End of an Era – Ric Urban’s Return to the South

All of us at Newport Aquarium want to wish Ric Urban a fond farewell! After spending the past 14 years with us here at Newport Aquarium, sharing the wonders of wildlife and saving wild spaces, Ric is about to embark on his next chapter – and he’s returning to the south!

Ric Urban

Ric has left a legacy a thousand times over, giving people a greater appreciation for wildlife and wild places. – Eric Rose, Executive Director at Newport Aquarium 

Ric has more than 35 years of experience working in AZA-accredited institutions. He joined us at Newport Aquarium in 2004 as Curator of Birds and Mammals. During that time, he increased the aquarium’s penguin collection from two species to six by hand-raising several birds. He also helped bring American alligator, Mighty Mike, and albino alligators, Snowball and Snowflake, to the facility. While Ric’s role and title may have changed over the past 14 years, his dedication to conservation never disappeared.


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He has been responsible for developing partnerships that promote in-house and off-site conservation programs involving animals and ecosystems, as well as promoting the aquarium’s conservation efforts. Ric is active in the community as a member of Banklick Watershed Council, Sanitation District No. 1, the annual Ohio River Sweep, Reforest Northern Kentucky, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association Lock-up.

From transforming the Tri-State’s water shed and landscape, to protecting local species, Ric Urban has inspired the conservationist in all of us.


“I always tell people that while I am living and breathing I don’t want these African penguins to be extinct, we’re not going to let that happen.” – Ric Urban

Our community is a better place because Ric lived here and spent nearly every waking moment of those 14 years inspiring others to care for the planet and its animals the way that he does. He showed us we can make a difference, that small conservation efforts add up to big ones, and that our environment is worth caring about. We’re going to miss him- and if you’ve ever met him you know there are too many reasons why to list.

My favorite conversations that Ric had with so many people went something like this.

Person: Oh, I’ve never seen a __________ (insert any animal) in-person before.

Ric: Yes, it is quite beautiful isn’t it?

Person: Definitely. Can I touch it? Will it bite?

Ric: Well, everything with teeth will bite if it feels threatened…but generally not.

                                                                                                                                –Chad Showalter

There are so many stories that I could tell about Ric Urban. He was not only the man who first hired me at the Newport Aquarium in 2011, but he quickly became my mentor. Later down the road he became my travel partner, conservation adviser and friend. I have seen first-hand the impacts he has had on summer-camp kids, volunteers of all ages, his own daughter and me.


Ric and Alle traveled to Peru in 2012 to help protect endangered seabirds, including penguins.

One of my favorite stories was traveling with him to Peru for the Humboldt Penguin Guano Harvest in 2012. He had just undergone shoulder surgery, but still thought it would be a great idea to army crawl into a guano-filled penguin nest with one of our hosts. Why not!

If you get the chance, be sure to ask him about the “bear in the bathroom” story. It is one of my favorites! Ric truly is one-of-a-kind and will be missed greatly, but I know he will make a positive impact in Gulfport. Cheers! – Alle Barber

Ric is described by his colleagues as talented and good-natured, helping him to become quite the television and public personality. You might have seen him on Living Dayton with Nagini our red-tailed boa, or on WLWT talking to Randi Rico about Bindi the Blue-Tongued Skink and Oreo our Argentine Black & White Tegu, or sharing important conservation messages about African penguins while visiting every local and regional television station, as well as a Cincinnati Reds baseball game with Paula the African penguin, an important ambassador for her species. Ric often tells people, “When you get a chance to be close to nature and touch the animals, you begin to feel a personal connection with that animal. It’s a connection with nature, a connection with conservation.”

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Ric has made it his life’s mission to protect African penguins, an endangered species threatened by increasing competition from commercial fisheries for food and harmful crude oil spills. Ric is the Project Coordinator for the AZA SAFE African Penguin Individual Identification Project. He also holds a seat on the AZA African Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP), Penguin Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), and is a member of the AZA’s Animal Welfare Committee. “I always tell people that while I am living and breathing I don’t want these African penguins to be extinct, we’re not going to let that happen,” said Ric.

