TAMPA — When veterinarians determined that a massive turtle who lived at the Florida Aquarium needed a CT scan — a medical procedure too big for their facility to handle — where did that turtle go for help?
To Tampa General Hospital, naturally, according to aquarium president and CEO Roger Germann.
Such has been the relationship between one of the region’s best-known human hospitals, Tampa General on Davis Islands, and the aquarium just across the water at the southeast edge of downtown Tampa. And that relationship just hit a double milestone.
Thursday the aquarium celebrated the opening of the Tampa General Hospital Animal Health Care Center, where visitors to the aquarium can now get a behind-the-scenes look at animal medical care and treatment. The same day, Tampa General’s president and CEO John Couris was officially named the chairperson of the aquarium’s board of directors.
And while Tampa General is all about health care for people, not penguins, the two CEOs say there’s a nexus.
“I truly believe if we can keep our planet healthy and our oceans healthy, then we as societies are healthy,” said Couris. “We are all interconnected ... I like the whole notion of taking care of our planet.”
Germann echoed the sentiment: “Our human health, our animal health are connected,” he said. “We are way more connected than we think.”
Like Tampa International Airport, Busch Gardens, the University of South Florida and the Gulf beaches, the hospital and the aquarium are regional assets that help make up the fabric, reputation and personality of the Tampa Bay area.
Tampa General Hospital, one of the largest in Florida and site of the first successful heart transplant in the state, is a teaching hospital with a high-level trauma center and serves as a safety net for those in need.
The non-profit Florida Aquarium, which opened in 1995, features 10,000 animals — otters, stingrays, sharks and seahorses, to name a few — plus ecosystems and habitats. With conservation center to its mission, the aquarium gets about 900,000 visitors a year.
The new animal health care center inside the aquarium features a large viewing window for spectators. Depending on the day, visitors can see check-ups and medical examinations of aquarium animals — and potentially even surgical procedures, Germann said. The new facility is located in the old Bay and Beaches area, which has been recreated into what’s now called Shorelines Gallery on the second floor, at a cost of $1.2 million.
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Other times, the facility will feature educational presentations, videos, demonstrations and question-and-answer sessions with aquarium staff. The larger animal hospital continues to operate behind the scenes.
Germann and Couris met after both arrived in Tampa — each taking the helm at their respective jobs in 2017 — and hit it off. Germann said they eventually got to talking: Why not let aquarium guests see the care that goes into the animals there?
“It might inspire the next aquarist,” Germann said.
“If you think about it, oceans are often the canary in the coal mine,” said Couris. “You have to be good stewards.”
Though health care has been Couris’ career — he started at Massachusetts General Hospital and was later president and CEO at Jupiter Medical Center in South Florida before landing in Tampa — he said he’s long been a fan of the mission of aquariums. (The one in Boston was a big part of his childhood.) He served on the board of the Florida Aquarium for a few years before his new role as its chairperson.
“I don’t volunteer for a lot of different things — my priority is Tampa General Hospital and the Health and Sciences Center,” he said. But he added that it’s important for people in charge of large organizations to give their time.
His favorite part of the aquarium? The large tank in the center that moves with marine life.
“There have been occasions, particularly through the pandemic over the last 30 months or so, I would go into the aquarium, sit in that area with the big tank and just spend 10 or 15 minutes decompressing, focusing on something very calm and very peaceful,” he said. “It helped kind of center me.”
The opening of the animal health care center came on the heels of the aquarium’s recent announcement of the largest expansion in its history.
That $40 million project will include new habitats for puffins, African penguins and sea lions.
The sea lion and penguin exhibits will be outside and the puffin exhibit — expected to be the only such habitat in Florida after Sea World closed its puffin exhibit a few years ago — will be in the atrium on the second floor. Construction is slated to start in 2023 and continue through 2025.
“Aquariums are great,” said Couris, “because, in a very fun and interactive way, you can learn about serious issues.”