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Denver aquarium unequipped to handle piranha attacks or reporter queries

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It all began with an innocent question. Never did I intend to uncover potential death and dismemberment, not to mention bureaucratic chaos, at the Downtown Aquarium.

For some context, my family and I stopped by the aquarium this weekend. Besides the exorbitant entry fees and shameless retail schlock, one thing stood out: The piranha exhibit. Dozens of the beady-eyed, razor-toothed little buggers swim menacingly around in their tank, separated from attendees by a glass divider -- one that ends a mere six feet or so off the ground. On the other side, just a few inches below the edge, it's open water.

Piranha-filled open water.

Now, I consider myself a reasonable person. I usually don't have the desire to stick my finger in a socket or lick frozen flagpoles. But I have to admit that, deep down, I had a sick little urge to dip my hand, or maybe just a pinky, over the glass, just to see if, as promised by endless cartoons and adventure movies, my appendage would be reduced within moments to a blur of rabid fish and bloody bone. Sort of like this:

When I admitted this impulse at a Westword meeting, people thought I was insane. But considering we live in a culture that's spawned Fear Factor and the Crocodile Hunter, I bet I'm not the first to react this way. So you'd think the Downtown Aquarium (formerly Ocean Journey, until it was sold to the Landry's restaurant chain) would have a sign that says, for liability reasons, something stupid like "Don't stick your hand, even your pinkie, in the piranha tank."

But there's no warning anywhere.

So, the next day I called the Downtown Aquarium and asked for the person in charge of press and media relations. After being connected with General Manager Scott Hogan, I explained that I was from Westword and asked if he was in charge of press relations. When he said yes, I launched into my story, and shared my irrational yet compelling urge to use his operation's poorly sequestered piranhas to do myself bodily harm.

"I suppose you could," he admitted, then added, "We've never had any incidents with people sticking their hands in the tank. Or seen a need to put up a sign."

So are these family-friendly piranhas?, I wondered. Would they not nibble on stupid visitors? Well, replied Hogan, "I'm sure if you didn't feed them for a while..." He trailed off, letting me ponder this image of ravenous, bloodthirsty creatures.

Then he asked, "Are you writing this down?" I noted that I was. He went silent. "I am not commenting," he finally announced, and told me to call the aquarium's PR firm.

"For additional questions?" I asked. "Other than the ones we talked about?"

No, he said. For all questions. Our conversation didn't count. He thought I was calling as a "private citizen." On second thought, he said he thought I was selling ads for Westword. And by the way, he added, everything he'd said was off the record -- even though anyone who's ever dealt with the media (and he has; I asked him) knows to say that something is off the record before you say it. Nevertheless, he declared, "You misled me."

I'm a serious reporter, I really am. I try to remain professional at all times. But by this point, my eavesdropping Westword colleagues were in hysterics -- and it was contagious. I could feel myself breaking. So when Hogan eventually spluttered, "You offended me. You called me up under false pretenses about some story about piranhas," it was too much. Overwhelmed by thoughts of piranha attacks and offended aquarium personnel, I couldn't hold it in any longer. All journalistic standards went out the window.

I cracked up -- and he hung up.

There you have it. The Downtown Aquarium has a piranha problem. To get to the bottom of it, I will call the operation's PR firm, as Hogan suggested, and report on their response in an upcoming blog. In the meantime, don't stick your hand in their tank (even though you can). But more important, don't ask the on-site staff any questions about them. Either way, terrible carnage will ensue. -- Joel Warner

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