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Humane Society investigating Idaho Aquarium

The Idaho Humane Society said Sept. 10 it is investigating complaints of poor animal care at the Idaho Aquarium in Boise.

Veterinarian and Idaho Humane Society CEO Jeff Rosenthal said the organization launched an investigation Sept. 9 after three people complained that there were problems with the way animals were cared for at the facility.

The aquarium’s marine biologist, Nate Hall, said he didn’t know of any investigation and the facility has a 1 percent animal mortality rate, which he said is about average for aquariums.

The facility opened two years ago and has since been connected to a series of criminal cases involving two of its officials and their family members.

Aquarium co-founder and former director Chris Conk pleaded guilty in 2011 to illegally smuggling coral, and both he and aquarium President Ammon Covino have been charged with conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Idaho.

Conk’s ex-wife, Deidra Davison, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trafficking in wildlife and violating the Endangered Species Act. Covino’s nephew, Peter C. Covino IV, has been convicted of obstructing justice in connection with his uncle’s conspiracy case.

Rosenthal said three people contacted the Humane Society with complaints about the aquarium about a week ago. He didn’t give details of the complaints other than to say they were animal care issues. But former Idaho Aquarium employee Jordan McDermott-Roe told the Idaho Statesman that he quit after his former boss ordered him to put a chameleon with a broken pelvis in a freezer to kill it.

McDermott-Roe began working at the aquarium in June 2012 and said that after he refused to freeze the reptile, his boss, Conk, did it himself.

“But the octopus was really the worst,” McDermott-Roe told the newspaper. “That was by far the worst experience I ever had with an animal.”

He said the octopus, Mortimer, died from toxicity after staffers were told to change its water less frequently than recommended to save money.

Hall, the aquarium’s marine biologist, said he performed the necropsy on the octopus and concluded that the water quality was normal, and there was no indication the animal was poisoned or that poor care contributed to its death.

Hall said he spoke with Idaho Humane Society officials this week and invited them to tour the aquarium Sept. 12.

“I want to have a positive network with all our local, state and federal agencies,” Hall said. “They’re just one more network to reach out to so that we’re not appearing that we’re hiding anything.”

Rosenthal said Humane Society officials initially reached out to the Idaho Department of Agriculture to see if the state agency has jurisdiction over the investigation because it was unclear whether the aquarium’s animals qualified as “production animals” under Idaho law, since they’re used in exhibits.

The Agriculture Department determined the animals weren’t production animals, which means the Idaho Humane Society has authority to launch an investigation, Rosenthal said. The Humane Society has also reached out to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, since those agencies issue permits to the aquarium for some animals.

The Humane Society’s investigators are deputized by the Ada County Sheriff’s Department, so they can issue citations if they find misdemeanor violations of state law or city ordinances. A county or city prosecutor must handle any bigger cases.

Rosenthal said it’s too early in the investigation to tell how long the process will take or to speculate on the findings.

“These folks have been accused of various things, but it’s very common for complaints to come in, and they are not found to be substantiated,” Rosenthal said. “It’s very likely that we’ll be taking whatever we find to the city attorney for review.”

The Oregon Humane Society is investigating the deaths of more than 200 marine animals at the Portland Aquarium, which was also opened by Covino with his brother, Vince Covino. Rosenthal said the Portland Aquarium is a for-profit operation, while the Idaho Aquarium is a nonprofit venture, and the investigations are not related.

Still, he said, the Idaho Humane Society may reach out to the Oregon Humane Society down the road if local investigators determine they need expert help in the local investigation. Most animal complaints to the Idaho Humane Society involve furry, domesticated creatures, not marine life.

“If it comes down to questions of husbandry issues – housing, water quality, that sort of thing – then we would need to work with experts,” Rosenthal said. “How much nitrogen should be in a turtle’s tank? It certainly wouldn’t be obvious, not as obvious as seeing a starving or neglected animal in someone’s backyard.”

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