Even though it’s only been around for two years, the Idaho Aquarium already has a sordid history. Founded as a moneymaking venture by a pair who later went on to plead guilty to federal charges of illegally obtaining marine animals, the aquarium occupies unlikely quarters in a former warehouse near the mall.
As most people who follow the news know, the founders departed to start aquariums in Oregon and in Austin. But the Idaho Aquarium’s board has decided to keep the aquarium going. There seems to be a demand for exposure to sea life, or at least a desire for it, here in the Treasure Valley. The management reported 100,000 visits last year.
Another reason for making a go of the aquarium, says new Executive Director Nancy Vannorsdel, is that having an aquarium in town is probably good for Boise. The city prides itself on having many of the desirable amenities said to attract high-level professionals, such as the Boise Philharmonic, Opera Idaho, and nationally known dance companies such as the Trey McIntyre Project. A place where Idahoans can see sharks, eels and an octopus definitely adds to the mix.
But Vannorsdel is going to have her work cut out for her making the aquarium into a lasting success.
For one thing, its name is still associated with all of the bad news that arose as the founders’ legal problems mounted. Employees reported that the animals were being neglected; the Idaho Humane Society investigated stories that sea animals were mistreated. Depressing news reports of paper cups floating in the puffin tank, and animals dying or disappearing, surfaced as the founders moved on from Boise.
For another, there aren’t a lot of people on the aquarium’s board with experience in running aquariums. The board now stands at eight members, with three confirmed Oct. 30. None of them are marine biologists, though one ran an aquarium store and another comes from a family that did. The board members have a strong business background, and they’re assets to the nonprofit as it gets its finances, reputation and strategic plan in order. But without a Ph.D.-level marine scientist, this isn’t a board that seems a natural fit for an organization whose stated mission is education and conservation of oceanic life. Vannorsdel freely admits she herself doesn’t have experience with what she calls “the fish”; when we talked about her decision to come out of retirement to lead the organization, she joked that she doesn’t even like sushi.
The aquarium’s backers are right; a respectable, reputable, and professionally run aquarium would bring credit to the city. Run properly, this nonprofit organization will overcome its origins as a sea life petting zoo run cynically for profit by people who were willing to illegally import wildlife to get it started. The new operators have the support of the Idaho Humane Society, whose president, Jeff Rosenthal, said he saw Vannorsdel’s hiring and efforts to rebuild the board “as an extremely favorable sign that the organization may be rehabilitated and can join the ranks of the legitimate nonprofit organizations of the valley.”
But in order for it to survive and prosper, the aquarium does need to acquire a habit of scholarship. That would be a good lesson to impart to its visitors: that a serious aquarium can be a place of research, not just a place to gaze at sea life. There are marine biologists in Boise; there are environmental research organizations nearby with a capacity to lend some intellectual weight to this highly technical undertaking.
If the aquarium’s new board wants to make a go of this, it’s worth doing it properly. Vannorsdel said she’s talked to one Ph.D.-level scientist who might join the board. It’s important that she find some board members who can help provide the knowledge and training to educate the general public properly. After all, the mission statement of “education and conservation” was in place when the original founders were in charge, and it’s clear that neither idea mattered to them.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.