Eastern Washington’s Only Aquarium: A Hands-on Place to Play and Learn

photo and article by Jessica Simpkins, MD

Did you know that Blue Zoo Spokane is the only aquarium in Eastern Washington? Hidden in Spokane’s Northtown Mall, Blue Zoo provides a hands-on approach to learning about animals that swim in the water, walk on land, and soar through the sky. Children and adults alike have the opportunity to interact with and learn about these animals up close.

The story of Blue Zoo’s origin is unique. Idaho native Wes Haws was working abroad in Ethiopia when he sustained a traumatic brain injury, requiring emergency surgery. Wes survived, but had a long recovery ahead of him and a lengthy stay in rehabilitation. During his weeks in rehab, Wes had an aquarium in his room that kept him engaged and lifted his spirits.

Wes credits the time he spent learning about the fish, coral, and their environment as the inspiration for what would ultimately become Blue Zoo. When he returned home, Wes got involved with salt-water fish and coral interest groups. He purchased a salt-water tank and continued to learn about aquatic life. Before long, he and a friend from his interest group opened their own aquarium in Idaho Falls.

Blue Zoo

When Wes saw the look of pure joy on the faces of the aquarium visitors, he knew he wanted to expand. Wes saw a need for education and hands-on experiences with aquatic wildlife in landlocked areas. He wanted to bring the ocean to people that may never have the opportunity to see the ocean for themselves!

In 2019, Wes opened the very first Blue Zoo in Spokane, Washington. Since that time, they have expanded to three other locations across the US and are currently building their fourth location. Each Blue Zoo offers opportunities for visitors to touch and feed stingrays, birds, and reptiles, and observe a myriad of other sea creatures.

Blue Zoo Director of Operations Damitu Haws is proud of the staff that run each location. “Everyone who works here loves what they do, and it shows on their faces. My favorite part of Blue Zoo is seeing the look of joy when children learn about these animals. Many kids are afraid of the animals at first, but after they have that one-on-one experience with them, have a chance to touch and learn about them firsthand from our staff, you see that joy,” Damitu says.

“Our mission at Blue Zoo is to provide hands-on experiences that help people appreciate nature even more. We want all people, but especially the younger generations, to gain the knowledge that we aren’t alone on this planet. We want them to get excited about what they’ve learned here, go out and share it with others, and help us save the reef and our oceans. We hope what they learned with us will make them more mindful about the wildlife they will see when they go to the ocean and out in nature, “ Damitu explains.

Tonia Wilder is the store manager of Blue Zoo Spokane and loves her job more than she thought possible. “I’ve only been here three months, and yet I love coming to work every day,” Tonia smiles. Before coming to manage Blue Zoo Spokane, Tonia helped manage her husband’s dental practices in Spokane Valley and formerly Coeur d’Alene. She has a background in recreation resort management, is an avid scuba diver, and loves working with people.

“When I interviewed at Blue Zoo, I saw the potential to thrive in this wonderful space and knew I would love working here. When I come in the morning to open the aquarium, I get to be with the animals in the quiet. The stingrays are sleeping, the birds are quiet, the water is rushing. Being in that space– if there is any tension I may have, the stress just melts away,” Tonia notes.
“This place gives me energy, and everyone on this team is excited to be here, to learn more about these animals, and to educate our visitors. My goal is to get all of our staff educated on each of the animals so we can answer as many questions as we can. We want our guests who visit to be inspired by what they see and learn during their time at Blue Zoo. We would love to give them that Disney Land experience,” Tonia explains excitedly.

Andrew, one of the Blue Zoo Spokane employees, took me on a tour around the zoo. An Eagle Scout with interest in marine biology, Andrew loves working at Blue Zoo and having the opportunity to learn and interact with all of the animals. One of his co-workers explains that Andrew has been writing a book of facts about the animals to share with his employees.
When we enter the reptile room, Andrew points to a monitor lizard named Monte. “I love Monte’s story,” Andrew says. “Monte was owned by an elderly gentleman who loved him very much. Each night the gentleman would sit in his recliner with Monte snuggled on his chest and he’d feed him crickets. When the man passed away, his family donated Monte to us at Blue Zoo to be looked after,” Andrew explains.

“Many of our reptiles come to us as surrenders or donations from previous owners. Some of them have special needs. We make sure to give our reptiles plenty of time to rest away from the spotlight. When they are not in an active exhibit, they are downstairs in their own enclosures where they are well-cared for,” Andrew notes.

There are a variety of daily shows visitors can experience throughout the week, such as the reptile experience, shark feeding, pirate and mermaid shows, and more. Blue Zoo also frequently hosts field trips for students from nearby schools. Be sure to follow them on Facebook at @bluezoospokane to stay up-to-date on show-times and events. For more information,
visit www.spokane.bluezoo.us.

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