How You Shut Down the Nation's Longest Running Public Aquarium

Before the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., closes, it needs new homes for its animals.

No one likes moving. Sorting through years of accumulated possessions that seem to have multiplied, packing oddly shaped knickknacks, and schlepping stuff up and down stairs can provoke nightmares, not to mention pulled muscles.

Just be thankful you don't have to deal with catching and crating annoyed alligators, elusive fish, or a potentially combative octopus—unless you work at the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.

In early October, staff and volunteers began the six-month process of closing down the oldest public aquarium in the United States. Located in the basement level of the Commerce Building, which houses the U.S. Department of Commerce, workers have had to contend with a government shutdown, flooding due to heavy rains, and a bulky moving truck.

The move also required construction of a temporary door large enough get crates and boxes in and out of the building, but secure enough to maintain a perimeter.

Founded in 1873 under the aegis of the Federal Fish Commission in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the aquarium moved to the base of the Washington Monument in 1878, before winding up in the Commerce Building basement in 1932.

Although the U.S. government pulled the plug on funding in 1982, the National Aquarium Society, a nonprofit organization, kept the facility running. In 2003, the Washington-based aquarium signed a partnership agreement with the National Aquarium in Baltimore (though its construction wasn't federally funded, Congress designated it a "national" aquarium in 1979), and the two have worked together since.

Construction and renovation at the Commerce Building prompted closure of the Washington, D.C., venue. The staff was sad to lose the facility, said Dave Lin, the aquarium's director of operations. "Not having something in Washington, D.C., of all places, is a huge, huge loss."

Home Is Where the Water Is

The aquarium in the nation's capital is relatively small. It housed 2,500 animals, compared with 35,000 at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in central California, or 27,000 at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts.

The 14-member staff and a small cadre of volunteers have begun the process of closing their beloved facility and will spend the next six months finding homes for all the animals—including alligators, an octopus, and sea anemones—and dismantling aquarium systems, offices, and exhibits.

More than half the former residents—around 1,700—have moved over to the aquarium's sister facility in Baltimore, including a giant Pacific octopus, a wolf eel, and gobies.

Some animals, such as two juvenile alligators, have been returned to the wild. But others, including the leopard sharks, still don't have a place to call home.

After the Baltimore aquarium accepted what they could, curators contacted other local facilities to see if there were takers for any of the remaining animals, said Jay Bradley, a curator at the National Aquarium.

"Once we established what local partners could accommodate," he explained, they used a "Listserv that deals with aquarium-related issues." Bradley and colleagues hope the list will enable them to find homes for the rest of the collection.

But the fish aren't the only ones looking for new homes. Staff members are also looking for a new place to settle in as employees. Some have been hired by the Baltimore aquarium; others must find a new position elsewhere.

Careful With That Alligator!

From Monday through Thursday (Fridays are reserved for paperwork), most of the staff and volunteers can be found hunting for their elusive charges.

There's no manual for how to catch and transport aquarium animals. Bradley says they rely on "the collective experience of the people in the same facility." He describes the aquarium community as "pretty tight," adding, "we can always tap into other people who may have experience with certain things."

The first animals to leave were a pair of four-foot (1.2-meter), two-year-old alligators, on October 1. The aquarium had acted as a caretaker for the alligators from Savoie's Alligator Farm in Cut Off, Louisiana, since their arrival in 2012. The relationship between the farm and the aquarium dates to 2007, part of a Louisiana program to manage alligator populations in the state.

Caretakers had trained the alligators to follow either a red or yellow buoy at the end of a long metal pole by associating the targets with food. Using that technique, Bradley and herpetologist C. J. Weaver were able to lure one of the alligators out of its pond fairly quickly.

After the alligator left its pond, and stepped out on land, staff members wrapped black electrical tape around its snout, slid it into a PVC tube punched full of air holes, and placed the tube into a locked wooden crate, also punched with breathing holes.

The second alligator refused to leave its pool, so Bradley reached into the water, grabbed the hissing animal behind the head, and pulled it out. It, too, had its snout taped before being loaded into a second PVC tube, and subsequently into the crate.

