The National Aquarium in Baltimore is building a new animal care and rescue center in Jonestown. It is expected to open in 2018. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)
The brick warehouse on Wolfe Street in Fells Point appears almost abandoned, but inside it teems with life.
The property houses the National Aquarium's animal care center, home to 1,000 to 1,500 animals at any given time — turtles, seals, sharks, trout, and tropical fish, even the occasional caiman (a relative of the crocodile).
The National Aquarium started construction this winter on a new $20 million animal care and rescue center in a former office in Jonestown. While the organization can fund the project through a line of credit, it hopes to raise about half the funds from private donors in a campaign to be launched later this year, said CEO John Racanelli.
The aquarium is also counting on $3 million in state money Gov. Larry Hogan included in the budget over three years, starting next year, Racanelli said. The city typically provides about $125,000 annually to the aquarium for capital needs.
The new facility will afford the public more of a glimpse of what Racanelli calls "the aquarium behind the aquarium" than the existing one in Fells Point.
Access would be limited, but tours will be available to donors and other groups to see the marine animals. Some of them are in quarantine until they are fit to enter an exhibit in the main building. Others recuperate in the tanks after pneumonia or boat accidents and get released back into the wild.
Duncan, a personality-filled, camo-colored map puffer, has been a resident of the current center for almost a year, since he was caught trying to eat some of the fake coral inside the Blacktip Reef exhibit.
"We'll be able to do guided tours so people can actually see the inner workings of the aquarium," Racanelli said. "It is something that doesn't bring people to the National Aquarium but it fits exactly with our mission … to inspire conservation of the world's aquatic treasures."
Zoos and aquariums across the country are placing more emphasis on the conservation work they have done for decades, said Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. They're highlighting those activities in exhibits and getting more involved in local and global conservation projects.
Offering the public a look at the kind of work happening at the animal care and rescue center is part of that trend, he said. It comes in part amid rising concern about animal welfare.
The new animal care and rescue center is part of the National Aquarium's BLUEprint plan, which also involves returning the organization's dolphins to open waters and overhauling its main Inner Harbor campus to add wetlands and other greenery in public areas.
"I think people are demanding more from modern zoological facilities and any way that AZA members in particular can help connect the audience to the conservation mission that they've been working on for decades, they're going to take those opportunities," Vernon said.
The aquarium, Baltimore's biggest tourist attraction and employer of more than 460 people, has long discussed a need for a more modern care facility that would help make the behind-the-scenes conservation work it does more visible.
In the 2000s, leaders proposed building a new facility in Port Covington, alongside a waterfront park, but those plans were shelved amid the recession.
Later, when Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank expressed interest in that area for a major redevelopment, it made sense for the organization to find a spot closer to home and "get out of the way," Racanelli said.
"That project got very expensive," he said. "It became more than what was feasible."
The aquarium has rented the space on Wolfe Street since 1993, expanding in an ad hoc "chock-a-block" manner, Racanelli said. The aquarium was spending about $500,000 a year on rent for the roughly 45,000-square-foot space.
Last year, the aquarium announced it had purchased the building at 901 E. Fayette St. in Jonestown for $4.5 million. Interior demolition and construction is underway, with plans to open in mid-2018.
The building is planned to have about 10,000 square feet more usable space than the current rental, with a mezzanine viewing area, more efficient layout and a bit more natural light.
With the modern facility, staff said, they'll be able to control water temperatures more easily. Sloped floors and drains will facilitate cleanup necessitated by sloshing tubs of water.
"It's much more open and much more conducive to what we're doing," said Ashleigh Clews, manager of the animal care center.
About a dozen people work at the Fells Point facility, which has about 50 tanks, ranging in size from 50 gallons to 50,000 gallons, and a fabrication shop where workers crafted the realistic coral that fooled Duncan the puffer fish.
Andrew Pulver, director of animal husbandry in the animal science and welfare department, said he expects the number of workers to increase slightly in the new building, especially given the possibility for tours.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, who visited the new building Thursday, said she was pleased to see renovation of a formerly vacant space in Jonestown, which is close to the Inner Harbor but hasn't seen nearly the same degree of investment.
"This project will not only expand the National Aquarium's downtown footprint, it will bring some of its important behind-the-scenes work to one of Baltimore's most historic neighborhoods," she said.