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Aquarium readies its snake, otter exhibits

MEDICINE PARK  Six months since opening, the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center is expecting two new exhibits in the near future.

Doug Kemper, executive director, didn't have much time to relax following the grand opening in June before pressing forward with new expansions. Turtle Town, where families can feed carrots to several species of turtles, opened in August. Work has continued to progress on the Terry K. Bell Charitable Trust Southwest Oklahoma Wildflower and Butterfly Conservation Gardens and Butterfly House, but cold weather has slowed the project. But two new exhibits, the Snake Shack and the McCasland Foundation River Otter Habitat, will be completed in the coming weeks and months  just as the spring tourism season begins.

"Winter is going a little slow, and we knew that was going to happen with the projections that I made before we opened," Kemper said. "That will change by the time spring gets here. We're making good progress. It's going to be great when these open."

The new exhibits are still part of the first phase of the aquarium project. Kemper said the goal was to get the aquarium itself opened and then expand on smaller exhibits before the start of the second phase. Much like the aquarium, the Snake Shack will open in phases. The first will include the five venomous snakes of Oklahoma  three species of rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. They'll be visible in individual displays in a building outside the aquarium in the conservation gardens. Visitors can walk around the standalone building to see the snakes, which will be resting in clear, Plexiglas boxes. As with other animals at the aquarium, the display will feature additional information on the snakes and their habitats.

"The mission for the Snake Shack is the same as it is throughout the aquarium  conservation through education," Kemper said. "We'll talk about the importance to the environment and things like that."

A proposed second phase in the future will see an expansion of Snake Shack that will include non-venomous snakes of Oklahoma. While it may seem more splashy to display the dangerous snakes that many people fear and avoid, Kemper said sensationalism was never his goal. He wants people to understand the importance of snakes and why they should be respected.

"We hope to compare and contrast the venomous and non-venomous snakes," he said. "A lot of people will kill snakes just because they don't recognize if it's dangerous or not. Most of the time, it's a harmless or non-venomous snake. We hope that people can see them here and gain a better appreciation."

Kemper hopes to have the Snake Shack completed by the end of this month, but cautions against a hard timetable due to the unpredictable nature of the weather. 

As visitors come visit the new Snake Shack when it opens, they'll look across the gardens to see the final touches being put on what could be one of the most popular attractions at the aquarium  the McCasland Foundation River Otter Habitat. The new attraction will be about 40 feet long and about 15 wide and will feature a waterfall, a long stream and a deep pool swimming area that two otters can call home. Kemper said he's excited to see the otter exhibit, which has been under construction since last summer, open and ready for the public this spring.

"This was part of phase one with the knowledge and understanding that it would open some time after the grand opening," he said. "It's another added attraction that we're excited for our second year."

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