Sources challenge Idaho Aquarium’s mortality rate

They insist more animals died than the log lists.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comSeptember 9, 2013 

Being asked to put a chameleon with a broken pelvis in the freezer to kill it was one of the last straws for former Idaho Aquarium employee Jordan McDermott-Roe. When his boss, Chris Conk, asked him to do it, he refused, so Conk did it himself, McDermott-Roe said. After Conk left, McDermott-Roe went to the freezer hoping he could save the reptile. “It was too late,” McDermott-Roe told the Idaho Statesman.

“But the octopus was really the worst,” he said. “That was by far the worst experience I ever had with an animal.”

He said the octopus, Mortimer, died from toxicity. He said staff was told to change the tanks’ water less frequently than recommended to save money, and he believes this led to the death of the octopus and other animals. Conk did not respond to a phone message.

McDermott-Roe and four other sources confirmed Idaho Aquarium has purchased three giant Pacific octopuses since it opened about 18 months ago. But only one Pacific octopus is listed on the death log and one is alive at the aquarium, so that leaves one unaccounted.

Also unaccounted for on the death log is a puffin named Pisces. Idaho Aquarium obtained four puffins from the Alaska Sealife Center. When McDermott started working at the aquarium in June 2012 it had four puffins. And then one day there were three. But a copy of the death log obtained by the Statesman contains no reference to the puffin’s death.

Idaho Aquarium marine biologist Nate Hall said Monday the octopus and the puffin are in the death log, but he “cannot discuss the specifics of what is and what is not on the log.”

McDermott-Roe and four other sources confirm numerous other animal species were brought to the aquarium, including caimans, nautilus and various types of sharks. But those animals are not there now, and they are not accounted for in the death log.

Last month, Idaho Aquarium told the Idaho Statesman it has a 1 percent annualized mortality rate, which is average for the industry. But the aquarium has refused to provide proof of this mortality rate, including purchase invoices, the death log and current animal inventory. The nonprofit aquarium also on Monday refused to provide names of its board members.

In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated the three remaining puffins because the Idaho Aquarium did not have a federal migratory bird permit.

The aquarium applied for the permit, but on July 2 the USFWS denied the permit, citing four reasons: Staff has no puffin care experience; they had no adequate puffin enclosure; puffins came in contact with the public; and a permit cannot be issued to anyone with a felony wildlife violation.

According to the USFWS letter, “Photos are on record of beverage containers floating in the puffin tank at an after-hours party. This is an unhealthy condition.” The letter also states the public was allowed to feed the puffins. “The public are not allowed to come in contact with migratory birds at any time.”

Idaho Aquarium co-founder and former director Chris Conk pleaded guilty in 2012 to illegally smuggling coral. In February he and Ammon Covino were indicted in Florida federal court for bringing illegally harvested marine life to Idaho for display at the Idaho Aquarium. They are scheduled to enter guilty pleas later this month. Covino, who could not be reached for comment, is longer involved with the Idaho Aquarium. Conk late last month stepped down as its board member and director.

McDermott-Roe said he supports well-run aquariums with quality animal care and trained, professional staff. But that was not the case at Idaho Aquarium, he said, so he quit in March. “It was too much stress. The federal investigators, the hostile work environment.”

McDermott-Roe and several other former employees are spearheading a movement to boycott the Aquarium, not because they want to see it close, but because they want it to succeed with the right people, McDermott-Roe said. The group has launched a Facebook page and is planning a protest this Saturday.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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