Bradley and Weaver then drove the alligators to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where the animals were loaded onto a U.S. Airways cargo flight to Louisiana.

"They're more or less going to travel like if you were to send your pet on a trip," said Bradley.

The farm picked up the alligators and released them into a nearby swamp on October 2.


Staff members were somewhat more cautious when it came to predicting how well the octopus move would go. Eight arms, the ability to eject ink—and thereby spoil water quality—and a reputation as the escape artists of the animal kingdom were causes for concern.

"An octopus is not a predictable animal by any means," said herpetologist Weaver.

So caretakers trained the giant Pacific octopus to associate a clear, plastic net with food, hoping to lessen the stress of capture. It seemed to work and took only minor coaxing to shoo the milky-white male into the net.

The staff then transferred the octopus to a large, heavy-duty seawater-filled plastic bag. They filled the clear bag with oxygen, tied it off with rubber bands, and placed it in a Styrofoam container inside a cardboard box.

The plan was to drive the octopus, a wolf eel, and a crate of fish up to the Baltimore aquarium that afternoon. But staff members hit a snag when their rented moving van refused to go faster than 20 miles per hour.

They had to pull off the rain-slicked road just inside Maryland and call for help. "I think they were in the parking lot of an Ikea," said Bradley.

Luckily, staff members at the Baltimore aquarium had just picked up a new rental truck, and together with a white minivan, they drove down to rescue the stranded animals.

"Everybody arrived in good shape," Bradley said.

Small Animals, Big Problems

On the surface, a fish roundup doesn't sound particularly complicated. Just swipe a net through a school and scoop everyone into a container. Right?

That's more or less how it works, said Weaver, although water levels are first lowered in the tanks in order to corral the fish into a smaller space.

But it turns out that the smaller inhabitants of an aquarium can sometimes cause the most trouble.

"When you're looking at a tank close to about a thousand gallons and you're looking for a two-inch fish that's dark and matches everything that's in there, it can be a bit challenging," said Lin.

Weaver and aquarist Lisa Haneschlager were tasked with rounding up several vermilion rockfish and a wolf eel from an Olympic coast exhibit. The tank has a water temperature of 56°F (13°C) and features a rock wall filled with crevices that mimic a rocky coast in the Pacific Northwest.

The two staffers first tried leaning over the water with a net to catch the rockfish, but the animals escaped by darting into various corners.

Weaver then put on waders and stepped into the tank to herd the fish into Haneschlager's net. That didn't work either. So Haneschlager put on a wetsuit and mask and plunged into the tank to try and nudge the rockfish and wolf eel out of the crevices.

The aquarist eventually emerged dripping wet, but with all her charges rounded up in a gray transport tank.

Bradley and Lin were also thwarted in their initial attempts to catch a two-inch (five-centimeter) black-eyed goby from another exhibit. The tiny fish managed to elude capture by wriggling into a small space behind the exhibit in the tank.

Bradley ended up putting on a wetsuit to enter the tank so he could saw through fiberglass grating nearly as hard as steel to get at the fish.

The Zen of Aquariums

It's rare for an accredited aquarium to close, said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a U.S.-based industry organization.

"No accredited AZA aquariums that we know of have closed, certainly in the modern era," Feldman said. He noted that although the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., is not accredited, Baltimore's is.

Aquariums in general are doing quite well," he added. They're looked upon as economic engines that can anchor a waterfront. (Related: "Pictures: Seven Energy-Smart Zoos and Aquariums.")

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta are two examples of aquariums that have helped drive the revitalization of city neighborhoods, explained Feldman.

National Aquarium board members haven't ruled out a return to Washington, D.C., said Lin. There are other spaces within the Commerce Building that might be useable, but any construction plans would require substantial funds.

For now, Lin and his colleagues are focused on taking care of their animals and doing the best job they can.

"Reversing some of the blood, sweat, and tears we've put into this facility is a little on the sad side," Lin said. Bradley, Weaver, and other members of the staff have built exhibits from scratch.

"We're still trying to do everything with as much pride as we can," Lin added. "I know the feeling is shared throughout all the staff that if somebody's going to shut this place down, we want it to be us. We don't want to trust somebody else to do it."

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

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