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Chicken of the Sea (World)

Though it's known mainly for acrobatic marine life, SeaWorld also breeds Attwater's prairie-chickens.

By Wendee Holtcamp

Most Texans know SeaWorld San Antonio as the world's largest marine wildlife adventure theme park where you can see Shamu the killer whale, as well as dolphins, sea lions, sea otters and other animals perform. Far fewer know Seaworld has championed animal care and conservation since they opened in 1988. This year, SeaWorld San Antonio started the new Saving-a-Species Tour, a behind-the-scenes look at their animal care and conservation work on behalf of rare and endangered species - including Texas' own critically endangered Attwater's greater prairie-chicken.

On the 90-minute guided tour, everyone - or, at least everyone who wants to - can pet a shark, touch an American alligator, feed stingrays and more. Everyone commented on the smooth coolness of the alligator's skin and the scratchiness of the bamboo shark. We marveled at baby bamboo sharks, just a few inches long. But when the guide asked the kids to feed the stingrays, my kids were not so sure about the idea.

"They will suck it out of your hand like a vacuum cleaner," the guide said. The stingray exhibit, seen only on the behind-the-scenes tour, has southern and cownose rays, both found in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the end of the tour, aviculturalist April Luna showed us the outdoor pens, lush with native grasses, where they keep the Attwater's prairie-chickens, a critically endangered subspecies that survives in the wild on only three small patches of coastal prairie in Texas - Nature Conservancy's Texas City Preserve, private ranches in Goliad County and the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. One of only six such facilities, SeaWorld breeds adult birds, incubates the eggs, and then raises the chicks until they release them into the wild.

In the last few years, the number of chicks being reintroduced from the six facilities has almost doubled, says Luna, mainly because of improvements in breeding and chick rearing. Every day the chicks get a salad of finely chopped kale, collard greens, green beans, carrots, apples and lettuce. Then they toss in live worms and crickets plus pellets specially formulated for the species. Delicious!

The eggs have nearly a 90 percent hatching rate. Once hatched, the chicks get moved as a group into a small brooding cage, where they become acclimated to outside temperatures over four weeks before going into the outdoor cages. By late summer, biologists will reintroduce this year's chicks into the wild where they must make it on their own.

"This is one of the few programs where the keepers get to go from start to finish. They get to take their birds out and see them released," says Assistant Curator of Birds Cyndi Laljer. "Because it's a native species, they really put their heart and soul into it." With only 72 wild adult birds remaining, every chick reared and reintroduced matters. Biologists have created a third wild population on private land.

Besides breeding endangered species on site, SeaWorld also provides a home for dolphins and sea lions that are unable to be released back into the wild, and actively advocates for and rescues abandoned animals and pets, some of which perform in their shows. We got to watch Alice, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin who was rescued from Padre Island National Seashore in 2007, play in her large outdoor aquarium. Alice had medical problems that made her non-releasable, so SeaWorld took Alice under their protection. Portions of the proceeds from the Saving-a-Species Tour benefit the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, which funds research and conservation efforts for wildlife around the world.

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