Keeper Testimonial

The Weight of Water
by Tom Hayes, Aquarist
Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

As a kid I was always interacting with all things wild in forests and fields surrounding my house. Not every kid is as lucky as I was to live off a dirt road leading to a five acre lake. One day while camping on the lake, I found a muskrat with its leg half chewed off in the jaws of a spring trap. It gave me great pleasure in finding every last trap and throwing them out in the middle of the lake. I had a rabbit farm, pet crows, a raccoon, and a big female red-tailed hawk. All my wild pets were free to come and go, but for all those kids out there who think it is all right to keep wild animals as pets, it would be a huge disservice to the community and the animal to do so. Think of problem bears in parks where humans feed them. It’s a wonder we don't have more bear attacks on people. And the poor bear is sometimes sacrificed in the end.

I took a job in research at a large facility in Virginia . It was an opportunity to practice clinical skills, but those were probably the darkest days in my life. Due to the nature of the work, the lab animals lived horrible lives and the outcome of almost all the studies ended up in their termination. Fed up after a huge number of primates were terminated, I walked off the job.

The Pittsburgh Zoo then hired me to work with their elephants. Working hands on with elephants and catching hoof stock and small mammals was an adrenaline rush for me. Eventually I moved over to the Aquarium.

Today there is great concern about biodiversity, wildlife conservation, and the sudden decline of wildlife populations. Attention has always been there for the fuzzy and cute animals and the mega-vertebrates. But a new area of interest is the sudden decline of amphibian life and under-appreciated species of special concern. Working in the PPG Aquarium has gotten me closer to the underworld of water and working with Pennsylvania ’s native indicator species. If you take a close look at Pennsylvania waters you may discover freshwater mussels, crayfish, freshwater sponges, dragonfly larva, frogs, and a variety of small non-game species. These are called indicator species and when we start to find less and less of them, it indicates lower water quality.   Water is millions of years old. The water quality of streams is the beginning point of our processed water that we eventually find running from the tap or in bottles. It is all the same water and we all end up drinking it. Indicator species rely on clean water and a mix of life in a self-sustaining ecosystem.

We all need to pay attention to what is found in our local waters and recognize the importance of biodiversity and the uniqueness and value of misunderstood species such as snakes and relatively unknown local species such as the hellbender. The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is Pennsylvania’s largest salamander. They can reach almost three feet in length. Hellbenders live in Pennsylvania streams and rivers in close association with other indicator species. They do not tolerate compromised habitat and poor water quality. They are in serious decline in most states and have been extirpated in many areas.

The Zoo has recently been involved in a biological survey of some local streams looking for hellbenders. When one is found, it is given a health exam, weighed, injected with a microchip which identifies it with a number. It is then scanned with a device similar to that found at the checkout line at a store to see if a number comes up and then a GPS (Global Positioning System) reading is taken of the location. Notes are also recorded of stream composition, water temperature, etc. Finally, photos are taken for documentation. Aside from checking back to this location, an animal with one of these numbers could be found in another country and we can prove exactly where it was taken from.

Every person should do what they can to conserve our water. Recruiting of others to take an active interest in keeping our streams healthy and getting them to assume a feeling of ownership is one of the major roles of the education department at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.