The white and brownish-black bird in the photo was covered in so many cactus spines, Alyssa Barrett could barely make out its coloring, let alone its species.
But something about the crook in its beak made her pulse quicken.
The Houston Chronicle reports it looked like the beak of a magnificent frigatebird, primarily found soaring over tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Dare she think it? Frigatebirds, with their 7-to 8-foot wingspan, did not frequent the South Texas area.
But in the days following a hurricane as devastating as Harvey, which made landfall in South Texas last August, anything seemed possible to Barrett, the Texas State Aquarium's wildlife care manager. She had just spent several sleepless nights keeping the facility's multitude of animals alive through the storm.
Barrett and her colleagues rushed to bring the injured bird, discovered by a local resident near Baffin Bay, about an hour southwest of Corpus Christi, to the aquarium for treatment. The bird was, in fact, a frigatebird. And it was more injured than they imagined.
The bird, aptly named Storm, will never fly again. It now lives in the aquarium's Caribbean Journey exhibit, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums believe it's the only bird of its kind in captivity at an accredited facility in North America.
During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor — both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey's torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured brown pelicans, turtles and other marine life.
Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.
This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It's become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.
A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it's only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.
"We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there," he said.
As the dim morning hours stretched into afternoon at the aquarium this spring, hundreds of shrieking children swarmed past Storm's open air habitat and dozens of cawing birds flew overhead.
But in all that time, Storm didn't move from the perch on her log. She can't — not really.
After Harvey, aquarium personnel spent hours surgically removing the cactus spines embedded in her skin. But they couldn't fix her mangled wrist joint, a problem for frigatebirds that spend most of their time soaring over oceans.
Their feet aren't built for walking, and their feathers aren't waterproof, making swimming even more difficult.
So now she sits on her log all day, occasionally interacting with her similarly flightless friend, Amos the white pelican. Prior to Harvey, Amos was shot through both wings with a shotgun. Aquarium personnel could not save his flight despite numerous surgeries to reset the bones.
"Amos wanted a friend more than the frigatebird, but it works," said Lauren Wilson, the aquarium's curator of birds and mammals.
There likely isn't a habitat in the aquarium that better exemplifies its life-saving work than the one with Storm and Amos. Both likely would be dead if it weren't for aquarium personnel.
And that work has been decades in the making.
Three years after the aquarium opened in 1990, it became a federally permitted animal rehabilitation facility.
Staffers started small, rescuing and rehabilitating injured and cold-stunned sea turtles. Eventually, they moved onto shorebirds, raptors, dolphins and even manatees.
The ultimate goal, Barrett said, is to release the injured animals back into the wild. The hallway walls of the rehabilitation building feature picture after picture of successful animal releases, from white pelicans and sea turtles to hawks and other raptors.
In the past five years, the aquarium has successfully released 65 percent of the 2,500 or so birds, sea turtles and marine mammals that have come in for care.
But sometimes, their work is not enough to get an animal back to the wild. So its home becomes the aquarium, under the watchful care of aquarium personnel.
Rescued hawks, owls and other raptors can be found in the aquarium's Eagle Pass exhibit. Rescued sea turtles can be found in Turtle Bend. Others, like Storm and Amos, are scattered around the aquarium based on their habitat, personality and preferences.
Of the aquarium's 12,400 animals, 23 have been rescued and rehabilitated, but are unable to return to the wild.
The sun shines so brightly in the aquarium's new Caribbean Journey exhibit that squinting is required most times of the day.
It's an understandable hazard in a 71,000 square-foot space covered almost entirely with a domed, glass ceiling.
When aquarium leaders started building the exhibit several years ago, they wanted to make the environment as similar as possible to what animals would experience in the wild. In part, that means exposure to natural light so they can "see the sun go up and down and take seasonal cues that they would in the wild," said Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium's senior vice president and chief operating officer.
But they didn't want to limit those benefits to above-ground animals like flamingos, blue-crowned motmots, scarlet ibises and keel-billed toucans. They wanted those benefits to stretch to animals below the sea.
