2018-06-13 / News

Texas State Aquarium houses more rescued animals post-Harvey

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) - The white and brownish-black bird in the photo was covered in so many cactus spines, Alyssa Barrett could barely make out its coloring, let alone its species.

But something about the crook in its beak made her pulse quicken.

The Houston Chronicle reports it looked like the beak of a magnificent frigatebird, primarily found soaring over tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Dare she think it? Frigatebirds, with their 7-to 8-foot wingspan, did not frequent the South Texas area.

But in the days following a hurricane as devastating as Harvey, which made landfall in South Texas last August, anything seemed possible to Barrett, the Texas State Aquarium's wildlife care manager. She had just spent several sleepless nights keeping the facility's multitude of animals alive through the storm.

Barrett and her colleagues rushed to bring the injured bird, discovered by a local resident near Baffin Bay, about an hour southwest of Corpus Christi, to the aquarium for treatment. The bird was, in fact, a frigatebird. And it was more injured than they imagined.

The bird, aptly named Storm, will never fly again. It now lives in the aquarium's Caribbean Journey exhibit, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums believe it's the only bird of its kind in captivity at an accredited facility in North America.

During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor _both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey's torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured brown pelicans, turtles and other marine life.

Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.

This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It's become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.

A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it's only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.

``We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there,'' he said.

As the dim morning hours stretched into afternoon at the aquarium this spring, hundreds of shrieking children swarmed past Storm's open air habitat and dozens of cawing birds flew overhead.

But in all that time, Storm didn't move from the perch on her log. She can't not really.

After Harvey, aquarium personnel spent hours surgically removing the cactus spines embedded in her skin. But they couldn't fix her mangled wrist joint, a problem for frigatebirds that spend most of their time soaring over oceans.

Their feet aren't built for walking, and their feathers aren't waterproof, making swimming even more difficult.

So now she sits on her log all day, occasionally interacting with her similarly flightless friend, Amos the white pelican. Prior to Harvey, Amos was shot through both wings with a shotgun. Aquarium personnel could not save his flight despite numerous surgeries to reset the bones.

``Amos wanted a friend more than the frigatebird, but it works,'' said Lauren Wilson, the aquarium's curator of birds and mammals.

There likely isn't a habitat in the aquarium that better exemplifies its life-saving work than the one with Storm and Amos. Both likely would be dead if it weren't for aquarium personnel.

And that work has been decades in the making.

Three years after the aquarium opened in 1990, it became a federally permitted animal rehabilitation facility.

Staffers started small, rescuing and rehabilitating injured and coldstunned sea turtles. Eventually, they moved onto shorebirds, raptors, dolphins and even manatees.

The ultimate goal, Barrett said, is to release the injured animals back into the wild. The hallway walls of the rehabilitation building feature picture after picture of successful animal releases, from white pelicans and sea turtles to hawks and other raptors.

In the past five years, the aquarium has successfully released 65 percent of the 2,500 or so birds, sea turtles and marine mammals that have come in for care.

But sometimes, their work is not enough to get an animal back to the wild. So its home becomes the aquarium, under the watchful care of aquarium personnel.

Rescued hawks, owls and other raptors can be found in the aquarium's Eagle Pass exhibit. Rescued sea turtles can be found in Turtle Bend. Others, like Storm and Amos, are scattered around the aquarium based on their habitat, personality and preferences.

Of the aquarium's 12,400 animals, 23 have been rescued and rehabilitated, but are unable to return to the wild.

The sun shines so brightly in the aquarium's new Caribbean Journey exhibit that squinting is required most times of the day.

It's an understandable hazard in a 71,000 square-foot space covered almost entirely with a domed, glass ceiling.

When aquarium leaders started building the exhibit several years ago, they wanted to make the environment as similar as possible to what animals would experience in the wild. In part, that means exposure to natural light so they can ``see the sun go up and down and take seasonal cues that they would in the wild,'' said Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

But they didn't want to limit those benefits to above-ground animals like flamingos, blue-crowned motmots, scarlet ibises and keelbilled toucans. They wanted those benefits to stretch to animals below the sea.

To achieve that, the exhibit space's underwater living areas were designed with open-air tops, meaning the sharks, stingrays and other sea life also can track the movements of the sun, Gilbert said.

Additionally, aquarium officials pump in salt water from Corpus Christi Bay, which means the sea life are living in the same water as they would in the wild.

It makes for ``an amazing experience for both the people and the animals,'' Gilbert said.

And the results since the exhibit opened last year have been better than aquarium leadership could have ever imagined.

This spring, the flamingos started constructing nests in preparation for breeding. Several baby sharks can be seen zooming around their 400,000-gallon exhibit. A number of exotic birds already have hatched chicks and the stingrays have the characteristic grate marks associated with breeding rituals.

``We didn't expect breeding to happen, and certainly not this quickly,'' Gilbert said. ``But this habitat has created an environment where it is happening.''

The aquarium's focus on conservation and improvement of liv

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