The new Austin Aquarium in northwest Austin opens Thursday for pass holders. The soft opening comes after the owners caught months of controversy for permit problems and allegations of misuse of animals.
With the official grand opening days away, some city leaders are curious what oversight they have over the aquarium. Animal Services Director Abigail Smith says the aquarium is no different than any other private business.
"A private not-for-profit doesn't have to give you any information,” Smith said. “There really is no way for us as we sit today to find out anything."
During an animal advisory commission meeting Wednesday night, Smith says federal agencies only get involved when certain species or mammals are kept at the aquarium. The same would be the case if any of the fish were endangered.
"All of these different things have an ability to regulate the aquarium depending on what animals, what species, they have in their aquarium and where they got them," Smith said.
Locally, Smith says the city can go after the aquarium for code violations or animal cruelty. A work group of animal advisory commissioners will look at other avenues.
"The work group would come up with a set of recommendations, bring it to the full commission,” commission chair David Lundstedt said. “If approved, those items would go on to Council."
The fish at the aquarium will not be for sale, but Lundstedt says this is not too different from the commission’s approach a few years ago to dogs and cats being sold at retail store."
"We did make some recommendations that the city adopted to prohibit the sale of puppies and kittens in a retail establishment," Lundstedt said. "It's not totally uncharted territory to be talking about a retail business like an aquarium either."
The Aquarium owners say they plan to be accredited by the Zoological Association of America. According to the association, fewer than 10 percent of the country's animal exhibitors have their accreditation.