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Thursday afternoon, Newport Aquarium cast members came together to share a final farewell. Reflecting upon these last 14 years, the positive relationships he has made and the legacy he will leave behind, Ric left us with these final words, “don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened.”


Ric’s new adventure will be at the Mississippi Aquarium as their Director of Husbandry & Conservation.

See ya later, Ric!

Spring Forward, Lights Off! Cold Weather Penguins Gearing Up for Spring

By Megan Gregory, PR Aide at Newport Aquarium

As we prepare to set our clocks forward one hour this spring, the Antarctic is preparing to enter winter and say goodbye to the sun.IMG_0290

The Antarctic is on an opposite schedule than the United States. As things get warmer for us, things are vastly getting colder in the South Pole.

Because the earth’s axis is tilted, the Antarctic only has two seasons: Summer and winter. During their summer (Late October through Mid-March) the sun doesn’t fully set while in the winter (Mid-March through Late October) the sun doesn’t rise.

How do we keep our penguins on this cycle?

The lights inside of the exhibit are slightly adjusted each week to mimic the lights of Antarctica. This helps keep the penguins in their natural cycle and exposed to a consistent photoperiod as if they were in the South Pole.

Why is it important to the penguins on this cycle?

It keeps the penguins on their natural cycle by promoting proper breeding and molting cycles. While penguins have reproduced under the care of institutions that chose to use an ON/OFF switch for their lights instead of mimicking the lighting schedules, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) reported enhanced reproductive success with varying annual day length and light intensity.

Ric Urban, Newport Aquarium’s Chief Conservation Officer and a member of the AZA’s Penguin Taxon Advisory Group Steering Committee, said that this also helps the penguins if they’re moved to a new AZA-Accredited institution. It keeps continuity with the penguin and creates a shorter adjustment period inside their new home.IMG_0214

If Newport Aquarium follows the seasons, will guests be able to see the penguins?

Absolutely! We still have lights on in the exhibits which usually start to dim toward the evening hours, around Newport Aquarium closing time. And like Newport Aquarium, most institutions don’t just mimic sunlight, but also moonlight! The illumination is still bright enough for guests to see our penguins waddling and swimming inside.

Guests can see one of the most diverse collections of cold weather penguins at Kroger Penguin Palooza 365 days a year! At Newport Aquarium, we have five species of cold weather penguins under our care: Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, Macaroni, and Southern Rockhopper. Guests can also see our African Penguins with our Penguin Encounter, an additional 20-minute experience inside the penguin house where you can get close and maybe touch one!

Kentucky Agencies and Institutions Unite to Save Threatened Hellbenders

Newport Aquarium’s Chief Conservation Officer forms statewide working group

NEWPORT, Ky. —   More than 40 people representing 25 different agencies and institutions met at Newport Aquarium for the first time on Monday, Dec. 14 to discuss the status and conservation efforts of North America’s largest salamander species, the Eastern Hellbender, in the state of Kentucky.

Also known as the snot otter, devil dog or lasagna lizard, the prehistoric looking  hellbender is capable of reaching 29 inches in length at 5-6 inches wide. It produces a slimy secretion on its skin that could be noxious to some predators, but is not dangerous to people.

The species population in Kentucky is in decline.  Hellbenders prefer to make their homes in clear, cold, fast-flowing streams that are free of pollution, which many of the state’s waterways no longer offer. Good stream health means safe and clean areas for Kentuckians to enjoy the outdoors.

Because a healthy hellbender population indicates a healthy surrounding ecosystem, Ric Urban, the Chief Conservation Officer for Newport Aquarium had no trouble finding agencies interested in supporting conservation efforts to save the species.

“It’s an important enough of an issue that every agency I’ve talked with wanted to be involved in saving this incredible species by helping to create and support habitats where it can thrive,” Urban said. “Without the support, effort and dedication of these agencies, there is little hope for the hellbender.”

