More than meets the eye!
First published in 2011, Australian Aviary Life magazine.
Text by Simon Degenhard. Photos by Dallas World Aquarium, Frank S. Todd and Simon Degenhard.
The name Dallas World Aquarium (DWA) is somewhat misleading; when I was first told about this privately-owned facility in the heart of Dallas, Texas, I naturally assumed that it was more or less geared towards aquatic species…. how wrong I was!
DWA is the realisation of one mans dream, which started out as a quest to build an aquarium that would be open to the public, in downtown Dallas. Not a small feat in itself, but time has shown that this was in fact just the beginning! The facility that Daryl Richardson has created is nothing short of incredible and true testament to the dedication and passion of the man.
The process began with the purchase of a vacant warehouse, situated at 1801 North Griffin Street, in downtown Dallas in August of 1991. Construction commenced immediately after the purchase, with the warehouse being completely gutted, leaving only the external walls and support structure standing. Remodelling continued at a rapid rate and the doors were flung open to the public for the first time on October 26, 1992, with a mission, in the owner's words, to “educate people about sea life, the ecology and the conservation of the reefs, and the geography and culture of the reefs neighbouring countries”.
DWA opened its doors with eight 2,000-gallon tanks, a 22,000-gallon Continental Shelf exhibit, one 800-gallon tank and an indoor African Penguin exhibit. The first month saw around 2000 guests visit the aquarium and at times the process of converting the dream to reality seemed somewhat overwhelming. But, with steadily increasing visitor numbers and increasing interest in the facility for the staging of private events each year, confidence grew and so did the facility. The popularity of DWA has continued to grow each year and at the time of writing visitor numbers had grown to an average of 2,000 per day.
The number and variety of aquatic species exhibited has fluctuated over the years, and has included Leafy Seadragons, Eschmeyers Scorpionfish, Magnificent Foxfaces, Pharaoh Cuttlefish, Cownose Rays, Blue Dot, Polka Dot and Orange Spotted Freshwater Stingrays, Brown Sharks, Bonnethead Sharks, Moon Jellyfish, Red-tailed, Doradid and Shovelnose Catfish, Silver Arowanas, Red-bellied Piranhas, Atlantic Ridley Sea Turtles, and Giant Pacific Octopus to name but a few.
It was not long before expansion was on the agenda and the property adjacent to DWA, 1815 North Griffin Street was subsequently purchased in April 1996. This property was purchased to facilitate the rainforest expansion which was to be called Orinoco – Secrets of the River.
Construction began in November of that year and as with the aquarium the interior was completely demolished, only leaving the external walls and the support structures, the alley between the two buildings was to become the centre piece of the exhibit, the 200,000-gallon River exhibit. One of the aims of the exhibit was that of bridging the saltwater and freshwater ecosystems and it was opened to the public on October 10, 1997.
The Orinoco – Secrets of the River exhibit has proven to be a popular addition to the facility, being home to various primates including Pale-faced Sakis, Red-handed Tamarins, Red Howler Monkeys and Golden-headed Lion Tamarins among others, along with Orinoco Crocodiles, Emerald Tree Boas and various species of poison dart frogs. It is also home to numerous bird species including a very impressive array of toucans such as Emerald, Spot-billed, Western groove-billed, and Saffron Toucanets, Pale-mandibled, Northern Collared, Chestnut-eared, Green and Curl-crested Aracaris, Keel-billed, Channel-billed, Ariel, Red-billed, Citron-throated and Toco Toucans along with numerous other avian species, including Plush-crested and Curl-crested Jays, Green Oropendolas, Scarlet Ibis, Ringed Teals, Black-necked Swans and Roseate Spoonbills.
In December 1999 DWA also became home to two orphaned Antillean Manatees. Ayurami and Manati arrived from Venezuela to become residents of the 200,000-gallon River exhibit along with the Peacock Bass, catfish, turtles, stingrays, ducks, geese and swans!
Idle isn’t a word that seems to be in Daryl Richardson’s vocabulary and true to form it was not long before expansion was on the agenda again. To allow for the next development in the Dallas World story, the acquisition of another property was necessary and this took shape via the purchase of 1901 North Griffin Street in May of 2001. As was the case with the others, this building was quickly renovated in order to provide staff offices and off limit breeding facilities etc. DWA now had ownership of the entire city block and further big plans to go with it!
