Quarantine: An Aquarium Rite of Passage
Quarantine may sound intimidating, but it is a routine part of all animals' journeys in the aquarium world.
Long before an animal moves into a National Aquarium exhibit, it goes through a period of acclimation and quarantine. While "quarantine" may sound intimidating, it's not the case in the zoo and aquarium world; here, it simply means the time when an animal is housed in off-site or behind-the-scenes settings to make sure they are healthy and adjusting to their new environment. These animals are just starting their journey at the National Aquarium and will eventually join thousands of other animals already in exhibits. Regardless of species, size or source, their first stop is almost always the Animal Care and Rescue Center.
An animal's journey to the Aquarium can take many forms. While some are born right here at the National Aquarium, most come from other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or are obtained sustainably from their natural habitats. Those coming from outside sources mainly arrive via car or transport truck; others experience rides on boats or planes before landing in Baltimore and being driven the last leg by staff. Transport can be stressful, but the care staff works hard to keep the trip comfortable, short and smooth.
The ACRC Animal Care team manages nearly 200 systems designed for fish and invertebrates and holding areas for birds, reptiles and mammals. They provide daily care for all ACRC animals and always keep the systems ready for new inhabitants. Intake days are busy as the team handles unloading and getting the animals settled in their new surroundings. They'll unpack water-filled transport bags filled with fish and sort them into various holding pools. When birds and reptiles arrive, staff have their hands full with custom carriers equipped with perches, hot or cold packs, and anything else the animals need. Acclimating the animals to reduce stress is the immediate priority. For fish, aquarists will gradually add water from the animal's new habitat to its transport bag to match salinity and temperature. For non-aquatic animals, like birds and some reptiles, staff will tweak room temperatures, lighting levels and structures in the habitats.
As the animals arrive and acclimate, Animal Health veterinarians conduct visual exams to detect injuries or unwanted hitchhikers (especially on animals from natural habitats). Ideally, the Aquarium would only receive strong and healthy animals, but the teams are prepared to respond if this is not the case. Animals later get comprehensive checkups once they've gotten used to their new, temporary homes.
When larger batches of a single species arrive, staff usually house the individuals together for the whole quarantine and treatment period. Near the end of that time, staff complete thorough exams on a small sample. For example, the team may receive hundreds of schooling fish like rainbowfish or tetras; instead of doing individual exams, they would sample tissue from about 10% of them. If those samples show signs of infection or parasites, vets prescribe a more targeted treatment.
An animal's stay in quarantine usually ranges from 30 to 90 days but sometimes lasts longer. Animals must get clean bills of health from the vets before leaving quarantine for their exhibits in the main building. Primary Animal Care and Animal Health staff decide together when an animal is ready for the next part of their journey. Vets may also need multiple healthy fecal samples (yes, poop) to clear an animal—and with slow digesters (like snakes), that can often mean waiting weeks to months.
How long an animal resides at the ACRC depends on a few factors, including what species it is and where it came from. Invertebrates like sea stars and crabs require different care than animals like fish, birds, reptiles or mammals. Animals from natural habitats versus those from other facilities are more likely to carry parasites requiring treatment. (This doesn't mean an animal from another zoo or aquarium couldn't have these hitchhikers, but the chances are lower.) An animal's behavior and response to treatment is another variable. One that has just finished treatment may need some rest and recovery time; others may just get used to their new habitats more slowly. The team lets the animal set the pace, only moving forward when it shows it's comfortable.
Quarantine isn't only a time for animals to acclimate or get medical attention—it also gives the ACRC team a chance to learn individual animals' temperaments. Exhibits are rarely meant for a single animal or species, so introducing individuals and documenting their responses during quarantine is vital. As the weeks pass, staff might observe various behaviors as an animal reacts to its new environment and neighbors.
The habitats in the main building aim to replicate an animal's natural environment, but feeding routines and cleaning schedules are new experiences. Some animals will spend part of their quarantine learning new, helpful skills in preparation for exhibit life. While Animal Care teams can be flexible and find a reclusive animal on exhibit to feed it, it's best to train the animal to respond to a cue or come to a target. For example, if a Linne's two-toed sloth is due for a health check, staff can use a feeding session to bring the animal to a spot more accessible than the high tree canopy so vets can get a good look. Quarantine is the perfect time for such lessons with its simple habitats and quiet atmosphere.
After vet staff give the all-clear and animals show progress with any learned behaviors, it's time to move to the main building! Many behind-the-scenes spaces at the Aquarium have extra holding pools designed like those at the ACRC. These habitats are excellent spaces to help an animal transition to being on exhibit. They are also handy if an animal needs to be temporarily removed from an exhibit, like for a quick health check or while staff evaluate if an animal needs more specialized treatment at the ACRC.
Other animals may be moved to the ACRC's holding pools if conflict between neighbors arises. Animal behavior specialists can work on solutions to ease the conflict and sometimes may choose to re-home an animal if necessary. Lastly, staff can rotate sets of animals off and on exhibit; the species will always be viewable by the public, but the animals get to experience both the complex exhibit habitat and the simpler environment of the backup space.
Given the quality of care these animals receive throughout their lifetimes, some live beyond their species' average lifespan. Animal Care staff and veterinarians can decide to relocate older animals back to the ACRC—like an aquarium version of retirement. They can continue thriving with fewer, younger animals around them that might otherwise out-compete them during feeding or jockey with them for territory within a habitat.
Despite its intimidating title, quarantine is indispensable to how the Aquarium functions. It truly is a rite of passage that allows our staff to protect the health of animals already on exhibit, provide the best care for those just entering our doors and see that the same quality extends throughout an animal's entire natural life.