Groups participating in the working group include:

Colleges and Universities

The first meeting of the Kentucky Hellbender Working Group included representatives from 25 agencies, colleges and universities, and businesses.

The first meeting of the Kentucky Hellbender Working Group included representatives from 25 agencies, colleges and universities, and businesses.

“At Newport Aquarium we have the ability to teach our guests about the amazing animals around the world and even in our own backyard,” said Urban.  “They have the ability to help in our efforts as ‘citizen scientists’ helping to protect our environment.  The health of the streams where hellbenders live depends on the residents of Kentucky to understand what each person puts down the drain or on their yard can end up in watery habitats threatening animals that live there.”

The group plans to meet next in the Spring to keep the future hopeful for hellbenders.

For more information on the hellbender, visit this link.

For more information on Newport Aquarium, or to purchase tickets, visit NewportAquarium.com or call toll free 800-406-FISH (3474). Connect with Newport Aquarium on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to its blog, for the most up-to-date news on Newport Aquarium.


Newport Aquarium has showcased thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water since May 15, 1999. Named one of the best aquariums in the U.S. by Travel Channel and USA Today, Newport Aquarium is a Herschend Family Entertainment company and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year and located across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati at Newport on the Levee.

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One Aquarium Way | Newport, KY 41071 | 859-261-7444

National Zoo Keeper Week Spotlight: Animal Ambassador Ric Urban

National Zoo Keeper Week is celebrated during the third week of July each year. As the need to protect and preserve our wildlife and vanishing habitats increases, zoo keeper’s roles as educators and wildlife ambassadors become more essential. Throughout this week, Newport Aquarium will highlight members of our dedicated animal husbandry staff.

Ric Urban behind the scenes of the Gator Alley exhibit with Mighty Mike.

Ric Urban behind the scenes of the Gator Alley exhibit with Mighty Mike.

Name: Ric Urban

Title: Newport Aquarium Animal Ambassador and Manager of Animal Acquisitions/Dispositions, Exhibit Design & Development and Compliance

Month and Year in which you began working at NAq? February 2004.

What is your favorite animal at Newport Aquarium? African Penguins.

What has been your most rewarding experience while working at NAq? Introducing “Paula the Penguin’ to a 95-year-old grandmother. She had tears in her eyes after touching the penguin, saying that was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. As an Ambassador for Newport Aquarium, I have had many rewarding experiences connecting people with wildlife.

What’s your favorite part of your job? Designing exhibits and bringing animals to the Newport Aquarium that “wow” the guests.

How and when did you decide to get into the zookeeper field? 1981, when I joined the Sunset Zoo as a volunteer educator. After that I was hooked and the rest is history.

Zookeeper WEEK.Logo 2006 V

About the American Association of Zoo Keepers
The mission of The American Association of Zoo Keepers is to advance excellence in the animal keeping profession, foster effective communication beneficial to animal care, support deserving conservation projects, and promote the preservation of our natural resources and animal life.

Day 4, and counting

These two fledgling penguins came very close to us this morning when we were doing census on the south beaches. Usually the penguins don’t get too close at all, but these young guys were brave.

(Editor’s note: Until the guano harvest workers arrive in the next few days, the volunteer scientists at the Punta San Juan Reserve are focusing on updating the census of seabirds, seals and other aquatic animals on the ground. Measuring the populations is the most basic way to know whether conservation efforts are working.)

Well… I (this is Alle) won the prize for being the first person to get sick here on the reserve. Apparently, Susana (the lady who arranged the entire guano harvest) said that everyone will take turns getting sick while they are here, and I was the unlucky first person to get the bug.

I did make it out this morning for the 6 a.m. counts of the south shores, and it turns out that the penguins are actually out in the open a lot more first thing in the morning, and the numbers were a lot higher. Mike Macek, curator of birds at the St. Louis Zoo has been here many times for penguin conservation efforts, and he says that there seem to be a lot more penguins this year than in past years, which is great news! That means the conservation efforts here are succeeding.