To achieve that, the exhibit space's underwater living areas were designed with open-air tops, meaning the sharks, stingrays and other sea life also can track the movements of the sun, Gilbert said.
Additionally, aquarium officials pump in salt water from Corpus Christi Bay, which means the sea life are living in the same water as they would in the wild.
It makes for "an amazing experience for both the people and the animals," Gilbert said.
And the results since the exhibit opened last year have been better than aquarium leadership could have ever imagined.
This spring, the flamingos started constructing nests in preparation for breeding. Several baby sharks can be seen zooming around their 400,000-gallon exhibit. A number of exotic birds already have hatched chicks and the stingrays have the characteristic grate marks associated with breeding rituals.
"We didn't expect breeding to happen, and certainly not this quickly," Gilbert said. "But this habitat has created an environment where it is happening."
The aquarium's focus on conservation and improvement of living conditions within the facility doesn't stop there.
Officials recently acquired a male and female blue-crowned motmot as part of a Species Survival Plan, which is a management effort by facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Though the bright blue, green and gold bird is not endangered, the goal is to encourage breeding and survival of the species.
That goal was achieved in May, when the motmot duo hatched three chicks. These motmot chicks are some of about 10 chicks that have hatched in the Caribbean Journey exhibit since January.
The aquarium also recently started a survival plan for two Linnaeus's two-toed sloths living in the Caribbean Journey exhibit.
Four common bottlenose dolphins residing in the aquarium's Dolphin Bay exhibit also live in bay water. Personnel allow several different types of algae to grow in the tanks — algae they would encounter in the wild — which enables the dolphins to both eat it and play with it. They also are constantly looking for new ways to use toys as a means to simulate activities they would partake in in the wild, said Emma Gilbert, the aquarium's curator of marine mammals.
"When we leave this building, we have to make sure we did everything we could to make their life better," Emma Gilbert said.
Starting this summer, the four aquarium dolphins also will participate in a worldwide study to determine how physical habitat, animal training and environmental enrichment impact the welfare of aquatic animals.
"We can't ask a dolphin how it's doing, so we have to look at indicators of welfare," such as stress level and social behaviors, Lance Miller, principal investigator on the study and the Chicago Zoological Society's senior director of animal welfare research, previously told the Houston Chronicle.
Additionally, the aquarium is working with SECORE (Sexual Coral Reproduction) International, a worldwide coral conservation group, to help grow coral. Put simply, they collect polyp eggs, fertilize them in a lab and return them to the ocean when they are grown.
Even the unfortunate circumstances that landed Storm in the aquarium last year can help with conservation. Very little is known about the species, Jesse Gilbert said, so the Texas aquarium's observations of Storm will only help the species survive in the wild.
When Harvey laid waste to the Texas coast, it took with it the Amos Rehabilitation Keep at the University of Texas at Austin institute — leaving the state with one less turtle rehabilitation facility as cold-stunning season approached.
Sea turtles are cold-blooded and therefore need warm water to survive. Once water dips below 60 degrees, their heart rate and circulation decreases and they go into shock. They can develop pneumonia or even die.
Aquarium officials knew they had to do something to make up for the deficit. So they expanded their own facility to 18 tanks from six, a renovation that cost about $45,000.
"We realized we needed more sea turtle capacity, so we pushed up the implementation of a plan to expand the turtle rehab facility, opening in October as opposed to later," Schmid said.
The move ended up being a fortuitous one.
After southern Texas saw its first snowfall in years in December, 334 lethargic and unresponsive sea turtles started surfacing across the Texas coast. Just a month later, a five-day cold snap resulted in the worst cold-stunning event the state has seen. About 2,100 sea turtles were cold-stunned compared to the previous high of about 1,600 in the 2010-2011 winter season.
Officials hope to further expand that ability when they complete construction on the new rehabilitation facility in about three years. The new facility will eventually allow the aquarium to provide state of the art care to injured animals, as well as expand the coral reef research.
Schmid's goal is to complete the design plan and cost estimate for the project by the end of 2018. Because they are not state funded, officials also will need to put together a fundraising plan for the facility, which will cost from $15 million to $20 million.
He hopes to break ground as early as 2020, and open in 2021.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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