Giving touch tank animals a hand (or not)

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Cownose rays at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. (Photo ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

When I see children and adults crowded around a touch tank at a zoo or aquarium, I can’t help cringing just a little. The introvert in me cannot imagine that having all those reaching, possibly grabbing and grubby hands in the water could be anything but stressful for a stingray, shark, starfish, or other animal. Water is a quick conductor of energy.

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The two-finger method — which is not being used here — helps ensure a light, gentle touch for the animals. (Photo ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

Yet I also see the kids’ delight — not just in getting their hands in the water and touching something new and different, but in actually interacting with these beautiful and fascinating creatures. A child who touches a stingray that swam up to him is far less likely, I would think, to be cruel or indifferent to stingrays, other sea creatures, or animals in general as a decision-making grown-up.

I had the experience myself as an adult of putting my hand in a touch tank. A stingray swam past, I thought just to graze the tips of the two fingers I offered, but he stopped right under my hand. That momentary connection is something I’ve remembered years later.

But is this interaction good for the animals?

A 2017 study at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago compared the health indicators (heart rate, weight, and other markers) of 40 cownose rays in the touch tanks to 18 in off-exhibit tanks. Both groups remained clinically healthy. This would indicate that cownose rays, at least, take touch-tank duty in stride.

Watch any touch tank, and you’ll see a few rays flapping playfully around the edges. There are natural meet-and-greeters — ambassadors, even — in every crowd, and bless them for putting themselves out there. However, some animal welfare organizations, including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), say all touch tanks by nature are inhumane and should be shut down.

A couple of things I’ve observed in recent years: Some touch pools have out-of-reach “rest areas” where the animals can go at any time if they do not want to be touched. Other aquariums close their touch tanks at intervals to give the animals a break. Both of these are positive steps. As an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m a big advocate of not only animal protection but healthy boundaries.

So I continue to have mixed feelings about touch tanks. The Shedd study will likely spur further research and consideration about how these exhibits further the cause of animal welfare and education, or if they do. In the meantime, should you choose to visit one, I can offer a few tips to help make it a better experience for the animals, you, and any children in your charge:

  1. Make sure the zoo, aquarium, or other facility is reputable; look for accreditation by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums.
  2. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water up to your elbows, rinse well, and dry.
  3. Follow any instructions or rules posted near the touch tank or spoken by a staff member or volunteer. Adults, this means you, too.
  4. Make like a lighthouse. Before you even touch the water, get calm, stand still, and imagine light radiating out from you.
  5. When you put your hand in the water — you may be told to use two fingers — wait for the animals to approach you if they choose. (You’re still a lighthouse.)
  6. If a ray or other animal makes contact, continue to — you guessed it — keep still and calm. Thank the animal before you step away from the tank.
  7. Repeat step No. 1.