Flocks of birds are silhouetted against the sunset.

So a lot of our coworkers at the Newport Aquarium, and at the WAVE Foundation were feeling like Ric and I were going  on vacation while we are here in Peru.  It is true that we are away from the office, but we would like to let you know about some of our day-to-day activities.

We wake up around 5:30 a.m. in complete darkness and with only our headlamps to light the way. We pile on the layers for the cold mornings of the Peruvian desert. Breakfast is not served until after we get back from our first 2-3 hours in the field. Peruvians only really eat one meal a day, and that meal is lunch. Breakfast is usually bread and butter, and dinner often doesn’t exist or consists of bread and butter or crackers or fruit. (Ric is actually in the process of writing a food segment for the blog, and we will be able to share some of the food that we are experiencing.)

After “breakfast” we usually have a small break, and we meet back up to head out into the field again for a few more hours. This is usually the weird time in the field because when we first go out it is really cold,  then the sun comes out and we all burn. The white guano on the ground reflects the sun, so any part of exposed skin will burn before lunch (and if the sun doesn’t get you, the wind burn will!). Plus, once it warms up, the ticks come out and start secretly climbing all over us. We have to have separate clothes that we wear in the field, and clothes that we wear in the house so we don’t bring ticks into our living area.

Here is the whole volunteer crew, with a map showing the outline of the reserve. We are wearing our new “2012 PSJ Guano Harvest” hats provided by the St. Louis Zoo and the Center for Resource Sustainability in Peru. Note Conham the dog in front of Alle.

After round 2 in the field, we head back to the house for lunch at 1:30 p.m.  when there is an absolutely delicious meal prepared for us. We all sit around talking, laughing and sharing stories in the warm sun. Then, around 3:30 p.m. it starts getting really cold again, almost colder than it was in the morning, and we head back out again into the guano fields for a few more hours to do more census work on the penguins.

The sun goes down around 5:30 p.m., and the wind from the ocean just freezes us to the bone. When we finally get back to the house, the generators get turned on (yay, electricity! This is the only time we get electricity during the day), and we have a meeting about what we observed throughout the day and the numbers of the animals we counted. After this meeting, half of the group gathers their shower materials and is allowed to have a ride to the “G house” which is where the warm shower and internet is. This is where Ric and I write every night, and where I am right now.

Then, we head back to the reserve and sit around the main table lit by candlelight, and we have a small snack while we talk and catch up about the day. Overall, these are field-intensive days; we come back covered in guano and shaking ticks off of us while we walk.

Collecting seawater to use to flush the toilets.

Something that is an added activity that we need to do every few days is the bucket brigade to the ocean so we can gather water to flush our toilets. We are not allowed to actually press the handle on the toilet, but instead we pour a bucket of water into the toilet to “flush” it. So we keep a large garbage can filled with ocean water in each bathroom on the reserve, and when the water supply gets low we have to form a huge line down to the ocean, and pass buckets back and forth until the cans are filled. This takes only about 15-30 minutes with the amount of people that we have with us, plus it gives a great work-out for our arms! Today, Ric and a girl named Heather Neldner (from the Milwaukee Zoo) almost got washed out to sea today when a wave came crashing in while they were collecting water. Luckily, they only got a bit wet, and their shoes will dry.


Here’s Cameron with a get-well poster from all his friends at Newport Aquarium and WAVE. How about that smile, huh? He’s famous for it, and we can’t wait to see it again in person.

Before we sign off for today, Ric and I both want to give a special shout out to Cameron Smith. Cameron is a volunteer at the Newport Aquarium who is fighting a battle with cancer. We know he loves the penguins, so we are sending him a big hello from Peru. The Humboldt penguins and all the people here with us at the reserve say “Hello/Hola, and get better soon!” We look forward to seeing you when we get back.