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Aquarium animals to be airlifted out of New Orleans

Most of facility's 10,000 fish did not survive Hurricane Katrina

Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana - Penguins, sea otters, rare Australian sea dragons and a 250-pound sea turtle named Midas -- all survivors of Hurricane Katrina -- were loaded into crates Friday to be airlifted out of the New Orleans Aquarium of the Americas.

The aquarium's colony of 19 penguins was placed in crates to be taken to Monterey Bay Aquarium, in California. They will be joined there by a couple of California sea otters.

"They came to live with us, and now they're going to go back to visit Monterey for a while," aquarium spokeswoman Melissa Lee told CNN. "We hope to have them back very soon."

The other animals will be taken to a habitat in Dallas, Texas, she said.

Most of the aquarium's 10,000 fish did not survive after the storm knocked out power essential for making the water habitable, and the facility's emergency generator later failed.

Electricity has since been restored at the Aquarium of the Americas, at the foot of Canal Street along the Mississippi River.

The survival of the rare, leafy and weedy sea dragons from Australia surprised the aquarium staff, who did not think the dragons -- cousins to the seahorse -- could survive "even a minor fluctuation in the temperature of their water," Lee said.

"It was very surprising for everyone and also a big rallying point for our staff," Lee said. "We had staff who stayed through the storm and have been there stabilizing the animals and the collection and getting them ready to move out."

The sea dragons will be taken to Dallas World Aquarium.

The aquarium's large, white alligator and eight large tarpons -- the only fish survivors -- will stay at the aquarium.

Now that power has been restored, Lee said the staff is finding more animals that have survived.

He said the aquarium staff were not the only ones who saved the lives of the aquarium inhabitants.

"We actually had New Orleans police officers and National Guardsmen around, and they were given a crash course in how to take care of some of the animals," she said.

"Even when our staff had to be evacuated out for our own safety, the police officers were able to stay back and get food to those animals and keep a good number of them alive."

The Aquarium of the Americas was considered one of the foremost aquariums in the world, according to the conservation Web site Mongabay.com:

"It had 10,000 fish representing more than 530 species and featured four enormous exhibits -- Mississippi River gallery featuring catfish, paddlefish and alligators; the Caribbean Reef exhibit featuring a clear, 30-foot-long tunnel surrounded by aquatic creatures; the Amazon Rainforest display featuring piranhas and tropical birds; and the Gulf of Mexico exhibit featuring sharks, sea turtles and stingrays -- in addition to a number of smaller displays."

New Orleans' other animal centers fared better, with only a pair of river otters reported dead at the Audubon Zoo and a whooping crane lost at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species.

Some of the surviving zoo animals were taken to zoos in Houston, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Thursday, according to Jane Balentine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

The majority of the zoo collection, however, will stay at the facility.

The 211-member American Zoo and Aquarium Association has organized a fund-raising initiative, headed by the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, to provide relief.

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