A Trip to Stingray Bay

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It’s a yearly tradition in my family to take the kids to the Toronto Zoo on Thanksgiving (that would be October 13, Canadian Thanksgiving) and the 2008 version of our trek was even better than usual.  The autumn leaves were probably at their peak and the zoo’s forested grounds put on an awesome display.  It was sunny and temperatures were well above normal for this time of year.  The accompanying photo I snapped gives you some idea of what it was like- fall in Ontario really is spectacular.  Mind you, I suspect that it just gets your guard down before you get sucker-punched by winter, but that’s another story.

A feature attraction this year was Stingray Bay, which is basically an extensive (nearly 16,000 gallons) but shallow, indoor saltwater pool, holding 25 Cownose and Southern rays. The stingrays have had their barbs trimmed -apparently they will grow back- to prevent any unfortunate stinging incidents.  The stingrays circle around the pool and people can not only see them up close, but touch or pet them.

This exhibit generated considerable controversy earlier this year at the Calgary Zoo, when most of the stingrays suddenly and mysteriously died; in similar exhibits, 16 stingrays died in a Chicago zoo when their life-support equipment failed and 21 perished in California.  So, I had mixed feelings going into this one- given the iffy background and the idea of forcing the animals to be touched, it didn’t seem right.  On the other hand, it represented a learning opportunity for the kids and they had really enjoyed a similar interactive display (but with sharks) when we visited the Camden Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey a few years ago.

Once inside the exhibit, I felt much better about it.  The staff was all over visitors, ensuring that they washed their hands and arms (up to the elbows) before being allowed near the tank.  We also had to remove all jewelry and watches and if (like me) your wedding ring is a little too tight these days to remove easily, you have to keep that hand out of the pool- no exceptions.  The stingrays themselves seemed to actually seek out human contact and would not only approach people’s hands, but literally swerve to make maximum contact.  They had plenty of room to roam around and could easily remain out of reach if they chose.  Sometimes one would splash the water near the side of the pool, soaking everyone nearby.  The kids did really enjoy the experience and I even gave it a shot myself.  For the record, a stingray feels like wet suede…

If you’re interested in Stingray Bay, it wrapped up its tour of Toronto and looks like it’s about to open at the Phoenix Zoo as well as continuing in a long-term exhibit at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

It’s up to you to decide whether you agree with interactive exhibits such as Stingray Bay, or not.  If they are well managed, properly supervised and the animals are not distressed, I think that the appreciation for animals that children can gain from such experiences outweighs the negatives.  For the other point of view, here’s the PETA fact sheet on the topic…

Aidan, Tasha and Jon interacting with the Stingrays

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