A little less than a year later and after the earlier purchase of the property at 1814 Laws Street, in May 2000, work began on the first wholly newly constructed part of the facility, the Mundo Maya. The vision was to create an exhibit that would feature plants and animals that were culturally important to the Mayan people and showcase the interaction between man and nature in what is regarded as one the most important ecosystems in the world. This amazing exhibit plays host to an incredible array of animals and birds that herald from this intriguing part of the world, some of which include Burrowing, Eastern Screech, and Spectacled Owls, Ornate Hawk-eagles, Guianan Crested Eagles, Ocellated Turkeys, Caribbean Flamingos, Paradise Tanagers, Purple and Red-legged Honeycreepers, Zebra Longwing and Monarch Butterfly’s, Ocelots, Jaguars, Mexican Prehensile-tailed Porcupines, Mexican Beaded Lizards, Eyelash Palm Vipers and Short-tailed Leaf Nose Bats. One of the USA’s largest collections of Hummingbirds also calls the Mundo Maya home, with some 60 specimens of ten different species being housed within at the time of writing, including Broad-tailed, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Violet-crowned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
A key and very unique feature of DWA is the incredible way in which they have managed to replicate the rainforest within the facility. By now, I am sure that you are well aware of the incredible variety of birds and animals that call this inner-city oasis home, but it doesn’t stop here as the variety of plant life found throughout is nothing short of amazing! It really creates the feeling of being far, far away from the hustle and bustle of a large, thriving city and gives the illusion of being deep inside the rainforest. The plant life is always kept looking its best by the many staff that tend to them daily and regular replenishment with new plants. The species are many and varied and include among others the Ceiba or Kapok, the Jaboticaba, the Black Olive and the Bay Rum Tree, Bananas, Mexican Tree Ferns, Strangler Figs, the Himalaya Screw Pine, Tree Aloes, the Bird of Paradise Tree, Dutchman’s pipe, and many species of bromeliads, orchids, anthuriums and aroids.
As you can see DWA is home to a multitude of animal, bird and plant species, so many of which I had never even imagined seeing in captivity. And not only will you see them throughout this magnificent facility, but such is the quality of the care and attention to detail shown towards the animals that you will be hard pressed to find even a feather, fin or scale out of place!
One of the more intriguing species living within this inner city paradise at the time was the ever-so-slow-moving Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, and if a certain friend is to be believed, I was so captivated by these guy’s that I was apparently heard uttering the words “who needs a Koala when you can have a sloth!”. This particular species of Sloth is almost unheard of in captivity and the specimens held at Dallas World were in fact the only examples to be displayed outside their native range, in the world.
These Three-toed Sloths were part of a cooperative education program between DWA and the Aviarios del Caribe in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. One of the reasons that they were not held by other facilities outside of their native range is their incredibly specialised diet that almost entirely consists of buds, tender shoots, and leaves, mainly of Cecropia trees. This presents a problem as Cecropia trees only occur in the tropical Americas and as such this food source is hard to come by anywhere else. DWA was prepared to go to the necessary great lengths in order to maintain the sloths, including flying in fresh Cecropia shoots for them to feast on!
One of the standouts for me at Dallas World Aquarium is the undeniable and incredible passion displayed by owner, Daryl Richardson. Daryl is not just an the “owner”, he is involved every step of the way and obviously thoroughly enjoys every minute of it. I was treated to a tour of the facility by Daryl and the knowledge that he displayed with regards to both the animals and the facility was nothing short of impressive. His concern for the welfare of animals, both within the facility and in the wild was obvious and very refreshing to say the least. Of the many things that he mentioned to me, one in particular sticks in my mind and this was that the majority of the birds held at Dallas World are not/have not been publicly displayed until they have bred sufficient numbers in the off limits breeding facilities to safe guard their survival within the facility.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this amazing facility is the fact that it is almost entirely indoors! Spread over several levels, the ingenuity displayed throughout is nothing short of incredible, as is the cleanliness and overall visual appeal. From only a few hundred meters away it is almost unnoticeable and even when standing directly in front, it is hard to believe that such a large variety of animals and birds could possibly live within. Once inside it is almost impossible not to forget that you are in the middle of downtown Dallas, a thriving American city, as opposed to a Central or South American rainforest. To top it off, friendly staff can be easily located in all areas and are knowledgeable and ever willing to answer questions from visitors.
Dallas World Aquarium undeniably stands out amongst the world's top zoological facilities and I would go as far as to say that in terms of avian zoos, it sits equal atop my list next to Jurong Bird Park, Loro Parque and Walsrode Bird Park. The inner city setting, and multi-story layout set it apart from the aforementioned and quite frankly, the ingenious nature of the facility is a testament to the vision and dedication of the man behind it. This dedication and enthusiasm is also very obvious when it comes to the outstanding group of people that make up the staff, many of which literally live and breath Dallas World Aquarium and by Daryl’s own admission, the place wouldn’t be the same without them.
DWA is also involved in a multitude of joint conservation projects, both in house and out, you will be able to read all about this in the follow-up article soon.
Dallas World Aquarium is well worth a visit and I would go as far to say that it is worth a trip to Dallas for this purpose alone. Whether you are old, young or in-between, I can guarantee you will enjoy your visit, oh and don’t forget to bring the kids, not only will they be captivated for hours, but the learning experience will be second to none! Do yourselves a favour and jump in the car, on a bus, train or plane and get over there, but remember, one day is never enough!
I would like to thank Daryl Richardson, Josef Lindholm and Arden Richardson for their assistance with regards to the compilation of this article, both in terms of information and the provision of photographs. Without their support this would not have been possible.
Dallas World Aquarium book.