Medicine Park offers venue to explore aquatic life
The aquarium offers this enrichment for children and families through its exhibits and daily demonstrations. Courtesy photo
Nestled between Medicine Park and the Wichita Mountains, just off of Highway 49, sits an industrial tan metal building, nondescript but for signage that reads, “Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center.” On the outside, hot sunlight glints off the metal siding, bright and a little bit blinding. On the inside, it’s cool and dim, awash in blue and purple lights that shift in wave-like patterns on the floor. Tanks filled with native species of Oklahoma fish and aquatic life offer a window into another world—a hidden world, just beneath the surface of our own.
Doug Kemper, executive director of the aquarium, strives to bring this hidden world into the light. Kemper, who’s spent over 40 years in the zoo and aquarium business, holds a soft spot for educating kids and families about the local environment and natural history. Standing in the front room of the aquarium, where a group of school children are staring, wide eyed and fascinated, at a variety of snakes, scorpions, and spiders, Kemper recalls his own childhood. For him, summers were spent playing down by the creek, exploring and catching bugs. He believes the current generation has lost this connection with the environment.
“Our kids are quite removed from nature,” Kemper says. “So, we think it’s really important to enrich the lives of these kids.”
The aquarium offers this enrichment for children and families through its exhibits and daily demonstrations. Among these attractions are a few favorites, like Moby, the 50-pound blue catfish, and Ahab, the albino blue catfish. The pair are massive, and spend their days lounging around in separate tanks because they have difficulty getting along. For 8-year-old Cotton Electric Cooperative member Danielle Araujo, Moby, the “big humongous catfish,” is the best part of the aquarium. “I love catfishes,” Araujo says, “because they remind me of cats, but they are still fishes.”
The alligator gar, with their impressive size and jagged, sharp teeth, make for another fascinating exhibit. Better to encounter them in the ‘Jurassic Fishes’ section of the aquarium, next to the longnose gar and paddlefish, than in the Oklahoma rivers they call home. For the younger visitors, the tadpoles and bullfrogs are a hit. Small children will also enjoy the Turtle Town exhibit, where they can feed the red-eared slider turtles tiny slivers of carrot. There are also plenty of favorites in the ‘Marvels and Mysteries’ section which includes archer fish, piranhas, and, most importantly, electric eels.
Electric eels produce, on average, 500-600 volts of electricity. That’s enough electricity to power at least three major household appliances. Courtesy photo
The electric eel exhibit is likely the aquarium’s most popular attraction, thanks to the feeding demonstrations performed every day at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. The eels, Axel and Slash, are among the most dangerous of electrified species worldwide, with the ability to produce 500 to 600 volts of electricity. For reference, that’s enough electricity to power at least three major household appliances. During the demonstrations, a member of the aquarium staff offers shrimp to one of the eels with rubber tipped tongs. Staff members also wear long rubber gloves as an added safety precaution. The eels release powerful surges of electricity into the tank to stun their prey. Lights on top of the tank then illuminate to show the voltages the eels are reaching, and a sound box allows visitors to hear the shocks.
While these exhibits are engaging and educational, they’re not all the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center has to offer. Throughout the year, the aquarium hosts special events and programing, including summer camps, holiday events, and educational tours. Outside, there’s also a sprawling butterfly garden, snake exhibit, and in-development river otter habitat. All of these are only a part of the first phase of building, with many more additions to come. According to Kemper, it’s important to keep things fresh, in order to offer a space that local families can keep returning.
“You know, in today’s world it’s hard to put together family activities,” Kemper says. “Families are busy. So, we try to put together an attraction that the family says, ‘let’s go do this.’”
Kemper projects that it will take at least 50 years for all of the planned exhibits to be implemented. That’s 50 years of new exhibits, and new reasons to revisit the aquarium.
The Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can keep up to date with upcoming events, exhibits, and programs by following their Facebook page at facebook.com/mpmns.org.