Sunday, April 15, 2012
The Challenges of Transporting Fish
By Thom Benson, communications manager
My heart sank when Thom Demas, the Aquarium’s curator of fishes, called to inform me about the loss of our two beluga sturgeons. Big animals, such as “Horace” and “Boris,” quickly become guest favorites and are also adored by our staff and volunteers. The sadness of this loss is especially great for the aquarists who have shared the joy of bringing both of these magnificent animals to Chattanooga, hand-feeding them and spending long hours caring for “Horace” when he battled health challenges in recent years.
These two fish first came to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1976. They were flown to San Francisco in a small cooler. It was assumed at the time that both of these juveniles were male and they were named Horace and Boris. Both quickly grew on exhibit, so in 1991 the decision was made to donate one of the sturgeon to a new aquarium that was preparing to open as the world’s largest freshwater aquarium. When the Tennessee Aquarium’s doors opened for the first time in 1992, Horace was among the first creatures to greet visitors.
I was working for a local television station in 2006 when I was privileged to cover Boris being reunited with Horace. I remember the excitement mixed with concern. At the time, Boris was more than five feet long and weighed 86 pounds. Flying nearly 2,000 miles from San Francisco to Atlanta was a big move. Then he was delivered by truck up I-75 to Chattanooga. I recall thinking how jet-lagged I might feel after a lengthy day of travel such as this. But being a robust, healthy, fish Boris made the journey in fine shape and was soon on exhibit with Horace in the Aquarium’s Volga River exhibit.
Since joining the Aquarium staff, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve smiled watching visitors take pictures of these two fish with outstretched arms. For nearly 20 years, millions of people learned about the plight of endangered beluga sturgeon in the wild because they had met Horace and Boris in Chattanooga.
Horace and Boris steadily grew on exhibit and it became apparent that they would eventually need an even bigger home. Boris had reached seven feet one inch in length and weighed 212 pounds.
Horace sustained a spinal injury in 2009 and was moved off-exhibit to the Aquarium’s Animal Care Facility, ACF, for treatment. Aquarists worked steadfastly for months to improve his health. Eventually his appetite increased and it appeared as though his vitality had returned. Plans were in the works for the new River Giants exhibit, so the decision was made to leave Horace at the ACF until he would be moved into his new home.
About a month ago, Boris was transported from the Aquarium to the Animal Care Facility to begin a quarantine period before being placed on exhibit. While his appetite briefly dropped off, it soon returned. Thom Demas says feeding habits often change for a short period of time whenever a fish is moved.
Once the quarantine period was complete, it was time to move Horace and Boris to their new home. After careful planning, these fish were moved the short distance from the Animal Care Facility to the Aquarium. It seemed as though all went smoothly and both fish appeared to be acclimating well to their new home alongside all of the other species that went through a similar quarantine and transport process.
Sadly, Boris died on Saturday. Horace today.
When the Aquarium’s veterinarian performed a post-mortem examination, it appears both animals had been dealing with very different, but very serious health challenges.
It was discovered that Boris was actually a female sturgeon and had been egg-bound with nearly 17 pounds of roe. It appears that this condition led to an infection which had taken over this fish’s intestinal tract and was spreading. In Horace’s case, his right kidney had failed completely due to aging or chronic kidney disease.
Tissue samples from both fish are being sent to outside labs for testing to confirm the preliminary examination results. It may take several weeks before those results are known.
Unfortunately, their behavior did not indicate they were facing these health problems. According to Demas, Horace and Boris would have continued battling these silent issues until the inevitable occurred - whether that would have been in the Volga River exhibit or at the Animal Care Facility. For healthy, strong fish, careful transport is not a problem. In these two cases, it was the tipping point.
As our husbandry staff will attest, providing care for a living collection is both challenging and rewarding. It can also be heart-breaking on days like this.