A week after my first visit to the National Aquarium, I sat waiting on a bench across from the staff entrance. I had a 10:00 invitation issued by Ken Howell, curator of the Tropical Rainforest, to “see behind the scenes.” I sat in the shadow of this imposing glass building and felt the weight of the World War II submarine Torsk, with its frightening toothy grimace, and The Chesapeake, an historic bay ship, behind me. The sign, “Amazing Things Happen” flapped above on a banner and another, on a fixed sign, signaled “Immersion Tours.” How could a day begin more propitiously?
Gifts: I figure I must open to them if I am to have a rich life and attend to them if I am to have a deliberate life and pass them on if I am to live a gracious life. I don’t, always, but this gift landed graciously in my lap and now I’m compelled to try to deliver it forward, even though my knowledge of biology remains shallow at best. I enjoy imagining that that is the message of the Motmot, the bird I’ve pictured here, a name always repeating and unforgettable: Come back again and again. See and learn something new every time. And in the call of the Screaming Piha: live every juicy morsel of this life and at the absolute top of your lungs.
Those poison dart frogs had intrigued me, so Ken took me first to the tanks where the team is nurturing them. I’d been confused that the frogs I’d thought I’d seen earlier didn’t match the pictures I found online. It turns out that these guys come in many colors: greens and reds and yellows stripe their bodies like a schoolyard of children. They show curiosity when I come close, then go about their business on twigs and leaves. Their tanks are labeled so that the nurturers know who is who, dates of birth, types, names. I learned that a couple of the species take their tiny hatchlings way high to a bromeliad where its leaves hold rainwater that will be the tadpoles’ home until they grow their limbs. The mother feeds them her unfertilized eggs twice each day until they grow large enough to climb out on the leaf’s edge and begin their adult lives. In other, smaller, tanks live the groceries that nourish others: tiny crickets and fruit flies and insect larvae serve as food for the dart-frog family. I watched a woman sorting and managing in whatever way that serves the breeding and keeping of these food sources. A volunteer, she comes twice each day to serve the critters in this area. Devotion, for frog and human, it seems, requires twice a day attention and plenty of work.
I was struck again and again by the labels on all the pens and tanks back in the workings of the aquarium. For each one, a name, a history. Birds, frogs, fish. A female piha peered down from a limb in a big wire cage. “She’s been annoying her husband,” Ken said. “She’s been attacking him, in fact. We thought we’d give him a few days of rest from her.” He seemed to be gossiping about his neighbor.
We talked about the way we think about the animal kingdom, as individuals or as groups. Should we name the calf? Should we attach ourselves to the apparent affection of the ray? Many biologists believe firmly that we should not think of animals as we think of humans. They are their own kind. Yet, we see connections and similarities everywhere we come in contact with animals, no matter how exotic, slithery, ferocious, or adorable. We hunger. We need mates. We fear. We desire comfort and shelter. We live only a little while, with jobs to do while we live. And now and then, we connect with a species not our own. Now and then a line is breached and we touch. Not unlike, on another plane, we connect with grace people we’ve always thought were exotic, slithery, ferocious, or simply adorable. We find that they are more.
When Ken sent out a notice a while back that Rapunzel, the two-toed sloth who had been at the aquarium for some thirty years, had died, notes of grief arrived from staff members by the numbers; grown adults cried.
We stepped through heavy doors and across shallow puddles and around cylindrical tanks to observe the clown fish and the spikey cardinal fish, an endangered group, and the yellow tang and all their cousins. If I learn a name or two each time I visit, it will be progress. Names connect us. We notice what we can call by name.
We went another way and peeked in on the puffins, up close and personal, from our place behind the scenes.
At the South Pacific coral reef, the calciferous matter that binds a reef spread even to the pipes and floors behind the tank. Nature and its critters will have their way—if we connect, care, and help them. If we realize that if they are endangered, we are endangered–each individual of us.