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.

Horse sense helps veterans move forward

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Geronimo stands with a buddy at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Ann Collins)

When someone returns from military service with wounds seen and unseen, we may not know how to help. Fortunately, horses do.

This might seem counterintuitive, considering how many battles we humans have ridden horses into over the millennia, but humanity’s partnership with the horse continues to evolve. The physical tasks of caring for horses get veterans outdoors, moving, and doing something tangible that makes sense. But it’s more than that.

Horses are nonjudgmental, profoundly empathetic, and delightfully individualistic even though they are also social creatures. A horse may not comprehend the particulars of what a veteran has been through, but you can bet that horse knows how he feels. The horse likely has war stories of his own: of trauma, injury, self-preservation, and survival. When horses allow you into their world, the healing goes both ways.

Jockey Red Pollard said in the movie “Seabiscuit” that he, the trainer, and the owner — three men of very different backgrounds, each with his own demons — didn’t take a broken-down, underdog horse and fix him. “He fixed us … and I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.”

The therapeutic riding center where I volunteer as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, facilitates just this sort of work with horses and veterans. We’re having a special event called Stock the Barn 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, to raise funds to do even more. Let me tell you about a few of our equine warriors.

Pirate, a big, red retired racehorse with incredibly kind eyes, could have spent his retirement at a stud farm but opted to come to Summit instead. He’s got a host of aches and pains left over from his racing days. When I see him walking across the pasture, I hear him say, with each step, “I’m moving … I’m moving.” This summer, as I dealt with some of my own pains, he would regularly ask: “Are you moving, too?” A horse holds you accountable like no one else does.

• When I first met Geronimo, the young mustang reminded me of James Dean … a wildly handsome rebel without a cause who felt others just didn’t “get” him. His resistance to cooperating with director Allison Wheaton, along with a few scuffles with the other horses, frequently landed him in timeout, but she continued to work with him. The skills Geronimo needed to gain, Allison says, are the same skills some veterans with PTSD need to be able to go to the grocery store. Veterans can see themselves in a mustang’s hypervigilance. Last winter, just by his presence, Geronimo comforted a fellow volunteer through a stressful work transition. Now he’s connecting with our veterans. His journey still has its ups and downs; progress is rarely linear. They “get” him.

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Biff, like the veterans he works with, has had to work on learning new ways of responding to the world around him. (Photo by Meg Miller)

• Then there’s Biff. The Gypsy Vanner joined us this summer and proceeded to leave bite marks and bruises on just about everyone before being put in a pen by himself, but within sight of the rest of the herd. Somehow or other, Lakota — another young mustang adopted from the Bureau of Land Management who has been doing some serious training of his own — and Geronimo let themselves into the pen with Biff. The three of them have been hanging out without incident, and all three have been working with veterans. Biff has decided he wants to keep learning.

If a veteran you know is struggling to find a way forward, there’s probably a horse out there who needs a buddy, too. Let’s leave no one behind.