What do stingrays feel like? And are they safe? What to know about new KC Zoo exhibit

A peek into the new stingray touch tank at Kansas City Zoo

Visitors can feel these ocean dwellers for themselves when the Stingray Bay touch tank officially opens May 18 with 28 stingrays and 12 white-spotted bamboo sharks.
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Visitors can feel these ocean dwellers for themselves when the Stingray Bay touch tank officially opens May 18 with 28 stingrays and 12 white-spotted bamboo sharks.

Imagine fine sandpaper covered with slime.

That's kind of what the rays feel like in Stingray Bay, the new $3.5 million interactive exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo.

"Rubbery and slick," is how Sean Putney, senior director of zoo operations, described them at a preview for the media on Tuesday.

Visitors can feel for themselves when the touch tank officially opens May 18 with 20 cownose rays, eight southern stingrays and 12 white-spotted bamboo sharks. Eventually, the public will be able to feed them chunks of fish, probably for a small fee.

Aside from how do they feel, the second-most anticipated question: Is it safe? After all, we're talking about stingrays and sharks here.

Zoo officials said Tuesday they would not take chances with public safety. While rays do have venomous stingers — near the base of the tail, not at the tip — those have been snipped off. The removal is harmless to the animals, which face no predators in the zoo exhibit.

The rays' jaws are more for grinding food instead of biting. And the sharks, about a yard long, are bottom dwellers, not fierce gnashing machines.

"Nobody's going to lose their fingers," says Putney.

Just as the zoo is not taking public health for granted, it also is not fooling around with the health of the animals, which are native to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The roughly 23,000-gallon saltwater tank is constantly being treated by huge, roaring machines in the back of the building.

There's sand filtration, ozone filtration and ultraviolet filtration. A protein skimmer removes oils and feces and turns them into a brown sludge that visitors would just as well not see.

The purification equipment accounts for a third of the square footage and about 40 percent of the cost of the exhibit. That is designed to avoid water quality problems that killed several rays during a traveling touch tank at the zoo in 2002.

The water temperature is kept about 76 degrees in the year-round exhibit, which on Tuesday was breezy with large ceiling fans and windows. In winter, it will be a heated refuge.

The exhibit is near the entrance, next to the penguin house, and is essentially finished except for installation of informational signs and a giant oceanic painting by students at the Kansas City Art Institute.

There are wash stations for visitors to clean their hands both before and after they stick them into the water. The edges of the kidney-shaped tank are low, so children can reach. There are also glass panels for underwater viewing.

The female stingrays will grow to be about five feet wide and the males a little smaller. On Tuesday, they glided separately along a sandy ledge near the rim of the tank. The cownose rays travel in a school and tended to stick to the deeper center of the tank. The sharks were temporarily acclimating in a separate tank.

Stingray Bay is the centerpiece of a number of spring additions to the zoo:

A playground for children with disabilities and special needs will open Friday, May 4.

A female polar bear named Bam Bam arrived in April from the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha. She is temporarily in quarantine off public view and will then be introduced to the zoo's resident female bear, Berlin.

Also in April, the zoo received a breeding pair of black rhinoceroses from the Oregon Zoo in Portland. They will be out of quarantine in one or two weeks, and officials hope to display them together.

Two recently born river otters should be out on display in about a month.