Pet Tales: Arapaimas at PPG Aquarium provide an entertaining show

You can‘‍t miss the big guys when they swim past you. They’‍re 4 feet long and are “top-of-the-line predators,” says their “keeper,” aquarist Rich Terrell. They aren‘‍t sharks, and they pose no threat to people. They are arapaimas -- a fish you’‍ll never see unless you travel to South America or to the freshwater Amazon River exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

One arapaima shoots to the surface, lifts his head out of the water, noisily takes a big gulp of air and swims down to the depths of the tank.“They‘‍re air breathers,” Mr. Terrell explained.

The greenish-brown fish have names, Harry and Charlie, although their keepers don’‍t know whether they are males or females. Apparently, it‘‍s really hard to tell.

“They’‍re just babies,” Mr. Terrell said, noting that they are expected to grow to 12-15 feet in length.

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One arapaima swam to the glass and appeared to be looking at Mr. Terrell.

“We just turned off the waterfall,” he said, and the fish have learned that what happens next is a training session in which they are rewarded with chunks of raw fish and fruit.

Who knew you could train fish? They‘‍re not jumping through hoops or learning tricks; this training is to benefit the fish, and it’‍s interesting to watch. Their training sessions are what zoo keepers call “enrichment.”

Visitors to the PPG Aquarium should stop by the Amazon River tank. If they see keepers bringing out stepladders, those keepers will soon be waving sticks with balls or squares at the end to attract the attention of the big fish. Harry and Charlie will swim to the top, slap the water and make a big splash, get their treats, and circle back for more.

“If fish are bored, they may not thrive, and they may pick on other animals” in the tank, Mr. Terrell said.

Training sessions also give keepers a chance to check for health problems. If the fish “are not training as they normally do, it could be a sign that something is up.”

Training is only three days each week because that is how often big fish eat, “and their motivation is hunger,” Mr. Terrell said.

In the same tank, a very different kind of fish was training with zoo intern Jordan Lupori, a conservation biology major at Thiel College.

The brown-and-gold vermiculated stingray “spits water at us to get our attention,” Mr. Terrell said. “We‘‍re trying to teach her to do it on command.”

The stingray -- which they can tell is a female, although she doesn’‍t have a name -- actually spits air and that pushes water toward the keepers, Mr. Lupori explained. “She‘‍s doing pretty well. She’‍s getting there.”

The fish-in-training share a 60,000-gallon tank with 80-100 other fish. A daily fish count is part of a keeper‘‍s job.

Another eye-catcher in that tank is a nearly 4-foot long fish with long whiskers that frequently swims up to the glass to make eye contact with delighted children. It’‍s a redtail catfish, and Mr. Terrell uses it as an educational tool. He tells visitors they can legally buy small ones in pet stores, but he wishes they wouldn‘‍t do that. A 125-gallon tank is a big fish habitat in the pet trade, but that won’‍t keep a redtail catfish for long. The zoo can‘‍t take a catfish when it gets too big, and it’‍s illegal to release them into local rivers, where they will die in the winter.

Top-of-the-line predators like arapaimas eat other fish in the Amazon River, but they seldom eat their tank mates at the zoo because they are well-fed.

“I‘‍ve never seen them eat other fish,” Mr. Terrell said, but they probably do now and then because the census of small fish does sometimes vary.

Mr. Terrell is one of the lucky ones -- an animal lover who gets paid to take care of animals. There are only 200 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. He‘‍s been at the Pittsburgh Zoo for nearly 12 years. 

“I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was in seventh grade,” he said.

He started with one small fish bowl, a gift from an aunt. He earned a bachelor’‍s degree in marine biology from Jacksonville University in Florida and a master‘‍s degree from the University of Delaware. He’‍s also a scuba diver, as are all the fish keepers, because they go into the tanks with the animals in their care.

So what does a professional aquarist do at the end of a work day? This one goes home to Monroeville, where he has 20 tanks of pet fish, three tortoises and a bunch of poison dart frogs. He says the tiny, brightly-colored frogs “really aren‘‍t that poisonous.” He’‍s also active in the Greater Pittsburgh Aquarium Society.

He has two children -- Eibhlin, 14, and Kieran, 9 -- and a beagle-mix named Ozzie. His wife, Heather, has a master‘‍s degree in biology and works at the Pittsburgh zoo as a registrar.

The zoo is open 362 days a year. Hours vary by season. Go to for more information.

At the dog wash

Dirty dogs are encouraged to come to a dog wash on Sunday that benefits the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. “Scrub A Dub Dub Doggies in a Tub” runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Woody’‍s Dog Wash & Pet Boutique, 5843 Brownsville Road, South Park (15236).

Volunteers will wash the dogs. Donations range from $12 for dogs smaller than 10 pounds to $20 for those that weigh 80 pounds or more.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, or 412-263-3064.