Giving touch tank animals a hand (or not)

Cownose Ray IMG_0080

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.


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.

Within arm’s reach

It’s impossible for me to watch shows like “Ocean Mysteries” and “Sea Rescue” without feeling torn up over the way we are tearing up our world. The seal with the fishing line tightening around its neck, cutting into the flesh. The pelican with the pouch someone slashed with a knife. And of course the oil-covered fish, birds, and other creatures. The lovely image above was the artist’s response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The world needs to know this and consider the implications, I remind myself. There is more to learn.

A recent episode dealt with a giant Pacific octopus who’d deposited some 20,000 eggs in her habitat at a marine life center. She would care for these eggs constantly. And that would be her final act, as octopuses die around the same time as their eggs hatch. Paul, the World Cup-match-predicting octopus in Germany, only lived to be two and a half years old, and that was considered a normal octopus lifespan.

This is not human cruelty or carelessness; it’s nature. We can do any number of things to take better care of our earth and help where there is hurt. All we can do about the incredible sadness of things like this is to stay present and keep learning. short time later, I found The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (Atria Books, 2015) at a bookstore. The book grew out of author Sy Montgomery’s article in Orion magazine about her unique friendship with an octopus named Athena at the New England Aquarium. Octopuses (not octopi, she says) are intelligent creatures who solve problems, change colors according to their health and mood, and recognize the people who care for them.

Most of the book centers around the New England Aquarium and the staff and volunteers who care for a succession of Giant Pacific octopuses there. Montgomery describes her first “handshake” with Athena — octopuses taste with their entire bodies, but their suckers are the most sensitive — as “an exceptionally intimate embrace.” When Athena died suddenly, Montgomery, who felt she was just getting to know this new invertebrate friend, was surprised by her grief.

Other octopuses would cross her path, notably Octavia. “I stroked her head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me.”  Octavia also mischievously hosed a high school student job-shadowing Montgomery for the day. As Octavia began to age, the aquarium acquired young Kali, an inordinately curious escape artist. Then there was Karma, who arrived with part of her second right arm missing.

Also compelling are the stories of the humans Montgomery works with, including sixteen-year-old volunteer Anna, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a few health problems, and a host of fish tanks at home. “Going behind the scenes at the aquarium changed my life,” she says.

Though I do have reservations about animals such as octopuses being kept in captivity, reputable aquariums serve a valuable purpose. They provide ways to learn about and connect with sea life that would be far less likely or impossible in the wild. This sort of connection translates much more readily to caring and conservation than, say, abstractly hearing over and over again about the importance of conservation. The aquariums that lean more toward amusement parks or other commercial enterprises? Maybe not so much.

Of course, caring comes with a cost, such as feeling torn up inside when animals suffer or natural wonders are trashed. Or grieving over the loss of friends (of any species) whose time on earth seems absurdly short.

Still, we reach out — to hold hands with an octopus, plant a garden, recycle a pop can, or do any other seemingly small thing that keeps the regenerative force of caring alive.