Brookfield Zoo closes Stingray Bay after rays die

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Brookfield Zoo has closed its Stingray Bay exhibit for the rest of the season after all 54 stingrays died when oxygen levels in the water tank plummeted.

The popular interactive exhibit’s 50 cownose and four southern stingrays died Friday. The zoo announced the exhibit’s closure Sunday.

“It’s just an incredibly unfortunate accident,” said Bill Zeigler, the zoo’s senior vice president of animal programs. “The staff worked extremely hard, even some of our mammal keepers were in the water. Everyone is very bummed out about the whole thing.”

In 2008, 16 stingrays in the exhibit died after an apparent malfunction in the heating and cooling system of the pool. The water temperature rose from the usual 79 degrees to about 89 degrees, a zoo spokeswoman said at the time.

Brittany Peet, who serves as deputy director of captive animal law enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), called stingray exhibits like the one at Brookfield Zoo “death traps.”

“At this point, 70 animals have died at the Brookfield Zoo as a result of malfunctions with their tank and it’s time for them to close down their tank for good,” she said. “Their lives are worth more than the cheap thrill of touching one of the these animals.”

“Seeing wild animals in captivity teaches people nothing about the true nature of these animals. These are animals that live in the ocean and travel long distances,” said Peet, noting that accidents resulting in mass stingray deaths are not isolated — citing incidents at Zoos in California and Canada.

“If people want to learn about stingrays, all they have to do is go to Google and they can see amazing footage of stingrays swimming in the wild and read about them.”

The Mall of America’s interactive stingray exhibit was temporarily closed this spring after the rays became “nervous” and needed more time to acclimate to the tank, according to a CityPages.com report.

And water problems were cited in the 2009 deaths of 11 of the National Zoo’s 18 stingrays, the Washington Post reported.

“Like our colleagues at the Brookfield Zoo, we are saddened by the loss of the animals,” Becca Bides, a Sea World spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “We will work together with the zoo to understand fully what happened. We did not have any animals involved in any previous incidents at the zoo.”

Sea World has worked with Brookfield Zoo for several years to stage the stingray exhibit, said Bides, who declined to discuss Sea World’s contract with the zoo.

Brookfield Zoo staff noticed the stingrays were becoming lethargic about 1:45 p.m. Friday. At nearly the same time, a computer that monitors oxygen levels in the water sent an alarm to the cellphone of the zoo’s environmental control officer, who spread the word, Zeigler said.

Staff from several departments at the zoo rushed to help to within five minutes.

As oxygen was pumped back into the water, about 15 staff members began to walk the stingrays, which are harmless, around the water.

“We went into triage at that time,” Ziegler said. “And we began to help them swim to make sure water was passing over their gills.”

The rays vary in size from 1 to 2 feet long and weigh between 3 and 10 pounds, Ziegler said.

The general public was kept at arms length by staff who closed the flaps of the tent that covers the stingrays pool, which is about 3 feet deep and measures about 80 feet by 26 feet.

“We had oxygen levels back up to normal within 20 minutes,” Ziegler said. “But unfortunately it wasn’t going to help.”

The seasonal exhibit, which opened in 2007 and requires an additional fee to view, was popular with children who loved feeding the stingrays shrimp and smelt with their bare hands.

Asked about any financial losses the zoo might incur, Ziegler said: “That’s not an important factor right now.”

Necropsies were to be performed on the stingrays, but all signs pointed to lack of oxygen as the cause of death, Ziegler said.

Other stingrays, which were not held at this particular exhibit, can still be viewed, Ziegler said.

Visiting the Brookfield Zoo stingray exhibit left such an impression on Joseph Miscimarra, 16, a junior at Hinsdale Central High School, that he created an online petition Sunday calling for July 10 to be named “Stingray Bay Day” to memorialize the tragedy.

“I just think they’re really cool animals that deserve to be recognized as a really interesting part of nature that we should embrace,” Miscimarra said.

The petition implored Gov. Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez to officially dedicate the day.

“I’d like to have this recognized and promote the education of stingrays,” Miscimarra said.

The Change.org petition had garnered one signature as of Sunday afternoon.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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