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The Florida Aquarium's Leader in Animal Care and Health

Tim Binder has been an executive at two of the world’s largest aquariums, contributed to the science of understanding aquatic life and has consulted around the globe.


But The Florida Aquarium’s vice president of animal care and health is quick to acknowledge his career’s humble origins. In a recent interview, the Rapid City, South Dakota native put it bluntly, “I got my start in a roadside attraction on the road to Mount Rushmore.”


The road he described sounded remarkably similar to a pre-Disney Florida: “Every few miles or so there was a tourist attraction. There was a reptile attraction, a bear attraction, and numerous other small family owned attractions along the way. What grabbed my attention was this small aquarium with seals, sea lions, dolphins and a collection of fishes and birds native to western South Dakota… It’s long been out of business.” However modest, the little aquarium sparked in him a fascination with marine life that would become a 40-year journey. 


After working seasonally through junior high and high school at the attraction he was hired fulltime at 18 and quickly demonstrated a talent for animal care. He loved being with the animals, and developed keen insights into their needs. In his early 20s, he joined the staff of the highly regarded Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where his skills earned him a senior leadership position.


Binder then became one of the first people hired by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which was the largest aquarium in the world when it opened in 2005. The late Jeff Swanagan left The Florida Aquarium CEO post to become Georgia Aquarium’s original leader.  Among Binder’s challenges was ensuring the welfare of the whale sharks, which the Georgia facility is the only aquarium outside of Asia to display.


A top view of a whale shark in the ocean blueIn 2008, he left Georgia to consult on animal-care and welfare, traveling to Asia, Africa and Europe. A year later he joined Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to become executive vice president of animal care.


His impressive ascension in the field occurred even though he never earned a college degree. He was too busy studying animals first-hand.


“I am self-taught,” Binder said. He doesn’t recommend that approach, but “it worked for me. I studied hard and worked hard. You have to make your own luck.”


At Shedd, he worked closely with Roger Germann, the former Shedd executive vice president, who in 2017, became The Florida Aquarium’s president and chief executive officer. When Germann took the Tampa job, Binder knew “good things were in store for The Florida Aquarium.” 


“At Shedd, we used to talk about our ambitions, the things we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do them,” Binder said. “I liked the idea of working for Roger. He’s a strong administrator, visionary and a downright good person.” 


But more than his respect for Germann was involved in his decision to join The Aquarium team last fall.  


“I was attracted by the trajectory of the organization and the diversity of its leadership but its conservation work really sealed the deal,” he said. “I’ve worked at two of the largest aquariums in the world that had tremendous resources. They were great places to work, but The Florida Aquarium offers tremendous opportunities to have a direct impact on significant conservation issues in very unique and exciting ways.”


The Florida Aquarium, Binder believes, is proving itself exceptionally nimble in responding to significant conservation issues. 


As an example, he points to the Aquarium’s Center for Conservation campus in Apollo Beach, where researchers are committed to helping restore the gravely endangered Florida Reef Tract. 


Binder sees the work as vital. The Florida Reef Tract, which runs from Martin County through the Dry Tortugas, has lost more than 90 percent of its staghorn and elkhorn coral because of disease, pollution, climate change and other factors. The innovative center is growing healthy corals in its greenhouse-like arks.  The complex also contains laboratories and a sea turtle hospital, where the injured or sick sea turtles that are often brought to the Aquarium can be treated and rehabilitated. 

 

The Florida Aquarium became the first organization to grow staghorn coral larvae in 2014. Since then it has raised thousands of corals.  Its staff just led a multi-agency expedition in the Florida Keys that “outplanted” healthy, genetically unique corals that had been raised at the Center for Conservation.


Obviously, more rigorous environmental protections and development controls also are critical to saving our coral reefs. But Binder, whose team oversaw the logistics for the outplanting, believes the Aquarium’s commitment to coral conservation can have an “immediate impact” on The Florida Reef Tract.


“The potential benefits (of growing healthy corals in the lab) are just astronomical. This is just the beginning. We have entered the proof of concept phase and early indications of its success are extremely encouraging.  [The Florida Aquarium Senior Coral Scientist] Keri O’Neil just oversaw the planting of more than 3,500 corals. That progress is very exciting.”


Binder didn’t have much time to ease into the job when he joined The Florida Aquarium administration last fall. Five weeks later, the facility had its Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation inspection. The rigorous review is conducted every five years and scrutinizes every aspect of a zoological facility. 


The AZA certification is not a simple renewal. It must be earned each time. Binder said that of the “2,400+ zoological institutions in the United States, only 263 are accredited by the AZA.  AZA accreditation puts The Florida Aquarium among the best of the best places providing for the health and welfare of amazing animals our guests may never otherwise come face-to-face during their lives.”


Binder is an accreditation inspector himself, so he knew how exacting the process would be.  Preparing for the inspection helped him quickly become familiar with The Florida Aquarium operations, and he was impressed by the staff’s discipline, knowledge and devotion to the animals. He was not surprised that inspectors found no significant shortcomings and the Aquarium was once again accredited. “The exit interview only took a few minutes,” he said. AZA accreditation underscores the emphasis its accredited zoos and aquariums put on animal welfare. Binder also stresses the ecological importance of zoos and aquariums, which reveal vital information about wildlife.


“For example, 25 years ago we thought bottlenose dolphins lived only 25 years, but now we are seeing them give birth in their 40s and living into their 60s.” The beluga whale, which he studied in Alaska, is an example of how animals in human care can add to our understanding of the species in ways that cannot be done solely on field observations.

“The beluga whale that is found in the arctic and subarctic regions of the world disappears into the dark of the arctic night for six months a year and its biology wasn’t clearly understood… Belugas are hunted for human consumption in many parts of the world and subsistence hunters thought the whales gave birth every year. “Working with them in human care, we’ve learned that their gestation is 14 to 16 months and weaning takes two to three years. So rather than giving birth every year, they actually were reproducing every four to five years.”


Such discoveries are essential to maintaining healthy whale populations. “A lot of what we know about aquatic animals is learned when they are under human care. Aquariums’ contribution to science is really important.”


Not only do institutions such as The Florida Aquarium make important wildlife discoveries, but “we connect our guests to the natural world and inspire them to be good stewards.” Binder’s passion for animal care, it is apparent, hasn’t diminished since he first was enticed by that roadside attraction decades ago.


Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

With Contributions by Tim Binder, VP of Animal Care & Health