As you may have read last week in "Denver Aquarium Unequipped to Handle Piranha Attacks or Reporter Queries," on a recent visit to the Downtown Aquarium I was disturbed to discover just how easy it would be to stick my hand into the open-top piranha tank -- and even more disturbed by my irrational desire to do so. I was able to fight off the urge long enough to make it home in one piece and, later, call the aquarium about its open-access razor-teeth fish. But my questions seemed to catch the operation's GM off guard and led to a PR disaster of bloody, flesh-mangling proportions (yes, that's a piranha pun).
Eventually, however, Landry's Restaurants Inc., which purchased the struggling aquarium a few years ago, got its act together and connected me with Jim Prappas, the company's marine biologist. Yes, that was my first question, too: What the hell is a seafood restaurant chain doing with a marine biologist? Turns out that Prappas gets asked that a lot. "There is a whole entertainment aspect of the company. Part of that is the animal division," he says over the phone, noting that, along with the Denver aquarium, Landry's runs a Houston aquarium and several smaller live-animal attractions. "Anything that is a live animal in any of our exhibits falls under my jurisdiction." In other words, don't complain to him about your overdone mahi-mahi.
Between Landry's various marine operations and Prappas's 27 years in the marine biology biz, he's the perfect guy to ask about the Downtown Aquarium's seemingly free-range piranhas -- and whether or not they'd be inclined to gnaw my pinky off. According to him, I have nothing to worry about: "In the right conditions and right environment, such as how we keep them, they are not dangerous. They are not the strip-an-animal-to-the-bone-in-thirty-seconds fish that many people have come to believe."
Piranhas don't deserve their bad rap, says Prappas, though they've been stuck with their scary reputation ever since President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Amazon and the local officials staged a piranha feeding frenzy (you know, for entertainment purposes and stuff). But as far as Prappas knows, "In the aquarium industry, there has never been an example of people sticking their hand in a piranha tank and getting chewed on."
So it's okay for the Downtown Aquarium to leave its piranhas seemingly free for the groping, Still, Prappas says he will check with local personnel to make sure they're encouraging proper people-piranha relations. "I wouldn't feed them by hand or rub myself all over with chicken and get in the tank," he notes.
By now my fears were eased -- and then, at the end of our conversation, Prappas drops this: "My favorite movie is Piranha Two." As in Piranha Part Two: The Spawning -- "The terror is back...but this time it flies!"
Okay, that's it: I'm not going to take any chances. Next time I hit the Downtown Aquarium, I'm wearing chain mail. -- Joel Warner
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