Firsthand Account of Steven Bailey, Curator of Fishes

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Steven Bailey has been with the New England Aquarium since 1984. He received his bachelor's degree in zoology from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and completed substantial work toward a master's degree in ichthyology at Northeastern University in Boston. When a full-time job as an aquarist was offered to him at the aquarium, he jumped at the chance and has since moved up the ranks to his current position.

STEVEN BAILEY'S BACKGROUND

"When I was in graduate school, I was planning for a job that would pay me to go diving. It was as simple as that. I definitely had an animal thing going, and I had been diving since the sixties. My father, who is a forestry kind of guy, always outdoors, decided that my brother and I at a young age should know how to dive. I grew up in Pennsylvania but spent most of our summers diving at a lake in Maine. The perfect way to start.



"I spent four years in grad school, and they were incredibly busy years because I was trying to gain a lot of experience. I volunteered with the National Marine Fishery Service, and on a number of occasions I spent time as a professional collector, collecting specimens that were used for biomedical research. I had a great deal of diving experience, and back in the early eighties there weren't a lot of folks around applying for these positions who had that experience. I was working seven days a week and going to school and just generally maximizing every minute. I heard about the job because I was volunteering here while I was going to graduate school. I had a mentor here, too, who recommended me.

"I started as an aquarist. Over a thirteen-year period I moved up the ranks, or should I say I moved out of the best job in the building to the most aggravating job. I spent ten years as an aquarist, then I got promoted to senior aquarist and somehow, inexplicably, bypassed that last supervisor step and went from senior aquarist to my present position as curator of fish."

STEVEN BAILEY'S RESPONSIBILITIES

"As curator of fish, I am responsible for everything other than marine mammals. That's fish, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, birds, plants. My area involves the aquarium's two biggest exhibits, the Giant Ocean Tank, which is the centerpiece of the building - it's a 200,000-gallon Caribbean coral reef exhibit - and the penguin colony, which is at the base of the tank.

"I am responsible for twenty-four people. There are nineteen aquarists at different levels and four supervisors, the equivalent of assistant curators. I also supervise a curatorial associate who keeps track of everything from how much frozen food we are feeding fish to making sure all of our permits are up to date. She pitches in wherever she can, whether that's on a collecting trip or helping to haul a 500-pound turtle out of an exhibit for a blood sampling.

"One of my duties is hiring. We can be incredibly selective about that. Every time there is a job opening advertised here we receive at least 200 resumes. We can be particular about the backgrounds that folks have. It must include diving, and it is up to them to make sure they have this training. They must also have a degree. Animal biology is preferred, but we also have people with environmental science or general biology degrees, too.

"People's work ethic is also very important; people who work hard to achieve a particular goal are very attractive to us. Sometimes you can see this on a resume. They want to be in contact with animals, so they'll do anything and everything to ensure that that happens, whether it's mucking out stalls, working for a vet, working in pet stores, running their own grooming businesses. There are a lot of things people can do to be close to animals. Being interested in fish is obviously a plus. Maybe someone has been a home hobbyist for years and can go on at length about the animals they've had in that time. Or maybe it is something they've developed more recently in life, as the result of a stimulating course they had in college. Some folks elect to do field experiences that are an epiphany to them. They manage to see something that they never thought of before and become quite enthralled with it.

"Primarily in this job I now deal with budget and personnel issues, or that's the way it seems. I am removed from the day - today hands-on work. If I had taken accounting courses and abnormal psychology, I would be much more prepared for this particular position than all the biology I studied.

"There are around eighty to ninety exhibits that fall under my group's control. Those range in size from the 200,000-gallon Caribbean Reef exhibit to a 50-gallon sea horse and pipe fish exhibit. Those exhibits need an incredible amount of scrutiny, from making sure the animals are nutritionally taken care of to the three W's, or aesthetics, of the exhibits-the windows, the walls, the water. They all have to be clean and aesthetically appealing, so that when folks come to visit us they are immediately assured that professionals are managing the animals. They spend money to visit here, and they should get a good return on their dollar. They are seeing the epitome of animal presentation, taking home a lot of good information and getting a bit of an education while they're here.

