Northern Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium is home to hundreds of species of animals with origins around the globe. Kentucky Life talked to two of the professionals who are part of the team that cares for the aquarium’s collection to find out what it takes to keep them all safe and healthy.
Sourcing the Animals
The animals ranges from simple invertebrates to complex creatures, and they come from a variety of sources, says aquatic biologist Kristen Guevara.
“We have some wild caught and some that are born in professional care,” Guevara explains. “If we’re able to breed them here at home, we will do that.”
If the aquarium changes its exhibits, the animals may be transferred to other institutions that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“We actually just use city water,” says general curator Kelly Sowers. “It is put through some filtration. The chlorine and everything else that we use to clean our water, we want to take that out for the animals. And then we have salt mixes. Not a lot of oceans to pull from here in Kentucky, so we do make our own artificial saltwater.”
Feeding the Menagerie
It might surprise some aquarium visitors to learn which species of all those housed at the aquarium require the most food.
“We have two separate kitchens,” says Guevara. “The penguins have their own kitchen because they eat the most out of anybody here at the aquarium. Each penguin can eat about 14 percent of their bodyweight every single day. That equates to about 500 pounds of food per bird, per year.”
“Our food is restaurant quality food,” says Sowers. “We give them the best of the best. We order in huge pallets of food. As you can imagine, some of our animals are big eaters. Our sharks eat three times a week. Our shark rays eat every day of the week.”
Working in the Aquarium
Getting into professional animal care at an aquarium is a competitive endeavor.
“You’ll hear a lot of people say that they started as an intern or volunteer,” says Sowers. “A lot of times those internships are not paid. But it is the hands-on experience that’ll push you to the top of the resume pile.”
Guevara is one of those professionals who started with internships, including one at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. That experience helped her determine what she wanted to do as a career.
“I got to take some animals out to the public and do the Wild Encounters, and I kind of fell in love with it,” she says. “Just getting to see all those people who don’t really know what these animals are, and the joy it brings them… I just never wanted to do anything else after that.”
Now, in her day-to-day role as a biologist for the aquarium, Guevara works to ensure the health and well-being of the animals in her care.
“I currently take care of the majority of our tanks in the seahorse gallery,” she says. “My day as a biologist starts off with me checking all of my systems, making sure they’re all on and running properly, because there are a lot of things that can go wrong, especially if they’ve got CO2.”
Guevara explains that seahorse tanks require daily cleaning because seahorses don’t have scales like other fish, and preventing disease by keeping a clean environment is essential. Once the tanks are clean, she feeds the animals.
“I help take care of the shark ray tank,” Guevara says. “Because it’s such a large tank and has so many animals in it, they assign multiple people to it.”
Feeding the shark rays is an involved process. Caretakers go out on the catwalks over the tanks to feed the animals from above. Shark rays are bottom feeders, and they are target trained at the aquarium to learn how to get their meals from the top of the tank.
“Public aquariums are very important,” says Sowers. “They allow people to reach out and interact with animals and species and conservation messages that they [otherwise] wouldn’t necessarily have the means to.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2502, which originally aired on October 12, 2019. Watch the full episode.