I went up to Washington a while back, and while there, insisted with childish petulance that we go to the Seattle Aquarium until I finally got my way. I like to think myself mature (well, mature enough) and well-developed, but I revert to five years old at the chance to go see animal exhibits. I adore going to zoos and aquariums. I am a patron of botanical gardens and birdhouses. I love petting zoos.
There was a petting zoo in the aquarium. I about lost my mind.
Technically, it was a touch-tank, not a petting zoo, but a touch-tank is just a petting zoo for water friends instead of land friends. I loved the aquarium, every bit of it, but I most enjoyed the touch-tank. It was a lot cleaner a place to touch marine life than any of the other places I’ve made physical contact with ocean friends.
Ocean friends come in so many shapes, sizes, and readiness to attack, so there’s a bit of a range on my willingness to reacquaint myself with some friends. Sometimes, distance is best for a relationship. There are others, though, that I’d gladly reach out to again.
Up at the Puget Sound, I touched a painted anemone. I liked it for the strong activity of its tentacles; it tried to urge my fingers towards its mouth with rather firm motions, which I found very charming. When I pulled my fingers away, the tentacles stuck to my skin, so I had to move very slowly to avoid harming the animal. I detached without a problem, and the anemone returned to a relaxed state. Only afterward did I realize I was only allowed to touch the friends with a single finger (‘science finger,’ apparently) because the sign was hung up on a pillar that isn’t readily observable from the entrance and I was so eager to touch a sea creature that I didn’t look around for it. I’m sorry, Seattle Aquarium.
I know I wasn’t in any trouble because I was hanging out with an attendant and she didn’t yell at me, but I still feel pretty guilty for having broken the rules. I think the rule was in there to prevent people from roughly handling the animals and harming them… I was very careful because of my love for the friends already, but I suppose kids might not know. This mistake of mine has caused me endless suffering…
What is there to say about sea anemones that we haven’t already absorbed from Finding Nemo? This particular species, Urticina crassicornis, is a solitary anemone in contrast to the aggregating species that are so spectacular to photograph. It can live up to 80 years in the wild and enjoys polar climates, making the frigid waters of the Puget Sound an ideal habitat. All in all, a very good friend, I would love to pet one again.
When I was in Corpus Christi with my mom a few years ago, I was hanging out in the water when suddenly, I felt a sharp burning on my leg. I looked down and, lo and behold. The humble sea stinger, or as I’ve been told others call it, a jellyfish.
The species that stung me was an Aurelia aurita, the moon jellyfish. I know this because it is the most common jellyfish in the Gulf, because it was the right time of year for them to be propagating, but mostly because I looked down at it and noticed its four little rings. These rings are its gonads–the organs that produce reproductive cells.
Knowing I might never get another chance, I hurriedly reached down and touched the sea stinger while it was still stuck to my leg, stinging me with all the pugnacious fury of a completely involuntary response it has no control over. The sea stinger was quite smooth and had so much give to its bell that I was afraid I would hurt it, so I withdrew my hand and turned to give it an easier time catching the current and going back out to sea. The sea stinger drifted away, and I went back to the beach, only now realizing the amount of discomfort it had caused me. A stranger offered to pour beer on the sting, but I told him I didn’t want to cost him any beer. Despite the danger, I would still love to be able to pet a sea stinger again. Hopefully from the safety of a boat, out of the way of its stingers.
You don’t know this about me, but the chiton is one of my absolute favorite animals. Their eyes are made of argonite; they see with a mineral rather than proteins like most other animals with eyes. Despite having no cerebral ganglia and a nervous system consisting of little more than a neural net, their vision accurate enough to distinguish between the shadow of a predator and the shadow of a cloud. Several species have a homing instinct strong enough to return them to the exact spot they were before. Scientists believe this is due to the teeth on their radula, or scraping tongue. The teeth are made from magnetite, a rock whose primary characteristic is being, well, magnetic.
Intertidal organisms, they are capable of clinging to their rock as hard a limpet, an organism famous for letting itself be torn apart rather than release its substrate. They can even roll into a ball! What an incredible little creature.
In contrast, petting this friend was not very exciting. It moved very slowly before being petted, then held absolutely still. Touching its shell was liking touching any calcareous shell. However, the sheer joy I felt at being able to pet a chiton turned the experience into a very positive one. I sort of wanted to pet the girdle–the exposed bit of its soft mantle that surrounds the shell–but I was afraid I might hurt it or frighten it even more than it already was.
And what a lovely sea cucumber this one was! It was a Giant California sea cucumber, Parastichopus californicus, and obviously well-adapted to human touching. When threatened, like other species of sea cucumbers, P. californicus can expel digestive organs from its anus, but this one simply continued to muck about on a rock, letting me and several children stroke along its length. This friend was very soft, but a bit firmer than the sea anemone, and its outer membrane (I don’t think the structure technically counts as a skin, but then I don’t know a lot of things) had a very pleasant velvety texture.
I also got to pet one that was in a bowl being displayed for the benefit of another group of kids. But I preferred the one in a facsimile of its natural habitat, couldn’t say why since the water was equally freezing.
I hear people are starting to consume Giant California sea cucumber, and my feelings are torn. One one hand, I welcome the expansion of our diets and think that our refusal to eat most invertebrates (barring religious prohibition, which is an entirely different kettle of ritually unclean fish) is a product of western culture that could easily be changed, and could only improve our nutrition. On the other hand, I think sea cucumbers make better pets than sources of food. How much nutrition can there even be in one of those? They’re kinda just velvet-wrapped snot that eats dirt. Despite this sad fact of their nature, I would gladly pet a sea cucumber ever single day of my life if I could.
Hands-on interactions with animals are, in my opinion, the best ways to get children (and emotion children like me) interested in conservation. So long as they are performed in a way that is safe for both the child and the friend, they deepen our understanding of animals and help us see them not as just part of the environment, but as living beings worthy of our love and protection.
I especially believe that contact with animals traditionally viewed as ‘icky’ or ‘bad,’ like bugs, snakes, and invertebrates is vital to future conservation. These animals are usually keystones of their environment. However, because of our cultural distaste for them, they are ignored or under-represented in conservation efforts, and that leads to ecological disaster. Ask India, where failure to conserve vultures led to tragedy as rabies claimed the lives of over 50,000 people, due to a surge in feral dog population directly related to the lack of vultures to clean up cattle carcasses. (Luckily, India and the international community have been rallying to save their vultures, in case you thought this was gonna end on a bummer note.)
Marine invertebrates are absolutely vital to the oceanic food chain and ecology. And, simultaneously less importantly and more, they are dizzyingly varied, from ugly little snot globs like deep-sea amoebas to beautiful polychaete worms that shine in a multitude of iridescent colors. Reach out (preferably at your local aquarium! For your safety and the safety of the friends!) and touch the ocean.
But if you’d really like to not touch them, and that’s understandable (I GUESS), then reach out and touch some conservation organizations, like these:
The Marine Conservation Institute
The Internation Union for the Conservation of Nature