Visitors to the National Aquarium in downtown Baltimore never see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into caring for animals that are sick, have been rescued or are preparing to join exhibits.
That will change after the opening next week of the aquarium’s new Animal Care and Rescue Center in the city’s historic Jonestown neighborhood, a $20 million state-of-the-art facility that’s been under construction for more than a year and will be open for tours on a limitied basis starting this summer.
The building, former offices at 901 E. Fayette St. the aquarium purchased for more than $4 million, has undergone more than $16 million in renovations as a replacement and expansion of a rented facilty in an anonymous Fells Point warehouse.
The new 56,339-square-foot space more than doubles the 25-year-old center’s capacity. It now can accommodate as many as 1,000 to 1,500 animals.
It includes quarantine facilitates, where all animals entering the aquarium spend time, two rehabilitation rooms for rescued seals, animal care tanks for turtles and fish, and a veterinary lab. It houses large tanks for producing salt water, a food preparation room, a fabrication studio and classroom and office space. Lighting has been designed to replicate a gradual sunrise and sunset each day in all animal care areas.
“This building is a huge upgrade for us in many ways,” said Ashleigh Clews, the center’s husbandry manager. “It makes our jobs a lot easier.”
The center is now home to about 100 animals. They include two caiman — a relative of the crocodile — a freshwater stingray, a loggerhead sea turtle named Canuck and Duncan, a map puffer. There are striped bass, Australian lungfish, and other fish and turtles that were moved from Fells Point over a three-week period starting at the end of February.
Besides being brought to the center when they are ill or rescued, animals come to take a break from exhibits or be put into breeding programs.
Unlike the Fells Point facility, this one will be more accessible to the public.
“We designed this building with the idea that we could tour the public through …,” Crews said. “Most offsite facilities are just that, offsite. So it’s kind of fun to be able to open our doors and say this is what we do.”
Tours will start in July for aquarium members. Starting in January, visitors to the city’s biggest tourist attraction will be able to purchase tickets to tour the center.
The center is opening at a time when zoos and aquariums are aiming to more publicly highlight their conservation work amid increased concerns about animal welfare. It is part of the aquarium’s BLUEprint plan, which also includes adding more wetlands and greenery to public areas near the aquarium’s Inner Habor site and moving dolphins to a seaside sanctuary.
The new center was funded with $3 million from the state, $3 million in private funding and a $14 million loan, with payments that are just slightly more than the monthly rent for the former building on Wolfe Street, said John Racanelli, the aquarium’s CEO.
“The care and the welfare of the animals that we care for is our highest priority,” Racanelli said. “So having a state-of-the-art facility that allows us to keep that highest level of care is crucial. It’s the aquarium behind the aquarium.”
Racanelli said the center is the first of its kind to open to the public.
“Attitudes have certainly changed,” he said. “People love seeing what goes on behind the scenes and we really want to share that, partly because it will instill a a greater sense of care and empathy for animals.”
Most people don’t know that many zoos and aquariums “are heavily involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and, ultimately, return of animals to the wild,” said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “National Aquarium’s new Animal Care and Rescue Center will give visitors a first-hand look at the animal care professionals in action, caring for sick or injured marine mammals.”
The new facility also has two enclosures for seals that have been rescued from coastal areas in Maryland or neighboring states. Current residents include Lox, a gray seal that was found last month malnourished and with bite wounds on the beach at Assateague and is being treated with antibiotiocs, and Marmalade, a harbor seal found malnourished with a viral infection. The rehabilitation team works with the animals to prepare them to be released back into the wild, for instance, by hiding their food in containers to let them practice foraging.
“We want to keep their brains stimulated, their bodies active while they’re here in rehab, so they’re really suited to go back out into their natural environment,” said Kate Shaffer, the rehabilitation manager. “This facility has really expanded our capacity. … Because we can isolate the animals from one another, we no longer have to base our determination of whether we can accept a new case on where the other animal is in rehab.”
The center’s staff are the designated responders in Maryland for live stranded animals, typcially seals or turtles, and perform beach rescues with the help of volunteers. The aquarium expects to house four to six seals in rehabilitation per year. Over the past 26 years, 232 animals have been rehabilitated and released.
The facility also houses the aquarium’s fabrication shop, where artists research specific habitats to create new exhibits and renovate older ones. Artists have recreated coral for the aquarium’s Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, building structures that offer hiding places for small fish while providing more durability than actual coral.
Adam Nelson, a senior exhibit builder and habitat fabrication specialist, made replicas of crab shells on a recent morning that would be filled with crab meat and tossed into the aquarium’s octopus tank. The shells are designed to allow the octopus to hunt as it would in the wild, Nelson said.