Animal Welfare

The Dark Side of the Dallas World Aquarium

You hear it, or see it if you're online, every time someone asks what they should do while visiting Dallas. One of the quickest responses is always 'go check out the Dallas World Aquarium.' Some mention of penguins or rare birds and how it's a little expensive ($20.95) but worth it usually follows.

An article published yesterday by The New Republic's Ben Crair is enough to give any potential advocates for the aquarium second thoughts.

The DWA, as described by Crair, is a place where staff raped on aquarium property are called liars by management, dead jaguars are found with toucan beaks in their stomachs, and owner Daryl Richardson does whatever he needs to do to get the species he wants, conservation practices be damned.

Crair's reporting centers on Richardson's quest to acquire a population of pygmy sloths, a species unique to Isla Escudo de Veraguas, an island off the coast of Panama. Richardson got permits to bring the animals back to the DWA and establish a captive breeding population from the Panamanian government, but local environmentalists kept Richardson and his team from leaving a remote airport with the animals.

Richardson's attempted sloth extraction happened in September 2013. Shortly thereafter, Mongabay, an environmental news website, reported the story along with the negative opinions of the zoological community. As a result, the sloths were placed on the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species list of protected species, but not before two of the animals Richardson tried to bring back to Dallas died.

The rest of Crair's story outlines Richardson's status as a rare independent operator in an era when most zoos hold themselves to industry standards and feature similar animal populations. Richardson seeks out exotic animals, leading to unique challenges for the DWA. From Crair:

Because Richardson prized species not kept in other zoos, he would sometimes bring in animals whose husbandry had not been studied. When he first imported three-toed sloths in 1998, he and his staff had almost no idea how to care for them. "The only information we knew was from old textbooks and some observations in the wild," Raines said. "We were just making it up as we went along." By the end of 2003, Richardson had attempted to incorporate at least twelve three-toed sloths into his collection, and eleven had died. In the wild these animals can live up to 40 years.

Richardson reportedly released massive shipments of birds in the DWA's aviary, and then simply ordered more when the population got low. Since 2001, the DWA has brought in 175 euphonias, but it only lists 60 as being among its current population.

Employees of the zoo weren't spared from Richardson's mismanagement either, according to Crair:

In 2003, Richardson bought a group of little blue penguins from Marineland in Florida and hired their keeper. Her responsibilities at the Dallas World Aquarium grew quickly. She dove with the manatees, announced the flamingo shows, and helped train the giant otters. "It was my life," she would say later, and Richardson seemed to appreciate her hard work. He promoted her to lead mammal keeper and his mother kept a photo of her with Richardson's dog, Mia, by her desk. It was a remarkable welcome from a man whose generosity never quite translated to warmth. "Daryl is one of the most charming people you'll ever want to meet," said a former employee. "But deep down inside, he's actually a very shy man."

The penguin keeper's work was brutally interrupted on a February evening in 2005. According to a lawsuit she filed later in Dallas District Court, she was raped when checking birds on the Dallas World Aquarium's loading docks. She did not report the attack to the police, and the assailant, who she believed had snuck onto the premises, was never identified. She told Richardson about the attack, before taking a leave of absence on the advice of her doctor.

The penguin keeper returned to a workplace she said was so hostile that she eventually sued Richardson on several counts, including the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Her lawsuit alleged that Richardson had "instructed various Aquarium employees that Plaintiff was not raped, that Plaintiff was a 'bad person' and to treat Plaintiff as poorly as possible upon her return so Plaintiff would quit." The penguin keeper also claimed that Richardson demoted her from leading animal shows to swabbing the penguin pool. Richardson, her lawyers said, "even went so far as to make her swim with sharks--the one task at the aquarium about which Richardson knew [she] was petrified."

Check out the whole thing, which features a bunch more on the weird history of the place, before you send any more money Richardson's way.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young