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'Pleasant, Chaotic Experience': Caring For ECHO's Animals Through The Coronavirus

A person wearing a cloth over his face stands on a stepladder next to a tank.
Elodie Reed
Ira Powsner, a facilities and animal care specialist at ECHO, cleans the tank for an American eel on Thursday, April 9. While the science education center is closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic, a small staff cares for the animals.

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.

Two photos, a butterfly in one, and a person going through plastic strips hanging in a doorway and into a room full of plants in the other.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Left: A giant owl butterfly. Right: Steve Smith, director of animal care and facilities at ECHO, enters the "Return of the Butterflies" special exhibit.

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.

A hand holding a brown block with a large grey fish swimming towards it.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
VPR File
Curly the sturgeon gets hand-fed by animal care and exhibit coordinator Shannon Kane Thursday.

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.

Two images, one of a silhouetted person in a doorway and another of a person carrying a ladder in front of a window looking at Lake Champlain.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Left: Steve Smith walks through the now-doorless doorway to the main office. It was removed to reduce the amount of shared surfaces ECHO staff touched. Right: Animal care and exhibit coordinator Shannon Kane carries a ladder to go feed the salmon and trout.

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.

A hand holding a clear tupperware with a turtle holding its head up.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

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."

Two images, one of a person in a mask opening a refrigerator with an animal feeding schedule on it, and in the other, a person holding a hose in a large, round blue tank.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Left: Shannon Kane retrieves fish food to feed ECHO's salmon and trout. Right: Kane cleans out the tank holding the older and runty fish who don't do as well in the larger tanks.

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.

Small silver fish in a tank.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Bowfin swim in a tank at ECHO on Thursday. Next to the tank was a poster describing the "giant bowl" that is the Lake Champlain basin, with "mountain springs trickling into hillside brooks, which in turn spill into larger lowland rivers and streams." This large web of water, the poster explained, connects all of us, from woods, fields, marshes and swamps to towns and backyards.

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."

Two photos, one of a person wearing a mask vaccuming a clear tank, and another the ECHO doors with multicolored words "Vermont's Nature & Science Museum" and signs detailing its closure.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Left: Ira Powsner cleans the tank of an American eel Thursday. Left: ECHO's doors remain locked while Gov. Phil Scott's state of emergency is in effect, though animal care continues on inside.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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