From the visitor perspective, Dallas World Aquarium is extraordinary. Located in the heart of the city, it stands on the site of gutted, abandoned warehouses. It's a relatively young facility, opening in 1992, the oldest part of which is also the smallest - the actual aquarium. I have to say, I've never seen an aquarium facility of such size with so few fish. There are several relatively small tanks featuring popular aquarium fish - clownfish, tangs, Moorish idols - as well as jellyfish, clams, and corals. For the aquarium connoisseur, the stars will be the three species of sea dragons, those bizarre cousins to the already-bizarre sea horses. Still, the aquarium section doesn't contain much in the way of "Wow" factors... for that, you have to go upstairs.
Many aquariums have a rainforest display in their building. Dallas World Aquarium has two - both of them enormous, both stocked with rare and marvelous animals seen in few (if any) other zoos in the country. In Orinoco - Secrets of the River, visitors pass through a tropical forest filled with birds of every shape and size, from songbirds to waterfowl to the biggest collection of toucans that I've ever seen, representing several species I'd never heard of before. The aquarium gained fame with its work with Orinoco crocodiles, with over fifty hatchlings produced her being reintroduced into the wild. Virtually every Orinoco crocodile in the US can trace its ancestry to this facility. The crocodiles share their star-power with another aquatic predator, the giant river otter, seen in a nearby display with underwater viewing. The centerpiece of the display is a massive tank filled with Amazonian giant river fish, such as arapaimas, as well as West Indian manatees.
Any Neotropical forest animals that the Dallas World Aquarium couldn't fit into the Orinoco hall it had to squeeze into a second rainforest gallery - Mundo Maya. A darkened stone hallway features Neotropical nightmares, such as bats, tarantulas, and an assortment of venomous reptiles (including beaded lizards), before passing by a pool of Morelet's crocodiles and emerging into the forest. Harpy eagles and scarlet macaws are among the birds encountered here, though for most visitors the jaguar exhibit is the centerpiece (actually my biggest disappointment here - both in space, complexity, and aesthetics, it's far surpassed by all of the other displays). A final pathway takes visitors through an underwater tunnel, while sharks and sawfish glide silently overhead. Additional exhibits around the aquarium include tree kangaroos, African penguins, rhinoceros hornbills, shoebills, and a variety of chameleons.
What makes Dallas World Aquarium so unique from many zoos and aquariums is that it is privately owned (though still AZA accredited). The collection, the facilities, the animal care - everything is the reflection of one man, the owner and founder, Daryl Richardson. Richardson has a passion for animals that are seldom displayed and little known, hence the prevalence of species here seen nowhere else - jabiru storks, three-toed sloths, black-and-white hawk eagles. The space currently occupied by the manatees was originally slated for Amazon river dolphins (currently none on display in US zoos or aquariums) until outcry from concerned members of the public led to his permit for importation being denied.
The problem is that, because little is known about the husbandry needs of these species, they often don't do terribly well. Amazon river dolphins, for instance, have traditionally fared poorly in captivity compared to other cetaceans, one of the key arguments of Richardson's import-opponents had in defeating him. According to former keepers, DWA has had some mortality issues in the past (also explained by the fact that wild-caught, imported animals have a harder time adjusting to captivity). You could certainly make the argument that having the one and only member of a species in captivity, while really cool for zoo nerds like me, doesn't do much for conservation. You need a sustainable breeding population for that.
Jabiru stork and Orinoco crocodile, just two of the many species that I'd never seen in person before my first visit to the Dallas World Aquarium
Which is not to say that Richardson and his aquarium don't do a lot for conservation as well. Orinoco crocodiles are a clear example where he pioneered work with a species that no one else was really paying attention to and has had a lot of success with them (I took a behind-the-scenes tour during my last visit and there was seriously a room full of hatchlings, some of which slated for Venezuela). Similarly, the aquarium has had a lot of success breeding many bird and reptile species which other zoos have had less success with, such as Andean cock-of-the-rock. I wonder if part of it is just a matter of emphasis - with elephants, gorillas, and other more conventional star attractions, DWA just might put more of its focus on some of the obscure species than other zoos do. Plus, DWA does contribute pretty handily towards field conservation efforts in Latin America.
What makes a privately-owned facility like Dallas World Aquarium, the property of one man, different from a facility like Virginia Safari Park, or any other private zoo? Depending on who you ask, everything or nothing. Critics will say that both have skeletons in the closet, that both exploit animals, and that both lack the accountability found in zoos that are run by societies or government bodies. I'm inclined to look a little more charitably at the World Aquarium. I see a facility that does do a lot of good in promoting conservation of species that not a lot of other people are fighting for, while working with other accredited facilities to establish sustainable breeding populations of threatened species.
What would I like to see (besides a better jaguar exhibit)? Less of a focus on importation and acting like the world is a pet store where you just have to have the coolest new animal you learned about yesterday. The Wild West days of the zoo and aquarium world should be behind us. It's time to face a future where wild populations rely on zoos and aquariums... not the other way around.
For an interesting article recently describing Daryl Richardson, the Dallas World Aquarium, and some of its controversies, along with how it fits in the modern zoo world, click here!