- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) - Squirt does not like red bell peppers.

None of the staffers at the Texas State Aquarium know why Squirt, an active green sea turtle sports an aversion to colorful vegetables, but happily munches on green ones.

“We know what they like and don’t like. They’re picky. They’re just like humans,” said Brittney Laurel, aquarist II. “Squirt - we make sure to give her all greens.”

Laurel, and a number of other dedicated aquarists and trainers at the aquarium, makes it her job to know what the animals like to eat and what they enjoy doing, and she does that by examining their actions every day.

“You get to learn all of their personalities, and they really do all have different personalities,” she told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (https://bit.ly/1FT9UVN). “There’s one turtle that likes back scratches. They can actually feel it. So you scratch her shell, and she wiggles like a dog would if you were to scratch them.”

That turtle’s name is Einstein and she is a Hawksbill sea turtle. She will eat any food dropped in the tank.

Another turtle, Dani, loves strawberries, and will eat them in less than five minutes.

Tiki, a Loggerhead sea turtle, is mostly a carnivore and won’t show up for feeding time at the tank unless shrimp or fish are thrown in.

“We do get to have a really good connection with all of them,” Lauren said. “We know immediately if something’s wrong because they’re not acting normal.”

In April, the aquarium and its staff dealt with the loss of 389 fish from the accidental introduction of a lethal chemical that was mislabeled as a treatment for parasites.

The fish kill included Hans, a sand tiger shark that was a longtime favorite of staff and aquarium members.

Since then, about 95 percent of those fish have been replaced, mostly through donations from aquariums and zoos across the nation.

There’s also big expansion plans in the works that will about double the aquarium’s size with the addition of the Caribbean Journey exhibit.

Construction is underway on the $50 million addition, which is expected to open in 2017. The new wing will include 65,000 square feet, a four-story addition, and a science, technology, engineering and math education center.

More room means more animals.

That’s good news for the aquarists and trainers, who already consider the animals they care for family.

“You get to spend every single day with them. Even when we go home from this job, we still have to constantly be thinking about them,” Laurel said. “We build a bond with every single animal we take care of. We want them to be as happy as possible, so we do everything we possibly can to keep them safe and healthy.”

That includes knowing all their quirks like how Chiquita, a prehensile tail porcupine, isn’t a fan of sweet potatoes.

“It’s her least favorite thing,” said Lauren Attaway, trainer II at the bird and mammal department. “If she’s not motivated or hungry, she’s like ‘Nah.’”

Along with a diet of rodent pellets, Chiquita is given broccoli, corn, peas, bananas, and on special occasions, raisins.

“Those are like her candy, because they’re higher in sugar content,” Attaway said. “She gets them, but if she got them all the time, it would be like us eating chocolate all day long.”

Chiquita, whose name is derived from her favorite brand of bananas, is in the Amazon exhibit and participates in the Wild Flight show.

“She has a very diverse lifestyle,” Attaway said. “She’s the only porcupine here. Porcupines are mostly solitary animals, so we don’t want to crowd her.”

Laurel does most of the grocery shopping and food ordering for the animal care department, and prepares food daily for the fish, turtles and reptiles. Produce is bought once a week, and meat comes in shipments every couple of months.

“We want to make sure they have as many different vitamins and nutrients as possible which is why we do a variety of different produce,” she said. “Certain animals get squid, shrimp and clam fish.”

She spends at least an hour in the kitchen every morning cutting up vegetables and proteins and separating them into labeled containers. A six-month supply of foods is store in the case of any natural disaster, she said.

Turtles get fed a large meal every three days, but receive lettuce times a day. The fish are fed daily. Fresh water turtles and tortoises are fed three times a week.

“We do a lot of fun things for them. We put boomer balls in there for them, which are balls with holes in them. You put food in the holes, so they have to forage like they would in the wild - work for their food.”

With organic algae being grown in the Stingray Lagoon exhibit, the turtles are able to eat something from their natural habitat.

The animals are weighed on a quarterly basis. Based on the weight reading, their food is adjusted. Laurel said turtles eat about 10 percent of their body weight with smaller turtles eating more so they can put on weight.

The animals become family to their handlers. Not only did she become attached, but Laurel said the animals recognize her face.

“They definitely (know us). They know when it’s time to eat, and they know who feeds them. They’re really smart, and you learn that as you work with them more,” she said.

Bo, the aquarium’s 375-pound American alligator, knows when he sees Laurel’s signature navy blue polo shirt and khaki shorts that it’s time to eat.

A Texas A&M; University-Corpus Christi graduate, Laurel received a degree in psychology which she said helps her with animal training. She’s been an aquarist for three years.

“Getting to read them and know how they act, you wonder what they’re thinking and what’s going on in their heads.”


Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, https://www.caller.com

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