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Aquarium unlikely complaint target, but PETA persists over shark death

Nurse sharks like Charlie at the Florida Aquarium are uniquely suited for a life in captivity, said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. “They have a low activity level; they’re perfectly capable of just lying on the bottom and taking it easy.”
Published Mar. 10, 2017

"Nurse sharks are ideally suited for life in aquariums. They have a low activity level; they're perfectly capable of just lying on the bottom and taking it easy."

George Burgess

Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida

BY LIBBY BALDWIN

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — Sometimes, you'll find the Florida Aquarium's resident nurse shark, Charlie, hugging the sandy bottom of the dazzling Coral Reef Gallery, basking in the many currents that pump through the tank to keep its 2,000 inhabitants happy.

Most of the time, though, Charlie is hanging out right where he gets fed — beneath a flat platform near the top of the tank that serves as a launching point for visitors who pay extra to swim with the sharks.

"Nurse sharks are ideally suited for life in aquariums," said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. "They have a low activity level; they're perfectly capable of just lying on the bottom and taking it easy."

That's one reason operators of the aquarium say they were puzzled by a news release earlier this year from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, accusing the aquarium of starving to death a nurse shark named Weezy.

The aquarium stands out on the list of targets named in news releases sent by Virginia-based PETA — more than 200 releases since Jan. 1 alone. They include circuses, animal trappers, fashion designers, fur stores, dog shows and event promoters.

The aquarium, on the other hand, holds elite status as an institution accredited through a peer review process by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA grants accreditation to fewer than 10 percent of the 2,800 animal exhibitors nationwide that are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The aquarium's most recent USDA inspection in November turned up no violations. The aquarium also has gained international recognition for conservation programs that include growing coral to restock suffering wild reefs.

PETA's allegations arise from a sworn statement by a whistleblower identified as a former aquarium employee.

"The ex-employee reported that intentional food deprivation was used as a training technique at the facility," the news release said, "where staff allegedly attempted to force nurse sharks and stingrays to feed on cue by withholding food from animals who failed to eat promptly at designated times each day."

A detailed complaint requesting an investigation into Weezy's death was posted Jan. 5 on PETA's website. The request was written by Jared Goodman, PETA's director for animal law, and addressed to Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Scott Trebatowski, director of the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center. The name of the whistleblower and any identifying information is blacked out on the PETA website.

Neither agency is pursuing the complaint. The State Attorney's Office has no record of receiving it, said spokeswoman Beth Jenkins. The Pet Resource Center said it deals exclusively with issues related to dogs and cats.

But PETA said earlier this month that it hasn't given up.

"PETA is continuing to follow-up on our complaint and the whistleblower's serious concerns regarding animal care and welfare at the Florida Aquarium," spokesman David Perle said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The aquarium posted a response — as well as the original PETA complaint — at its website in January.

"We are greatly saddened to lose our nurse shark, 'Weezy," said Senior Vice President Margo McKnight, who, the complaint says, signed off on food deprivation as part of a training program through an outside company. "We have never and would never implement a food deprivation program for any of our animals."

Her statement also said Weezy was hand-fed several times a week, "to ensure he received key nutrients, supplements and medications."

According to a necropsy released by the aquarium, Weezy's death was caused by a lesion on his aortic valve that led to inflammation and infection. He was 24 or 25 years old; wild nurse sharks live 15 to 20 years.

Biologist Dr. Daniel Huber, who runs the Shark Lab at the University of Tampa, studied the aquarium's sand tiger sharks as part of a project that ran from 2008-2013. One thing he noticed was constant recording of data on the marine animals by the aquarium's staff.

"They were taking what seemed like epic measures to ensure the health of individual fish," Huber said. "Those fish have better health care than I do!"

Both Huber and Burgess from UF said they find it unlikely PETA's claims of malnutrition are true.

Sharks rely on their oil-rich livers to sustain them between meals, just in case they aren't able to find food every day.

"They could go for a long time, even weeks, between meals and still do fine," Burgess said. "Generally speaking, these animals live longer in captivity than in the wild. They're getting good loving care and steady food."

Weezy's species isn't known for being ambivalent about chowing down.

"Nurse sharks are among the first to go up to the surface and nose into the feed bucket when the divers get in," Burgess said. "They're not shy about going after food."

The Florida Aquarium, like many other zoos and aquariums in Florida, works with an outside company, Precision Behavior, to train their animals. Using a positive reinforcement method, the animals undergo training so they'll swim into certain areas at designated times for food and to receive routine medical care.

The PETA complaint singles out the role of Precision Behavior, a company with links to SeaWorld theme parks — subject of a public outcry after the 2013 documentary Blackfish highlighted the restrictive existence of killer whales who served as show animals there.

Precision Behavior was founded by Thad Lacinak, who spent 35 years as a director of animal training for all U.S. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks.

The aquarium defended its training program, called "behavioral enrichment." Animals are rewarded when they correctly respond to a command and they're ignored — rather than punished — when they don't.

"The rewards aren't always food," the aquarium's McKnight said in an email interview. "They can be touch, play time or toys, just to name a few."

Still, Huber of UT cautioned that the human motivation behind any training method is important.

"Behavioral enrichment programs are thought to be in high regard in captive settings," Huber said, "but there's a difference between enrichment for the well-being of the animal and trying to put on a show."

