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.

Oscar the ambassador

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Oscar, a green sea turtle, gets around at the Tennessee Aquarium. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

I first met Oscar in 2007. The green sea turtle at the Tennessee Aquarium was missing his right rear flipper and a good part of his left rear flipper. A boat propeller had cut through his shell. Like many turtles who survive trauma, he’d developed buoyancy problems and bobbed, bottom up, like a cork in the big multi-species tank that was now his home.

Florida’s Marine Science Center had treated him initially. Covered with green hair algae, he looked just like Oscar the Grouch from “Sesame Street” — hence the name. When it was determined he could not be released back into the wild, he came to live at the Tennessee Aquarium in 2005. He was then about the size of a dinner plate.

By the time I saw Oscar, he was about the size of a saucer sled. Clearly, he was growing and had found a home where he would be protected and cared for … but still, I thought. How sad.

It is sad when animals suffer, especially at the hands (or boat propellers) of humans, and when our actions result in species becoming threatened or endangered. We should feel sad and angry about all of this.

But it’s so, so tempting to get stuck in the awfulness, which is probably what I did upon first hearing Oscar’s story. I remember my thoughts veering off to the pain he must have experienced, the terror when he was picked up and brought to the marine hospital … and could I ever, in good conscience, ride in a motorboat again? Was there such a thing as turtle-safe boating? Shouldn’t there be a law about that? And on and on.

I was new to animal communication at that point, which is to say I was still pretty cautious about trusting the intuitive information I was getting. My experience as a journalist had taught me to listen with my ears and mind. Communicating with animals requires listening first with the heart and then using a calm, clear mind to translate. However, the voice of this sea turtle was unmistakable.

“Are you kidding me? I’m the luckiest guy in the world. How many other sea turtles get to do this?”

Well, I didn’t have an answer for that, so I just stood for a few minutes and watched Oscar cut through the water with his front flippers and partially wedge himself under a rock to keep him from bobbing back up when he wanted to sit a spell. His joy — at having another shot at life, at being in a place where he was loved and cared for, at figuring out how to get around and stay put, and at showing people of all ages and walks of life what is possible after things go seriously, horribly wrong — was palpable. It carried through the water, glass, and crowd, and wrapped itself around me. I thanked Oscar for clarifying what it meant to be him.

My animal Reiki teacher, Kathleen Prasad, would echo this lesson years later during our training at an animal sanctuary. She taught us to both consider and look beyond the exteriors of what has happened to an animal to see the bright, beautiful light that animal essentially is. All of us, humans and animals, are not our wounds. We are not our histories. They are part of us, but we are so much more. Honoring this in ourselves and others helps us all heal and get around a bit more gently in the world.

I must add here that Kathleen is not in favor of zoos and aquariums. Though I agree with much of what she says, I’ve seen too many good things happen to and for animals at places like the Tennessee Aquarium and other accredited and/or mission-based facilities to write them all off. That’s my current thinking, anyway.

When we allow ourselves to move from the awfulness into seeing who an individual such as Oscar actually is and what he can do for the thousands of people who visit the aquarium, we can much more clearly see the next right action. Then we have a fighting chance at solving the cause of the awfulness. People who meet Oscar might be inclined to use less plastic to protect turtles from the waste, support wildlife conservation efforts with their time and finances, volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, see their own injuries and limitations in a new way, or simply smile at his upside-down pluckiness. Any of these and more can have wonderful ripple effects for us and our world.

I visited Oscar this spring, and he is now at least as big as a saucer sled. He hangs out in his favorite spots among the rocks and plants, and as Emily Dickinson put it, dwells in possibility. He assured me he has plenty of work to do.