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Visitors can soon watch sea turtles, other coastal wildlife receive care at Texas rescue center

A CGI rendering of the new Port of Corpus Christi Wildlife Rescue Center is seen. The building is blue and white and appears to be two stories tall with a staircase leading up to the second floor. Large, glass windows look out over a balcony area. The building is surrounded by palm trees and the gulf waters can be seen in the distance.
Courtesy of the Texas State Aquarium
A rendering of the new Port of Corpus Christi Wildlife Rescue Center at the Texas State Aquarium, set to open in March.

Next month, the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi will unveil what will be the largest coastal wildlife rescue facility in the Lone Star State – and one of the biggest in the country.

The Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue will feature state-of-the-art veterinary equipment and the only CAT scan used for wildlife in Texas, as well many other amenities. It will also be the only Texas wildlife rescue facility permitted to treat marine mammals, raptors, shorebirds and sea turtles.

Jesse Gilbert, president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium, joined the Standard to talk about the new facility and what it means for conservation efforts in the Lone Star State. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How long has this been in the works, and what exactly does it mean to now be the largest coastal wildlife rescue facility in Texas?

Jesse Gilbert: So our wildlife rescue program at the aquarium started almost 30 years ago, and we’ve been operating, and it’s been growing and growing. Winter Storm Uri actually was kind of the catalyst that we needed something really big. We had about 1,600 sea turtles at one time during that storm. And so this project’s been under design and under construction for about 18 months now, ready to open at the beginning of March. And it will be the largest coastal wildlife rescue center in the state, one of the largest in the country. And it’s capable of saving sea turtles, shorebirds, birds of prey, manatees and dolphins. So it’s a pretty unique complex, and we’re excited to have it.

» RELATED: As temps fell, volunteers rescued nearly 5,000 stunned sea turtles on South Padre Island

So just to be clear, part of your mission here has been wildlife rescue going way back. But this new facility gives you new opportunities to help more patients?

It gives us a tremendous opportunity. One is to help more patients – bring more patients into the program. We will have the capacity to hold anywhere between 3,000 to 4,000 sea turtles at one time. But on top of that, it’s all the technology that’s in the building. So we’ll have the only CAT scan – like you would see in a human hospital – we’ll have only one for wildlife in Texas. And so there’s a lot that goes into the medical side of that, but what that means from a research and a conservation standpoint … I think the most exciting piece is all of this work that we’ve been doing for the last 20, 30 years has been behind the scenes. And now guests will be able to see it live as it’s happening.

A CGI rendering shows a room behind big glass windows which two young children are seen from behind looking into with their hands pressed against the glass. On the glass the words "Turtle Hospital" are seen. In the room on the other side of the glass are numerous cylindrical tanks filled with water in which sea turtles can be seen swimming in. An aquarium worker stands in front of one of the tanks in which the turtle inside appears to have a bandage wrapped around its shell.
Courtesy of the Texas State Aquarium
A rendering of the sea turtle hospital which visitors will be able to view at the new Port of Corpus Christi Wildlife Rescue Center.

I think some people may be struck by the fact that we’re talking about patients here – they’re animals; they are your patients. Typically when a patient arrives at the center, what sort of patients are treated there, and what sort of injuries do you find?

So, it’s much like human medicine at a trauma center. Sometimes we know what’s wrong, and then there’s other times we don’t – they just showed up on the beach and clearly something wasn’t right. And so we go into a full diagnostic mode. It’s a triage mode where you start to do X-rays, and now we’ll be able to do CAT scans, take blood samples, other things that kind of get us down the road to getting them supportive care immediately. But it’s a lot like human medicine.

It’s a dynamic environment in Corpus Christi. There’s a lot of endangered sea turtles that live here. We’re starting to see endangered manatees coming from Florida, dolphins, different birds. And so somebody might find one on the beach, they call into the rescue center’s hotline, the staff go out, they recover that animal from the beach, bring it in, and then it’s just like trauma medicine. You know, what’s wrong, what’s causing it? Is there an underlying issue? Give it supportive care and then you just kind of work up your diagnostics. And so we’ll be able to teach up-and-coming veterinarians, veterinary nurses how this works for wildlife, all in the plan to save endangered species.

A woman in a wet suit stands in the shallows of a beach. She's holding a sea turtle, which she is easing into the water.
Courtesy of the Texas State Aquarium
A Texas State Aquarium worker releases a rehabilitated sea turtle back into the gulf.

It’s remarkable that there is such a facility like this in Texas. Are there many around the nation?

You know, there’s probably about 10 in the United States that can do the broad range of animals that this program can treat. So between manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and different bird species, it’s pretty unique. We’re the only one in Texas that can do it. So it’s something that we’re proud of. We hope Texas is proud of that. We think that that’s an important part of our mission: to keep Texas wild and keep it a great place to live. And nature is part of that. And so I think it’s an exciting project that’s really kind of been in the works for many, many years. But we’ll see it kind of open in the next couple of weeks.

Forgive me for asking an indelicate question, but who covers this? I mean, it’s not like these creatures have health insurance. 

No, the aquarium. The aquarium covers it. It’s been something, again, that we’ve done for decades now. And it kind of comes and goes. You could have a year where you have a lot of patients, like a year where you have Winter Storm Uri, tropical weather … Hurricanes will really do some challenges. So the aquarium covers all of the costs to make sure these animals can go back out. And then we’ve got some really good corporate partners that have stepped up to help us build the building. So it’s an all-hands effort when it comes to Texas wildlife.

And what does this do for the facility in terms of its just physical size? And will visitors be able to come and visit this center?

So the new center is 26,000 square feet. The center that we’d been working out of is 5,000, so just to give you a sense of how big it is. It’s pretty staggering just walking through the complex. And yes, visitors will be able to see it. So if a turtle comes in and it’s been hit by a boat, you could watch the veterinarians do X-rays and CT scans. You could watch a surgery happen live. There’s windows into all the different treatment areas, the surgery areas. And you can literally come back and continue to watch that turtle’s recovery and rehabilitation up until the point it’s released.

The grand opening is coming up pretty close to, I guess, when you’re going to be getting a lot of visitors – spring break and that sort of thing.

Spring break’s coming up, yeah. So we’ll open the center and then about a week later we’ll welcome hopefully 60,000 to 70,000 guests. 

Wow. And those guests are a critical part of your ability to do what you do?

We’re a nonprofit organization, and so when people come and they have a great time at the Texas State Aquarium – they visit and they’re making their shared memories – they also are saving endangered wildlife in Texas. It’s their ticket sales that help fund this incredibly important rescue program. And so we’re really excited that people come and they have a good time, but they can also feel good that they are directly contributing to saving endangered species.

The Port of Corpus Christi Wildlife Rescue Center grand opening is set for March 2, 2023.

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