One of the most common statements that I hear from members of our community is that “Niagara Falls needs younger leaders.” It’s true – we need new blood, new ideas and youthful energy to lead the rebranding of our community.
To understand how this can work, one only need look at the rapid growth and expansion of the Aquarium of Niagara. 32 year old Gary Siddall has been the CEO of the aquarium since 2016.
Recently, the aquarium has announced several major projects and initiatives including the $5 million Great Lakes 360 project, which will occupy the long vacant Gorge Discovery Center.
Also, just weeks ago, USA Niagara announced that the Aquarium of Niagara has been chosen as the preferred developer for several vacant parcels on Second Street, adding to their vision of expansion and community outreach.
Aquarium CEO Gary Siddall spoke to the Reporter about the new developments: “We set our sights on the Discovery Center and it was funded and is currently under construction. We set our sights bigger and bolder and said we want thirteen properties, and the state came back and said we support you in that vision.”
In the past five years, there has been no turnover at the aquarium. Says Gary, “It’s been so inspiring, we’ve been this incredible team. We haven’t seen anyone leave in the last five years. It’s a passion when you work for a non-profit. In our case it’s the animals that make the opportunity so rewarding. I’m surrounded by a group of people who refuse to accept limits, in a community that’s thirsty for positive destination community development.”
He’s right on the money – our community has always desired more fun and recreation for both locals and tourists alike.
The Aquarium of Niagara is unique because it is not owned by New York State, nor is it owned by a private developer. Instead, it is a 501c3 non-profit organization which receives less than 5% of its annual operating costs from state tax dollars. Ergo, the aquarium depends on attendance to continue operating.
Animal Residents – All Rescues
Animal lovers, including this writer, can rest well knowing that all of the creatures living at the Aquarium of Niagara are rescues.
The aquarium is home to four harbor seals, four sea lions, 16 penguins and a bunch of other aquatic animals like fish, turtles, jellyfish, and more. It costs around $50,000 to feed them all every year. Each sea lion alone racks up an annual feeding cost of $6,000.
Says Gary, “The animals that come here, this is their final destination because they don’t have any other options. A lot of animals that are brought here, the alternative was euthanasia. It’s not returning them to the ocean in the conditions that they’re brought in, they can’t ethically release them; because of health complications, physical impairments, things like that.”
Animals at the Aquarium of Niagara have one or more of several health issues, such as: seizure conditions, congenital (from birth) blindness or injured by boats. There were even harbor seals which had suffered gunshot wounds.
So, the aquarium is not just an attraction – it’s actually a sanctuary for physically impaired animals who have nowhere else to go. As such, it can be said that the Aquarium of Niagara is rightfully the conservation leader in our community.
“Our role is to act as their forever home,” says Gary, “When we get the call from the federal government telling us that they have an animal with special needs, that needs long term care and specialized animal care staff – that’s our role.”
Gary describes the aquarium as a “safe haven for conservation.”
He described the process, saying “Based on the animal’s needs or conditions, the federal government will reach out to special care facilities. We have a lot of practice with that, which is why we have such a high percentage of rescued and unreleased animals here. We’ve made it our staple mission point to provide that forever home and that’s something we are incredibly proud of. We’ve attracted a lot of staff to come and live here because of that.”
Anyone who has visited the aquarium in recent memory will tell you that the sea lion show is the highlight of their experience.
Gary told the Reporter that, while it has the appearance of a performance, the show is actually the main form of exercise for their sea lions.
“If they were in the wild they’d be swimming away from sharks, hunting after their prey, climbing cliffs, etc.” he relates. “When they participate in our public programs, that’s their exercise. They eat ten pounds of fish every day. They can’t do that and just lay around so this is their way of burning those calories.”
Just watching the sea lion show, it’s obvious that the animals are happy and nurtured, as Gary explains: “There’s very little persuasion we have over a 200 pound animal, if they don’t want to do it they’re just not going to. What you see when you watch our programs is voluntary participation because they’re motivated to do it.”
And he should know. He began his career at the aquarium as an animal trainer. He was then promoted to supervisor of animal training and then as deputy director, before taking on the role of CEO.
“My entire background here started as a trainer… Looking into the eyes of a sea lion, their eyes are five or six times the size or ours, you feel like you can see their soul.”
Gary’s passion for animal care is reflected in his staff. He began volunteering at the aquarium when he was just 12 years old. Says Gary, “The relationship between the staff and the animals is incredible.”
He laughs, adding “Our staff spends more time with these animals than they do with their own spouses and pets at home. It’s a special relationship. When you take on a profession like animal care, it is your identity. You can see that in the presentation when the animal leans into their trainers. That’s why we are able to get into the pool with them.”
In addition to their exercise, all of the animals also get to experience enrichment. Nobody is left out, even the penguins and the octopus get enrichment.
Says Gary, “Their schedules are divided into free time, public programs and play time. We have a really active enrichment program. We give our sea lions toys like you’d see in a pet store, bubbles, sound and scent enrichment. We vary their day as much as possible. They have a high level of cognition and we don’t take that for granted. We’re constantly trying to manipulate their environment to provoke thought and exploration. You can see that with sea lions, they’re swimming around like golden retrievers with a Kong in their mouth. They’re highly intelligent and also very playful.”
Locals should be proud to have the Aquarium of Niagara right here in our city. The facility itself is unique. It was the first inland oceanic aquarium in the United States. Prior to its construction, aquariums were built exclusively along the coast to pump in sea water. Our aquarium boasts a 100,000 gallon saltwater tank.
Discounted Admission For Struggling Families through “Museums for All”
Gary and his team work very hard to give back to our community. Recently, they partnered with “Museums For All,” a program that allows anyone with an EBT card to purchase admission at an extremely discounted price.
Gary explains his decision to partner with this program, “We looked at the median annual income in Niagara Falls and realized we need to help out. If you present a food benefits card, the admission cost goes from $20 to $3. So, as opposed to a family of four costing $80, it will cost $12. We did this because we realize that not everyone in our community has the economic means to pay $80.”
“We have a wonderful host community,” Gary continued, saying “They’re our supporters, our front line of defense and our allies. It’s unreasonable to expect families who are struggling to get by to be able to afford $80. We want them to be connected with our mission here. How can you possibly be inspired by aquatic life if you can’t access it?”
Gary also expressed that part of his vision is to have homegrown sea lion trainers working at the aquarium. He said he’d like to see more local students graduating and realizing their dreams in animal care right at home.
Other components of the new expansion will include food services, traveling and temporary exhibits, and an outdoor playground for children. “I envision it as a sprawling campus,” says Gary, “like a zoo without a fence!”