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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

The undersea world of Jay Hemdal

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

First, consider the Mediterranean fish: The Toledo Zoo aquarium is the only facility in North America that has them. Some of the four species on display took years to acquire.

Then, there are the leafy sea dragons, animals that look like the offspring of a giant sea horse and an oak tree. These fish are picky eaters, demanding a diet of tiny shrimp that cost $150 a week to provide. The Toledo Zoo solution? Become the first aquarium to raise the mysid shrimp, skip the expensive dinner tab, and join a small society of aquariums with these sea dragons.

Then there was the question of how much water is trapped by the gravel at the bottom of a fish tank. Jay Hemdal - the Toledo zoo curator of fishes, and the guy behind the Mediterranean fish and the decision to raise shrimp - decided he had to know. He spent one lunch hour pouring water and various types of gravel into a graduated cylinder and then measuring the water.

It is a more serious question than it seems. Fish medicine doses are based on the amount of water in the tank. Knowing exact water volume prevents overdosing and under dosing.

Given the above, you still may hesitate to say that Mr. Hemdal is obsessed with fish. But how else would you talk about a guy who had 20 fish tanks in his first apartment?

Mr. Hemdal has been curator of fish at the Toledo Zoo since 1989. He's also author of four books for fish hobbyists. He's even a collector of fish jokes.

Q: What did the fish say when he swam into a wall?

A: Dam!

"My parents tell me my next door neighbors gave me gold fish in a bowl, and from that day on it was always fish,'' he said.

Before that - and he was only about 4 years old, so there wasn't much before - it was dinosaurs. Then "I found out what extinct was.''

"I got my first salt water tank when I was like 9, 9 or 10, with my paper route money."

By the time he was 13, he was working in tropical fish stores. At Eastern Michigan University, no surprise that he majored in aquatic biology, and developed the foundation of his 20-plus year career.

In Toledo, he's been responsible for the continued development of an aquarium with more than 3,000 fishes of 300 species.

"Our aquarium has one of the most diverse collections of any zoo in the country,'' Mr. Hemdal said.

But Mr. Hemdal is also recognized for his work on a larger stage.

"Jay has contributed over the years a tremendous amount,'' to the world of aquariums, said Mike Brittsan, a curator at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Not only does Mr. Hemdal keep track of endangered Lake Victoria chichlid fish in zoos all over North America as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' species survival program, he was also a founding member of a group called RAW: the Regional Aquarium Workshop.

Started in the early 1990s as an opportunity for aquarium curators in Ohio to get together informally and talk about the challenges they faced, RAW now draws hundreds of aquarium professionals from all over the world for a low-cost workshop.

"Jay's very fair. He's honest. He's intelligent. And he really looks out for the welfare of the animals that he cares for,'' Mr. Brittsan said. "I just have tremendous respect for the guy.

"I would say the Toledo Zoo, the aquarium community, and Jay's friends are lucky to have him around.''

Mr. Hemdal seems to have a knack with humans as well.

Last year, amid one of the zoo's most trying episodes, the Toledo Zoo asked its employees to rate the zoo - everything from animal care to leadership. The five employees of Mr. Hemdal's department rated their own department as nearly flawless in issues of animal care, communication, fairness, aquarium leadership, and satisfaction. No other animal care department came close to granting such high grades.

While Mr. Hemdal's human relation's skills are apparently strong, it's what he brings to fish relations that's made a mark on the Toledo Zoo. During his tenure, he's taken a facility with small tanks, old equipment, and limited resources and created a crack staff that can care for any fish.

"This isn't supposed to sound like bragging, but there is virtually no aquatic animal out there my staff does not have experience working with,'' Mr. Hemdal said. If there is any exception at all, it is the largest sharks, which Toledo's tanks just can't accommodate. But the staff has cared for smaller sharks, no problem.

And sharks are easy compared to sea dragons. Aquariums the size of Toledo's just don't have them. The animal's special diet makes them too expensive for all-but the richest facilities. Plus, they are enormously fragile fish.

"Leafy sea dragons, the mortality rate for them is 50 percent. Ours is zero,'' Mr. Hemdal said.

What is it about fish that fuels this passion for them? Maybe it's just curiosity.

"There's fascination, wanting to learn more about something that isn't well known,'' Mr. Hemdal said.

It's not easy to form an emotional bond with a fish. But there are exceptions - like the giant Pacific octopus.

"Octopus have a lot of personality,'' Mr. Hemdal said. "I think my staff would be more attached to an octopus than a shark.

"It's one of the few animals we can do enrichment with,'' Mr. Hemdal said. "My staff is really into octopus enrichment. They give it unique items to manipulate. They put food inside a jar so he has to work to unscrew the lid.''

Mr. Hemdal hopes that eventually his staff's experience with a wide variety of fish will allow for the aquarium's expansion, something that's been batted about since 1995.

"I have seen big aquariums come on line, with brand new staff, and they bring in all these animals from the four corners of the world, and they're ill-equipped to care for them,'' Mr. Hemdal said. That's something he says won't happen in Toledo.

Although some improvement to the 67-year-old aquarium building would be paid for by the passage of a 1-mill, 10-year capital improvement levy on the May 2 ballot, a real expansion of the facility will have to come from some future ballot issue.

A 10-year master plan adopted by the Zoo Board of Directors last year calls for an eventual dramatic renovation of that 1939 building into the best aquarium between Chicago's Shedd and the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky. This year's levy could pay for some of the early planning on that more ambitious aquarium.

The zoo also has an 0.85-mill operating levy on the May 2 ballot. Together, the two levies will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $56 a year - about $20 more than the levies these issues replace.

Contact Jenni Laidman at: jenni@theblade.com or 419-724-6507.



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