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Aquarium banks on being kid-friendly

Foster children get in free as owners plan to expand in other cities


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Kids are all eyes at the sea life -- including reef fish (left) and moray eel (above) -- at the new Porltand Aquarium, which opened in December on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard. The aquarium has been popular, selling about 10,000 memberships, organizers say.On a recent Thursday morning, a month after opening, there was a line around the block at the Portland Aquarium as excited school children waited to get in.

With Portland students on winter break, the aquarium on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaukie has been flooded every day of the week with hundreds of people walking through every hour.

“We’ve probably had about 1,000 to 1,500 visitors each day,” says Patti Obana, director of marketing at aquarium. “It’s been really crazy.”

Owners of the aquarium, brothers Ammon and Vince Covino, also own an aquarium in Boise, where they’ve sold about 600 memberships, compared with the 10,000 memberships sold in Portland. The Portland Aquarium may surpass annual membership sales at other popular museums in town. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry sells 20,000 to 30,000 memberships each year.

“We promote through Groupon, Sharing Spree and Valpak,” says Larry Smith, guest services practitioner for the aquarium. As early as October, two months before opening, he says they sold memberships at half price, and memberships now are 25 percent off.

Because Portland is larger than Boise, aquarium owners weren’t surprised by the higher sales here, Obana says. She insists the just-in-time-for-winter-break opening wasn’t intentional — it could just be that it’s the latest indoor hands-on kid space to open in Portland, a blessing to parents in the rainy winter months.

Taking care of children and animals

One way the aquarium has set itself apart is by giving foster children free admission. Obana says that co-owner Ammon Covino has helped raise about 35 foster children and wanted to do something special for foster children here after realizing how hard life can be for them.

Albertina Kerr, the Northeast Portland nonprofit that offers children’s services including foster care, has been one of the groups interested in the deal. In the first month, about 110 foster children have visited the aquarium free of charge.

The aquarium also offers birthday and slumber party packages, which have been a big draw, with 25 to 30 parties each weekend.

“It’s a new place to host a birthday party,” Obana says. “Everybody’s always looking for something new to do.”

Everyone can interact with the creatures through “touch tanks” and other hands-on activities in rooms with themes including the rainforest, jellyfish, tide pools, shark and stingrays, and tropical fish and Oregon Coast. The rainforest room also boasts a large jungle-themed play structure and a covered area for visitors to hold and play with lorikeets.

“Not all kids are lucky enough to go to the Coast Aquarium, and this is so much closer,” Obana says. “You can get your feet wet, so to speak.”

However, aquarium staff make sure that the animals are well taken care of and are not injured or stressed out after being touched all day.

“We have strict guidelines that we have to follow,” Obana says. “We have a wildlife veterinarian who comes in and checks on the welfare of the animals, and what he says goes. We (also) have 17 marine biologists and biologists.”

There have been a few cases of animals becoming stressed or injured, Obana says, such as a stingray that was hurt after being handled too roughly by a young boy, and a few fish that became stressed.

Once an animal is injured or upset, aquarium staff place them in quarantine to allow time to recover away from the public.

About a third of the animals that live at the aquarium were either donated or rescued, such as the four-foot bamboo shark donated from a private owner and the otters found on a crawdad farm that were otherwise going to be euthanized.

New exhibits and openings

The aquarium owners hope to be certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums after being open for two more years, which is required for certification. The application process is lengthy and has strict guidelines on how animals are taken care of and kept.

Meanwhile, there are plans to continue to expand the 11,000-square-foot building within the next year to add a river otter display, a puffin display and a larger shark tank. Officials also have considered adding seals to the mix.

Next, the Covino brothers plan to open an aquarium in Austin, Texas, possibly in the next several months. It will be a for-profit business similar to the Portland Aquarium, as opposed to the Boise Aquarium, which is a nonprofit.