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Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Rescue: ZIMS puts information “at our fingertips”

In the past, staff spent time digging for information that’s now “at our fingertips and searchable” in ZIMS, says Mackenzie Neale, Director of Animal Care at Vancouver Aquarium.
Sea otter Joey was just a few days old when he was rescued by the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at Vancouver Aquarium. Amidst pandemic closures, the young pup won the hearts of thousands who followed his livestream at YouTube and Twitch. (Photo courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium)

“There’s nothing in the world cuter than a baby sea otter,” says Mackenzie Neale, Director of Animal Care at Vancouver Aquarium. She’s referring to “Joey,” a 10-day-old sea otter rescued by the Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Recue Centre in 2020. Over the year the Aquarium was closed due to the pandemic, Joey had his own following via livestreams at YouTube and Twitch.

“So many people reached out to us to tell us he was their daily “feel-good” moment that helped them get through this last year,” Neale says.

Annually, Vancouver Aquarium rescues around 150 animals. Those that fully recover – about 85 percent – are returned to their natural habitat.

The Aquarium’s had much to get through itself of late. It’s dealt with rescue (by an ownership change) from near-closure, pandemic closures and restrictions, and extreme weather in the province – record-breaking summer heat, and recent unparalleled flooding.

Vancouver Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre are the go-to resource when marine mammals are orphaned or injured. Most – 85 percent – are able to be returned to the wild after rehabilitation at the Centre. Photo: Vancouver Aquarium

Like Joey and others it has rescued, the Aquarium has succeeded despite these challenges. Among its wins: sustainability efforts, Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, conservation work, day-to-day animal care and “power usage” of Species360 Zoological Information Management System.

A member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, Vancouver Aquarium has become a leader in environmental sustainability. It harvests rain water for flushing toilets. Its café uses compostable dish ware and utensils and composts food waste. Sales of water in plastic bottles are long gone. As Kristi Heffron, Animal Registrar, points out, “Even the stuffed animals in the gift store have no plastic eyes or tags.”

Vancouver Aquarium is a “power user” of ZIMS, generating 20,000 transactions monthly.

The Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMR) is the only one of its kind in Canada. While it covers large parts of the British Columbia coast and islands, and occasionally upper Washington State, the MMR has even done a rescue at Stanley Park, just metres away.

Annually, the MMR rescues around 150 animals, largely from human-caused situations, such as boat strikes, and fishing line entanglement. Around 85% are rehabilitated and released. A few don’t survive. Those un-releasable join the Aquarium’s animal exhibits. Joey is one who’s staying. He’s only ever known human care, and has insufficient survival skills for the wild. The animal care staff even had to teach him how to swim!

Joey’s daily care, and that of all the Aquarium’s animals, is tracked in the Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). More than 350 marine and freshwater institutions worldwide use ZIMS to track water quality, medical care, husbandry, and more. That’s a lot of data, and the Aquarium is a “power user,” generating 20,000 transactions monthly.

“There’s so much that you can do in ZIMS, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface,” Heffron says. Neale agrees, noting that in the past, staff spent time digging for information that’s now “at our fingertips. And flexibly searchable.”

By sharing data, Vancouver Aquarium contributes essential knowledge to improve animal welfare and inform conservation.

Both believe the capacity to share data worldwide makes ZIMS an essential resource, and enables better care and welfare of the animals in collections. While the Aquarium benefits from this global resource, it also contributes to that resource with each new animal record.

In all, institutions – including more than 350 aquatic institutions worldwide – that record data in ZIMS help to increase the knowledge of species as much as eight-fold, according to research. This not only empowers experts caring for aquatic enclosures, freshwater and marine life, and more, it also helps research scientists fill previous gaps in essential animal data.

For decades, the Aquarium has reintroduced species nearly lost from the wild.
Vancouver Aquarium raises and releases one of British Columbia’s most endangered amphibians, the Northern Leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens). Photo courtesy of Todd Hauptman, Vancouver Aquarium.

In addition to its collections and MMR, the Aquarium does conservation work for many other species. Most notable is its decade-long program of raising and releasing Oregon Spotted and Northern Leopard frogs, respectively Canada’s and British Columbia’s most endangered amphibians. This is showing success: new spawn from adult frogs was noted for the first time at one of the two release sites last year. Staff are waiting, with concern, to visit this site to assess the impact of recent floods. “Luckily frogs like water so we’re hoping things will be OK,” offers Heffron.

While they might not be quite as photogenic as Joey the YouTube star, like him, these frogs owe their continued existence to the wide range of top-notch conservation and animal care work going on at the Vancouver Aquarium.

View Vancouver Aquarium sea otters via its Marine Mammal Rescue livestream at Twitch.

Contributing Editor Jo Seton hails from Australia and loves exploring new places around the globe. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Victoria University, NZ); a Master of Arts (Exeter University, U.K.); a Ph. D. (University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee); and TESOL and Librarianship diplomas.

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