As the National Aquarium in D.C. closes its doors today, its poor leopard sharks and hellbender salamanders will be the proverbial kids picked last in gym class.
“Ninety-eight percent of the animals have found homes,” curator Jay Bradley said earlier today of the aquarium’s 1,500 residents who face eviction from their tanks in the basement of the Department of Commerce as the attraction shuts down. Despite its exotic name and dramatic, iridescent camo patterning, the leopard shark has won no suitors as the aquarium has sought to placing the animals in different aquariums and zoos across the country.
“They’re actually more of them in the industry than you’d think,” Bradley says in the shark’s defense.
Despite the hellbender’s status as endangered in some states, the salamander also has not found a new address, even as some fellow salamanders got scooped up by the National Zoo. Bradley strikes the hopeful tone of a high school college counselor as he says, “We’re still looking for opportunities for them.”
Faring better in the aquatic popularity contest: the aquarium’s rat fish. “We had a number of places interested in our rat fish,” says Bradley. “They’re not really rare in the wild, but they’re not as represented in aquariums as some fish might be.”
The National Aquarium, long under the shadow of its better-known, flashier counterpart in Baltimore, ends its 128-year run today. Around midday, it boasts a full house of visitors, who wander from the lionfish to the raccoon butterfly to the rapidly depleting gift shop, where small plush fish are marked down from $4.95 to 94 cents and camera slide viewers are going for 75 percent off. The crowd includes plenty of first-timers expressing a bit of sheepishness over never getting to the place before today.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t appreciate it until it’s leaving,” says Natalie Soroka, who, despite having free access to the aquarium as an employee working in the Commerce Building, is making her first visit.
Daniel Purvis, another government worker, is making his second visit to the aquarium, following a trip in 1997 at the age of 19. “It’s pretty much the same,” he says of the modest, no-frills space. Nostalgia and curiosity, he says, finally prompted him to return, even though “I knew going into this building is a pain.”
“You have to take your belt off like it’s the airport,” Purvis explains. “Just to go to a dinky museum.”
Bradley says the aquarium took a bit of pride in its underdog status.
“We’re not as high profile as the aquarium in Baltimore, and certainly, tucked here into the lower level of the Department of Commerce, we’re a little off the Mall, a little off the beaten path,” he says over the shrieks of a toddler who sounds to be losing his mind over the American alligator exhibit. But D.C.’s aquarium provided more of “an intimate experience.”
“There was a couple who used to come in here,” he says. “The woman had a folding chair she’d bring in with her. Her husband would stand there with her, and she would sit in her chair and stare at an exhibit for hours. And just move around. They would come for a week. They’d make their rounds to a certain number of exhibits and leave, and then they’d come the next day.”
“I haven’t seen them for years,” Bradley says. “I don’t know what happened to them.”
Photo of sad lionfish by Jenny Rogers