"Aquariums and zoos, in general, have evolved in many ways to where they are stewards of the animals in the wild. The long-term survival of these animals hinges upon the successes of zoos and aquariums in general. What I mean by this is there are many animals that are endangered or threatened or enjoy some sort of status of special concern, and we are breeding facilities, we are restocking facilities for animals that are ready to go back into the wild to reestablish a population. There is no substitute for seeing the real thing. We can get an important message across, and this is an admirable and worthwhile job.

"Conservation and research and animal breeding activities are all a big part of what zoos and aquaria are up to these days. We have an aquarist who spends a great deal of time in the Amazon each year. What he does is run an eco tourism operation where he has people paying to come on trips with him to assess biodiversity and explore the habitats of a number of these backwaters in the Amazon. The money generated from this is used to support Brazilian researchers who are doing things such as examining the ornamental fish industry. The most popular fish in the world, as far as the home aquarist goes, is a fish that comes out of the Rio Negro river system, a part of the Amazon River Basin. That animal is called the cardinal tetra. The cardinal tetra is single-handedly-or single-finnedly, I suppose - responsible for the well-being of maybe 40,000 to 50,000 people who live on that river. They are all in some way a part of that industry. Because they exact a living from that sustainable fishery and are not in the forest slash-and-buraagriculturing, or selling other animals' skins or parts, it is one of the most intact areas of the basin.

"I preferred it when I was able to get out in the field instead of being parked in front of a computer screen all day and attending lots and lots of meetings. The positive aspects of this job are much different than what initially attracted me to the field. I don't get out and go collecting that often, but I do manage to get a fair amount of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment from being involved in the design and exhibit-construction end of things. We, as a group-the husbandry folks, the design department, education, and research-get together to plot our course over the next few years.

"I am also married to someone who works here and is also an animal person, and life couldn't be better."

A WORD OF ADVICE

"It is a career for people who are very serious. There aren't that many opportunities and you have to be really dedicated to this pursuit. Most of the folks here have not been hired right out of college. They spent a good deal of time volunteering at this institution and picking up a lot of other related work experiences, expanding their horizons, becoming very much Renaissance people. The diversity of experiences that individuals can have are very important as far as making them attractive commodities when hiring time comes around. There are very few people here who were hired on their first go-around.

'This job requires that you have construction and tool skills. It demands you know your way around the literature or at least be able to find the information to answer a question or solve a problem. It requires an ability to be comfortable with routine and what can often become repetitive work.

"Being an aquatic chamber maid, which most everyone is, might sound like fun, but when you are cleaning and maintaining an animal's environment day after day, it can get very old for some people. For other people it's a Zen experience. They put it into perspective, they are able to be at peace with the incredible amount of responsibility they have for all of these animals.

"And not all of these animals have the excitement or energy that, say, a panda has or a killer whale. Those are animals that get a lot of attention from the public, but, nevertheless, an animal is an animal and whether you are talking about a minnow that is abundant five miles away from this institution or one of those more glamorous animals, such as the California sea otter, the bottom line is still the same. They depend on you, and you are responsible for their well-being."

VOLUNTEERING AT THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM

"Volunteers are a very big part of the success of this institution. In the husbandry division we have volunteers donating something like 40,000 hours to us, so that's like twenty full-time positions. We also have summer and January term internships. The interns are supervised by fully trained aquarists and senior aquarists and they, in turn, are supervised by me.

"In addition to my staff, I have an incredible number of volunteers. The diving aquarists probably have twenty to twenty-five volunteers, and the gallery aquarists have about fifteen full-time volunteers. On a yearly basis we probably see twelve to eighteen interns."
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