings. He said if the investigators do find enough evidence to issue a citation to Ammon Covino or any of his family members, the person cited would be barred from owning animals in Oregon for five years.

Lisa Aitala, an Austin resident boycotting the Austin Aquarium, said she believes the Covinos should not open a local aquarium.

“If there’s going to be an aquarium, it needs to be done by UT, Texas A&M, Dell, Baylor — somebody like that, somebody who’s qualified,” Aitala said. 

The owners won’t be able to open the aquarium until the city of Austin reviews the building plan and issues a certificate of occupancy. The Austin Aquarium was scheduled to open in November.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

The University is no longer considering partnering with the Austin Aquarium for educational outreach purposes.

Ammon Covino, co-owner of the aquarium, illegally purchased two lemon sharks shipped from Florida to Idaho without a federal permit. He is pleading guilty to violating a federal law by shipping lemon sharks greater than 3 feet long without a federal permit, said Vince Covino, co-owner and brother of Ammon Covino. His next court appearance is in Florida on Sept. 23, Vince Covino said.

“[Ammon] was under the impression that he didn’t need [a federal permit] because he had an Idaho state permit,” Vince Covino said.

Vince Covino said the permit requirement is unrelated to animal safety concerns, and the sharks that Ammon Covino purchased are currently alive and healthy.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center was considering partnering with the aquarium, but they stopped discussing this once the center found out about the legal issues surrounding the aquarium.

“The idea was to have an outreach exhibit for the general public that would help educate about marine life through the use of high-end technology displays,” said Faith Singer-Villalobos, the center’s public relations coordinator. “[We stopped discussions] when we found out in the news about the various allegations and the guilty plea by Ammon Covino.”

Vince Covino said a former employee — who was later fired from their aquarium in Oregon for “incompetence” — told news outlets that she had a death log, saying that fish in the aquarium starved to death and ate each other.

“The things that were written on that death log didn’t happen,” Vince Covino said. “Fish don’t starve to death. If they do starve to death, there’s a different underlying cause that caused the death, not that they weren’t being fed. They may have a sickness [causing them not to eat].”

Some members of the public are skeptical of the aquarium. The brothers’ father Peter Covino said about 30 people picketed against the aquarium in late August, and one of their concerns was that the aquarium was doing work without permits.

“I pointed out to [the picketers that] the permits are on the windows,” Peter Covino said. “They’ve always been there.”

Permits required to open an aquarium include electrical, plumbing and other construction permits, Peter Covino said.

The Student Animal Legal Defense Fund said it encourages people to read the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Animal Bill of Rights to consider how aquarium animals’ lives are affected by humans.

The aquarium’s tanks are usually between two and four times the size of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ requirements, according to Vince Covino.

“The animals are more comfortable with the bigger space,” Vince Covino said. “We can add more species if we ever wanted to, and it gives us a little more flexibility … they’re more interactive.”

The 22,000 square foot aquarium will only be open to pass-holders for the first 10 days of operation, Vince Covino said.

“It’s not one of the big ones, but it’s perhaps one of the most interactive in the country for sure,” Vince Covino said.