PETA has singled out aquariums and marine parks such as SeaWorld, the Miami Seaquarium and Canada's Marineland for criticism, in part for guest interaction programs that it says add insult to injury by allowing touching of creatures already suffering from captivity.

At the Florida Aquarium, guests slip into the 72-degree water of the 500,000-gallon Coral Reef Gallery amid species including three sand tiger sharks up to 10 feet long. Participants are not allowed to touch the animals.

Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin

BY LIBBY BALDWIN

TAMPA

Sometimes, you'll find the Florida Aquarium's resident nurse shark, Charlie, hugging the sandy bottom of the dazzling Coral Reef Gallery, basking in the many currents that pump through the tank to keep its 2,000 inhabitants happy.

Most of the time, though, Charlie is hanging out right where he gets fed — beneath a flat platform near the top of the tank that serves as a launching point for visitors who pay extra to swim with the sharks.

"Nurse sharks are ideally suited for life in aquariums," said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. "They have a low activity level; they're perfectly capable of just lying on the bottom and taking it easy."

That's one reason operators of the aquarium say they were puzzled by a news release earlier this year from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, accusing the aquarium of starving to death a nurse shark named Weezy.

The aquarium stands out on the list of targets named in news releases sent by Virginia-based PETA — more than 200 releases since Jan. 1 alone. They include circuses, animal trappers, fashion designers, fur stores, dog shows and event promoters.

The aquarium, on the other hand, holds elite status as an institution accredited through a peer review process by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA grants accreditation to fewer than 10 percent of the 2,800 animal exhibitors nationwide that are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

PETA's allegations arise from a sworn statement by a whistleblower identified as a former aquarium employee.

"The ex-employee reported that intentional food deprivation was used as a training technique at the facility," the news release said, "where staff allegedly attempted to force nurse sharks and stingrays to feed on cue by withholding food from animals who failed to eat promptly at designated times each day."

A detailed complaint requesting an investigation into Weezy's death by the State Attorney's Office and the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center was posted Jan. 5 on PETA's website. Neither agency is pursuing the complaint. The State Attorney's Office has no record of receiving it, said spokeswoman Beth Jenkins. The Pet Resource Center said it deals exclusively with issues related to dogs and cats.

But PETA said earlier this month that it hasn't given up.

"PETA is continuing to follow-up on our complaint and the whistleblower's serious concerns regarding animal care and welfare at the Florida Aquarium," spokesman David Perle said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The aquarium posted a response — as well as the original PETA complaint — at its website in January.

"We are greatly saddened to lose our nurse shark, 'Weezy," said Senior Vice President Margo McKnight, who, the complaint says, signed off on food deprivation as part of a training program through an outside company. "We have never and would never implement a food deprivation program for any of our animals."

According to a necropsy released by the aquarium, Weezy's death was caused by a lesion on his aortic valve that led to inflammation and infection. He was 24 or 25 years old; wild nurse sharks live 15 to 20 years.

Biologist Dr. Daniel Huber, who runs the Shark Lab at the University of Tampa, studied the aquarium's sand tiger sharks as part of a project that ran from 2008-2013. One thing he noticed was constant recording of data on the marine animals by the aquarium's staff.

"They were taking what seemed like epic measures to ensure the health of individual fish," Huber said. "Those fish have better health care than I do!"

Both Huber and Burgess from UF said they find it unlikely PETA's claims of malnutrition are true.

Sharks rely on their oil-rich livers to sustain them between meals, just in case they aren't able to find food every day.

"They could go for a long time, even weeks, between meals and still do fine," Burgess said. "Generally speaking, these animals live longer in captivity than in the wild. They're getting good loving care and steady food."

The Florida Aquarium, like many other zoos and aquariums in Florida, works with an outside company, Precision Behavior, to train their animals. Using a positive reinforcement method, the animals undergo training so they'll swim into certain areas at designated times for food and to receive routine medical care.

The PETA complaint singles out the role of Precision Behavior, a company with links to SeaWorld theme parks — subject of a public outcry after the 2013 documentary Blackfish highlighted the restrictive existence of killer whales who served as show animals there.

Precision Behavior was founded by Thad Lacinak, who spent 35 years as a director of animal training for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks.

The aquarium defended its training program, called "behavioral enrichment." Animals are rewarded when they correctly respond to a command and they're ignored — rather than punished — when they don't.

"The rewards aren't always food," the aquarium's McKnight said in an email interview. "They can be touch, play time or toys, just to name a few."

Still, Huber of UT cautioned that the human motivation behind any training method is important.

"Behavioral enrichment programs are thought to be in high regard in captive settings," Huber said, "but there's a difference between enrichment for the well-being of the animal and trying to put on a show."

PETA has singled out aquariums and marine parks such as SeaWorld, the Miami Seaquarium and Canada's Marineland for criticism, in part for guest interaction programs that it says add insult to injury by allowing touching of creatures already suffering from captivity.

At the Florida Aquarium, guests slip into the 72-degree water of the 500,000-gallon Coral Reef Gallery with species including three sand tiger sharks up to 10 feet long. Participants are not allowed to touch animals.

In its web post, the Florida Aquarium defends itself and other zoological and aquatic institutions as "one of our best conservation agents in addressing the increasing destruction of the natural environment."

Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin

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