Most Viewed Stories
Extraordina-ray exhibit at county fair
The Yuma County Fair will be host to some interesting guests who flew thousands of miles to get here and live in salt water.
They are Atlantic stingrays and they will be on display at the fair in an exhibit that allows guests to pet them and feed them their favorite food - shrimp.
"A lot of the places we go through are in the center of the United States, where people don't have a chance to see animals like this, and have really no way to interact with them," said Joseph Culver, who heads the Sealife Encounters of America exhibit.
"We are the only ones in the United States that have a traveling stingray exhibit, (although) some of the larger zoos and parks have stingrays in a permanent location."
Culver said there will be at least five stingrays at the aquatic petting zoo at this year's Yuma County Fair, which kicks off Tuesday. The animals will be displayed in a special tank that allows parents and their kids to get up close and personal to the rays.
"We catch them around Tampa. We have three boats out fishing, but it has been so cold and the weather has been so crazy in Florida. What happens is when it is cold, these guys go to deeper water and it is harder to find them."
According to Culver, the rays are caught using nets, not hooks. Their stingers are then removed for safety reasons, so they are not a threat to spectators.
"The stingers are kind of like a fish hook and there are barbs on the stinger, so when it goes in it doesn't want to come out. There are 40 to 50 barbs on the side of it. If it goes in a long way it will break off, and then you have to have it surgically removed, But most of the time it comes back out, so most people who get stung don't get the poison, they just get the injury."
Culver said most people get stung by stepping on the stingrays.
"They hide in the sand in as little as three inches of water. If you come along and step on their back, up comes the tail and boom you get stung. The poison is protein based, so it's not really deadly. It is kind of akin to a bee sting poison. If you are allergic to them, then it is a problem, but most of the time it is just painful. When the kids come in, we tell them when they are at the beach to shuffle their feet. It is the stingray shuffle and will scare them away so you don't get stung."
Culver said he enjoys working with the rays.
"I like the fact they are not really the monsters everybody thinks they are," he said. "They are very docile, and if you swim with them in the ocean, they will come along with you. They are really cool animals. They have a bad reputation because of (The Crocodile Hunter) Steve Irwin, but all animals will protect themselves."
Culver said his rays are very friendly.
"They are just like puppy dogs and not very aggressive at all. It depends on how hungry they are. They will get a little aggressive with each other when they are hungry. They really do have personalities. Some will be a little more aggressive and will be the leaders. There doesn't seem to be any difference between males and females as far as aggressiveness."
Culver said his rays are basically teenagers.
"They are adolescents. They are probably between 1 and 2 years old and are a foot across and about 2 feet long with the tail. This species doesn't get much bigger than this, maybe 30 percent bigger. I like to use the smaller rays because you get more in the tank and more people can touch them. This is an aquatic petting zoo."
Culver said the rays enjoy good seafood.
"We feed them shrimp. That is their favorite, but in the wild they’ll probably eat anything they can find. They don't actually have teeth like we think of. They have a large dental plate and they can swallow a shell, crush the shell and eat the animal inside and spit the shell out."
The exhibit is free to the public, and those who go to the exhibit can buy shrimp on site for $3 to hand-feed the rays.
"They are very smart and I teach them how to eat out of your hand in about one day," Culver said. "They do know how to beg, and if we get 10 or 15 rays in here, they will actually come out of the water. Their noses will come up and they will look you right in the eye. They can see outside of the water for a couple of feet, so they can see you."
Culver said the rays know if a person wants to feed them.
"They have sensors in the top of their heads and can sense food. They know the difference and if you put a rock in your hand, they won't even come around."
Culver said people will have fun while learning about stingrays.
"If they have never been around this kind of an animal, you have to come and see them. They are so friendly, and you can learn a lot about them," he said. "You’ll fall in love with them."
• Rays are closely related to sharks.
• Like sharks, rays have no bones but cartilage instead.
• Even though they are related, sharks love to eat rays.
• To hide from predators, Atlantic stingrays will bury themselves in sand.
• After a year in the exhibit, these rays are released back into the wild after their stingers grow back.