The Austin Aquarium — under fire for its owners’ animal buying practices — may see increased scrutiny from the Austin City Council, which passed a resolution Thursday to make sure the aquarium follows proper animal safety guidelines.
The aquarium, set to open in December, attracted controversy after owner Ammon Covino was accused of animal abuse, in addition to purchasing animals illegally at an aquarium he owns in Portland. The Oregon Humane Society is currently investigating that aquarium.
Covino pleaded guilty in September to three counts of illegal purchase of wildlife, including three spotted eagle rays and two lemon sharks, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Prior to the indictment, the Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT was considering a partnership with the aquarium, but the center stopped those discussions with the aquarium’s owners when the University found out about the aquarium’s legal issues, center spokeswoman Faith Singer-Villalobos said.
“[The resolution] was definitely sparked by the fact that we have a new aquarium being built,” said city councilwoman Laura Morrison, the resolution’s sponsor. “It raised a lot of concerns. We heard from a lot of constituents who were concerned about the welfare of the animals that would be kept there, so we are asking our staff to help us understand what — if any — authority we have and what certifications might be applicable.”
The resolution’s goal is to encourage city staff to become more informed about regulations the aquarium must abide by,
“The resolution asks [city] staff to investigate and tell us what the authority is, but we asked them to also talk with the Animal Advisory Commission as they’re developing their research,” Morrison said.
Citizens expressed concerns that the aquarium would not be a healthy and safe environment for animals, Morrison said.
“We have a good record in the City of Austin of speaking out and implementing strong animal welfare approaches,” Morrison said.
Morrison said the goal of the resolution is to help city council members learn about which regulations — such as guidelines about enclosure size, maintenance and aquarium operations — the law requires aquariums to follow.
“Obviously, we depend on our Animal Advisory Commission in significant ways for advice and recommendations,” Morrison said. “If, in fact, there are some steps that we can take, I would envision that we would definitely work through the Animal Advisory Commission.”
Patricia Fraga, Animal Services spokeswoman, said the Animal Advisory Commission is likely to discuss the resolution at their December meeting.
Lisa Aitala, a local activist who is vocal about the aquarium, said she thinks the council should have
become involved in the aquarium issues earlier.
“Ultimately, I hope the city council will take a really serious look at the Austin Aquarium,” Aitala said. “I’m seriously hoping that they’ll start pushing for more rescue, rehab, release education and not so much the money-making part of it.”