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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Zoo Review: Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

The Aquarium’s flagship exhibit, the Gulf of Mexico, is sponsored by BP.    There were a few other oil companies on that very prominent sponsorship sign, but British Petroleum was front and center.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  Sharks, rays, and other fish swim around an oil drilling platform.  The signs around the exhibit extol the unexpected virtues of oil drilling for wildlife habitat.  No matter what I saw in the aquarium that visit, I couldn’t get past that sponsorship sign.

The Gulf of Mexico wasn’t the only exhibit where oil reared its head.  At the sea otter exhibit upstairs, the signage talked about the plight of otters facing over-exploitation for their fur.  I didn’t see any pictures of the Exxon Valdez.  Granted, the frog exhibits nearby made a passing mention to the threat of raising temperatures (without direct mention of global climate change or man’s role in it).  

I really wanted to like the Aquarium of the Americas.  I did.  No one could deny that the aquarium had a compelling story.  After Katrina, the aquarium suffered incredibly; though the structure itself survived, thousands of fish – dependent on life support systems, did not.  The agony and sorrow that the aquarists must have suffered as they returned to work and found most of their collection dead I cannot imagine.

Still, for a variety of reasons,  the aquarium just failed to impress me terribly.  Maybe it was because I had spent the previous day thoroughly falling in love with the affiliated Audubon Zoo, so the aquarium came as a bit of a let down.  I don’t mean to say that there was anything terrible about the place – I certainly didn’t hate it.  I just felt that, as far as aquariums go, I’d seen far better.  The glass of the sea otter and penguin exhibits was impossible to take photographs through.  I didn’t like the signage too much.  The staff and volunteers that I saw didn’t seem seem too concerned or inclined to control the hordes of teenaged visitors running around, yelling, and banging on glass.

And I hate to sound jaded, but for all the hype I'd heard about the place, the collection was only… okay.  Sure, the sea otters were cool, and you don't see those too often, but there really wasn't anything that knocked my socks off, like I'd seen at other aquariums -  Adventure with its hippos, Newport with its shark rays.  The African penguin exhibit was alright, but the sea otter exhibit left me pretty unimpressed, and the Amazon rainforest measured up pretty poorly compared to the rainforest at National Aquarium in Baltimore.  Yeah, Audubon still has its famous white alligators (also at the zoo), but those have become increasingly common in zoos and aquariums, nowhere near the novelty that they once were. 

And then there was the whole BP thing.  It’s not unreasonably to take money from companies that pollute or otherwise damage the environment.  If I was building an orangutan exhibit, I’d at least consider sponsorship from companies that use palm oil in their products.  You could think of it as them partially atoning for their sins.  Still, allowing corporate money to influence our message should not be allowed.  Yes, oil drilling does present a benefit to some species by providing habitat - that should be mentioned in an exhibit.  Should that allow us to paper over all of the ways that oil drilling is detrimental to other species?  No matter how much money a donor has, integrity should never be for sale.

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