Tacoma - For more than 28 years, John Rupp managed the care of sharks, walruses and other marine animals at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
He delighted in 1989 when he opened one of the West Coast’s largest shark collections at the aquarium so people would understand the vital role sharks play in a healthy ecosystem.
He grieved in 2009 when Qannik, then one of two beluga whales at the aquarium, died of a blood infection.
Through the ups and downs, he loved his work as aquatic animal curator.
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“There was never a boring minute in this job,” said Rupp, 66. “That’s what I thrived on.”
Having built a talented staff around him, Rupp retired at the end of June.
“I thought it was an opportune time,” he said. “My creativity remains strong.”
Rupp plans to stay involved with the zoo and aquarium through diving with its volunteer dive program and advising its animal welfare committee.
A committee for the zoo plans to select a new aquatic animal curator as early as September from a handful of internal and external candidates, Rupp said.
John Houck, deputy director of the zoo and aquarium, praised Rupp for sharing his expertise to develop staff members over the years.
“One of John’s legacies is that he’s had a profound impact on a number of marine biologists that have worked at the zoo and have come up through the ranks,” Houck said. “He’s made very good scientists out of them.”
The South Pacific Aquarium that Rupp developed is highly respected nationally, said Houck, who’s worked at the zoo for 25 years. And Rupp is recognized internationally as a consultant, Houck said.
“He’s kind of our own little treasure here.”
Rupp’s job has been to acquire animals and manage the collections in the North Pacific and South Pacific aquariums and Rocky Shores, home for puffins and sea otters.
That’s where E.T. lives.
“Show me your teeth,” he’d say to the 3,700-pound walrus named because he looks like E.T. from the Steven Spielberg movie.
Over at the South Pacific Aquarium, he’d tell Lizzie, a 450-pound lemon shark, to swim toward him so he could check her for parasites.
The one-way conversations were part of his job troubleshooting for illnesses. Rupp supervised nine employees, including animal care specialists, and worked with veterinarians.
Rupp starting working for the zoo and aquarium in 1981 as a consultant, coming from South Florida. He became curator of fishes in March 1982, and his duties expanded to aquatic animal curator in 2000. His annual salary when he retired from Metro Parks Tacoma was $62,902.
Born in Southern California, Rupp describes himself as “a water person” and a naturalist.
“I wanted to understand how animals behaved, why they did what they did,” Rupp said. “It’s all I’ve ever done.”
He points to the South Pacific Aquarium and its shark collection, dedicated in 1989, as the highlight of his career. The aquarium has 28 sharks from six species.
“Being a part of a very talented team that brought that to Tacoma is probably the shining moment,” he said.
Fourteen years after the release of the movie “Jaws,” sharks still suffered then from an unfair image as bloodthirsty, killing machines, Rupp said.
The public didn’t understand the role sharks play in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. For example, sharks keep tuna stocks healthy by feeding off sick and weak tuna, Rupp said.
“They’re not after people,” he said.
“The intent was to try to resurrect the good name of sharks,” Rupp said. “We have done that.”
The aquarium succeeded by educating people and by simply exposing them to sharks.
Often, when people get their first glimpse, they gasp.
“‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize they were so beautiful,’” said Rupp, quoting a common response. “That’s the first step toward changing attitudes, minds and perceptions of people toward sharks.”
Besides fish big and small, he’s cared for marine animals ranging from penguins to polar bears.
Rupp concedes he has a soft spot for mammals, with their human-like qualities.
He talks about E.T. like an old friend. The walrus has been at the aquarium since 1982, the same year Rupp was hired full time.
“He and I grew up together,” Rupp said.
While the acquisition of sharks was a high point, the death of one of two beluga whales was a low.
Beethoven was moved to Sea World in San Antonio, after Qannik died in March 2009.
Rupp said he and his team that worked so hard to maintain Qannik’s well-being were devastated.
“It was a terrible loss,” Rupp said.
For three decades, Rupp flourished by relating to the animals and working with the people at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
“I’ve grown terribly fond of all the people here,” Rupp said.
“It was a passion,” he said. “It was more than a job.”
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 email@example.com