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Animal Legal Defense Fund Demands Investigation of Morro Bay Aquarium for Tax Fraud
MORRO BAY, Calif. — On August 13, the national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) sent formal complaint letters to California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Internal Revenue Service, alleging the Morro Bay Marine Rehabilitation Center, the nonprofit arm of the Morro Bay Aquarium, committed tax fraud when it claimed nonprofit tax status based on false claims that the facility provides rehabilitation services to distressed marine animals. However, the Morro Bay Aquarium has not rehabilitated a marine mammal since 1995, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) rescinded the aquarium’s “letter of authorization” to rescue marine mammals following the Aquarium’s repeated failure to comply with the agency’s requirements. Without alerting the IRS to this change, the Morro Bay Aquarium—dubbed “Seal Guantanamo” by critics—has illegally claimed nonprofit tax status for nearly 20 years. Earlier this year, under threat of litigation from ALDF, the aquarium also stopped making false claims that their seals were “all rehabilitated.”
Poor conditions at the Morro Bay Aquarium include lack of adequate veterinary care and minimal space—seals and sea lions are permanently confined in shallow concrete tanks without enrichment. Following a visit to the Aquarium in 2010, Dr. Laurie Gage, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), wrote in her report, “This facility has an alarming mortality rate of captive born animals that is over 90 percent for both sea lions and harbor seals. No captive born pinniped has lived longer than 4.5 years after arriving at the aquarium. These animals should be able to live easily into their 20s.” The aquarium is expected to close in 2018, when its 50 year lease from the city of Morro Bay expires.
“The Morro Bay Aquarium has lied to both the public and the government, claiming its seals were rehabilitated. The IRS has an opportunity to end this charade and revoke the aquarium’s nonprofit status,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “The Morro Bay Aquarium should close its doors now rather than forcing these animals to suffer for four more years.”
Copies of the letters of complaint and the NMFS letter revoking the Morro Bay Aquarium’s rescue authority are available by request.