'Pleasant, Chaotic Experience': Caring For ECHO's Animals Through The Coronavirus
Ever since Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont on March 13, the ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain has been closed to the public. Inside those locked doors, however, a small crew continues to care for the museum's 70 different animal species. It has been, according to director of animal care and facilities Steve Smith, "a pleasant, chaotic experience."
Working inside ECHO these days is rather quiet. Just two animal care specialists are in the building each day, plus one or two facilities staff members, and all keep plenty of space between them.
Normally, Smith said, there are kids and parents to stop and talk to, plus student volunteers and interns to help feed, clean and maintain the various critters in tanks.
"It's really odd being in here with nobody coming, and nobody to share it with," he said.
At least one exhibit, the special "Return of the Butterflies," has also gone dormant. With no new shipments to replenish the population, the plant-filled, humid hoop house held just two butterflies on Thursday. Even if ECHO can open back up before the exhibit's end-date in September, Smith said he wasn't sure whether community members would want to gather in that small a space.
"We just don't know," he said.
Smith has been with ECHO since before it first opened — he helped curate the museum's animal collection. Among the original members was Curly the sturgeon, who has unusually curly pectoral fins and came from Vermont Fish and Wildlife's Grand Isle hatchery in 2001.
Curly was 15 or 16 years old at the time, making the fish nearly four decades old today.
Watch Curly (and other sturgeon, and muskie, and bowfin, and one catfish, swim):
Curly and several other sturgeon, muskellange (better known as "muskies"), bowfin and one channel catfish are now the stars of a live webcam. Smith said the museum is looking for opportunities to educate would-be visitors online.
"So people have the opportunity to continue doing what they used to do in the building," he said.
As Vermont hunkers down and waits out the COVID-19 pandemic, the ECHO Center has adapted to — and in some ways, enjoyed — its new reality. The heat and lights are turned down, Smith and his staff now wear neck gators over their mouths and noses, bottles of CDC-approved cleaner dot the building, and everything — desks, hoses, ladders, various amphibians in tanks — is spread out pretty much everywhere.
"It's a mess, but it's a good mess," Smith said.
While new and strange is generally the way of things these days, not all has changed. ECHO's baby turtles, for instance, still need their tank cleaned every day. And on Thursday, that was the job of facilities and animal care specialist Ira Powsner.
Powsner hand-caught 47 combined spiny softshell and map turtles, and for a good number of them, he went digging in the tank's shale, where they like to hide. Once captured in a clear tupperware container, they are transferred to two designated Rubbermaid bins, where there are food pellets waiting for them.
"It's like their lunch," Powsner said.
See the baby turtles eat their lunch in this short video:
Spiny softshells are endangered and map turtles are a species of special concern, and every year, ECHO raises them to be released into Lake Champlain in June in conjunction with Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
Powsner said the spiny softshell turtles are believed to have arrived in Lake Champlain from the Great Lakes region at the end of the last glaciation era 10,000 years ago, by way of the St. Lawrence River. He said that's why they aren't found in any other Vermont lakes.
Animal care and exhibit coordinator Shannon Kane described cleaning fish tanks as "a lot like cleaning a swimming pool," and she also observed Thursday that the brook trout in the giant, round blue tub she was vacuuming appeared quite happy, since they kept breeding and leaving eggs in the filter.
Kane said she herself is quite happy to still come to work at a job she loves, even as so many Vermonters work or wait out the pandemic at home.
"It's actually really nice to have a place to go outside the house," she said. "We're being really careful here, so I feel safe."
Powsner also said he feels safe working at ECHO during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after staff received cloth face coverings on Wednesday. He added he does feel a big sense of responsibility to stay healthy in order to keep caring for the animals.
"I can't get sick ... because I'm needed here," Powsner said.
As he removed and rinsed rocks from an American eel's tank Thursday, Powsner characterized his job as "very Vermont-y."
"Most of the work we do is not very glamorous," he said. "It's cleaning — really deep cleaning — and getting really dirty."