‘Friendly as puppies’

Donny Culver loves his sting ray, “Miss Piggy.”

“They just get to be your pets,” said Culver, co-owner of the Sea Life Encounters of America exhibit at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot. “They’re just as friendly as puppies.”

Miss Piggy, so named because she eats so much shrimp, is one of nine stingrays on display at the exhibit. Culver knows when she’s feeling right because her color changes depending upon her condition. The lighter her color is, the happier she is. She can expect to live up to 10 years in captivity, said Culver, who strives to keep the conditions optimal for the creatures, no matter where they’re on display.

People are allowed to touch the creatures, which look flat as a pancake, because their barbs have been clipped. Culver said the cownose and Atlantic stingrays in the exhibit live in the waters along the Gulf Coast and the Jersey Shore, all the way up to Brazil. They are distantly related to sharks.

Another of the stingrays is named Speedy because it moves faster than the others.

There is also a horseshoe crab in the exhibit. Culver explains to audiences that the crab’s blood is blue and the species has been used in scientific experiments that might help provide treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Culver, who co-owns the exhibit with his brother, Joe Culver, said the stingers would be safe to touch even if they still had their barbs. He said they only sting when they feel threatened, as when someone steps on them by accident. The resulting sting can be painful but will not be fatal. Australian Steve Irwin’s 2006 death after being pierced in the chest with a stingray barb while filming an underwater documentary was a tragic fluke accident, said Culver. He said the stingray toxin is not fatal, unless the person is allergic.

“Ninety percent of injuries are from the ankle down,” said Culver, explaining that people should “shuffle” when they walk in the ocean, rather than walking. That way they can nudge a stingray aside and won’t be stung.

The Culvers decided to start their exhibit seven years ago, inspired after they saw that a Nashville, Tenn., restaurant had installed an observation tank and let people touch the sea creatures. The Culvers thought it would be a great idea to start a traveling exhibit. They are now based in Casa Grande, Ariz., but are on the road up to 10 months per year.

Culver said they now take the traveling Sea Life Encounters exhibit all over the country, exhibiting at fairs as well as at schools and nature centers. This is their first time at the North Dakota State Fair.

“We’ve had an absolutely wonderful reception in Minot,” said Culver, who said people have been visiting the exhibit nonstop since the first day of the fair. He said he really enjoys seeing the reaction of kids from landlocked North Dakota to the sea creatures.

The Sea Life Encounters exhibit is free. The exhibit will continue today from noon to 8 p.m. at Free Stage I.