Confessions of an aquarium registrar – octopus personalities and coral conservation

Katie Kisner of Florida Aquarium talks about her career as an aquarium registrar


Katie Kisner with a penguin

I vaguely remember my father keeping aquariums of fish as a child, but I didn’t really know much about the aquarium world before this year. My daughter got an axolotl over the summer, and I’ve been amazed to see how much time she spends every day on taking care of the water with different chemicals, sucking up things with a turkey baster and replacing most of the water in the tank about once a week. It’s given me a small hint of all the things an aquarist must think about in their daily work. So I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with Katie Kisner, aquarium registrar at the Florida Aquarium, to learn more about her career.

Here’s a recap of my interview with Katie:

1 – Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to this career

I actually always wanted to be a zookeeper, and I have a biology degree from Loras College and a Zoo and Aquarium Post Baccalaureate from Western Illinois University. I interned at different places for a while until I ended up at Lowry Park Zoo. When I was in the Commissary there making animal diets, they discovered my work ethic and how detail-oriented I was and thought I’d be a really good fit assisting the registrar. That’s sort of how I fell into it. When the registrar position opened up at Florida Aquarium, I decided to jump on it. I’ve been there about four years, and I love it.

2 – Were you naturally drawn to the aquatic side?

I’m actually more of a mammal person, so I debated about that in moving to the aquarium because I love mammals. Fortunately we have mammals at the aquarium too, and it’s turned out to be a great decision for me. I feel like it’s helped me to reach out and explore new things. I enjoy learning all the fish species and love living by the Florida Aquarium vision, which is to protect and restore our blue planet. My new favorite animal is an octopus.

3 – That’s interesting – you can think of penguins being cute, but an octopus? That’s different.

Katie Kisner discovering the curious personality of an octopus.

True, but they are cute in their own little way. I’ll never forget the first time I interacted with an octopus – they are really fascinating! It’s hard to explain but you really get a sense of their personality from their curiosity. I guess my interest in them started when I ordered my first octopus for the aquarium. This was also my first international acquisition from Canada.

4 – What does a typical day look like for you?

It really varies, which is nice. With the flexibility of my job, I can pick and choose what I need to work on. I usually start the week off by updating Daily Keeper reports, entering information from the biologists. Inventory also takes up a lot of my time at the beginning of the month – I go around to all the exhibits and updating their inventories in ZIMS. We do have a lot of animal moves throughout the month, so that can be an area I spend a lot of time. I also spend a few hours of the day on animal acquisition paperwork keeping an updated status with the vendors, tracking our orders and getting the shipment documents. Part of my day also usually entails filing something or scanning documents, which is the boring side of it, but it’s got to be done.

5 – What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I would say all of it really. Animal acquisitions can be challenging, but it’s fun to be the first to know what new acquisitions and exhibits we have coming. ZIMS is another favorite part of my job.

I love working in ZIMS. That’s usually the first thing I do in the morning – I sign on to ZIMS and am logged in all day. Catching up on historical records are always fun, going through the old handwritten notes. ”

–Katie Kisner, Registrar and Animal Resource Manager, Florida Aquarium

6 – Can you tell us a little bit about the Florida Aquarium? What species do you specialize in?

We have a pretty good seahorse exhibit, but our biggest gallery is the coral reef habitat with a variety of fish. Coral is one of our big conservation species, especially the staghorn corals, which are in a lot of trouble down in the Keys. We also have started just recently this past year taking on pillar corals, which are also in the Keys. Those are kept at our offsite center for conservation, which will also soon have a complete sea turtle care building for our expanded sea turtle conservation work. I am part of the sea turtle team, and getting away from my desk to feed the rehabbed sea turtles behind the scenes is a very exciting part of my week. I’ve been on multiple sea turtle releases as well, and that’s really rewarding.

Coral conservation at the Florida Aquarium (Photo via Katie Kisner)

7 – How is ZIMS helping with your conservation efforts for aquatic species?


Measuring a baby staghorn coral (Photo via Katie Kisner)

One of the biggest threats for aquatic species is climate change. With the temperatures rising, we’ve seen a lot of coral bleaching which is when they turn white. Getting these populations into managed care is where we see the biggest conservation opportunity. That way, even if we lose all the numbers in the wild, we will have an archived collection in managed care. We keep all the corals that are in our conservation projects in greenhouses at an offsite center for conservation. Due to permitting regulations, we have to keep the species we intend to re-release to the wild separate from our main collection. One of our planned coral conservation projects is to get a variety of genotypes of the staghorn coral at the center.  ZIMS will help us keep all the genotypes organized into groups so we’ll be able to keep that archive going with all the different genotypes.

We are also assisting the South-East Zoo and Aquarium Alliance for Conservation Research (SEZARC) with their shark research. For that project, we are taking semen samples from our bamboo sharks that get shipped to different facilities for artificial insemination. This research is laying the groundwork of knowledge needed to help other shark species that continue to decrease in the wild. The researchers we work with like this are almost always outside of our institution, but they are collecting findings, observations, conclusions about the animals that they work with. If Species360 could get researchers like this on board with ZIMS, they could enter all their research notes and have the ability to pull reports showing similarities and differences between all the animals they work with across all institutions. It would be great to have this type of conservation and research knowledge captured in ZIMS in addition to the existing data and reports.

Coral greenhouses at The Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation (Image credit: Greenhouse Management)


8– Any tips on working with ZIMS as an aquarium?

The Florida Aquarium (Image credit: Clio)

One of the biggest challenges for me moving from mammals to fish was the whole group idea. I think some registrars get intimidated by groups, but we’ve found a pretty good system for handling groups within ZIMS. When an individual fish gets split out due to medical, they get an M number. The nice thing about the incomplete accessions is that, if I’m not there or can’t split it immediately due to my other responsibilities, the vet techs can make it an incomplete which I will later turn into an M number.  Then, depending on what the situation is, it keeps its M number or will merge back to the original group.


Video of Katie talking about how she uses ZIMS in her aquarium

9 – Did you ever have any personal AHA on the value of ZIMS?

I think the idea of global data sharing is really awesome – the fact that you guys have all those reports that can give you data, not just within your own facility but across facilities worldwide is amazing. I guess that’s one reason I really wish more aquariums would get involved in ZIMS. ”

–Katie Kisner, Registrar and Animal Resource Manager, Florida Aquarium

Having one place where the staff is entering information daily is a great reference and a good way to analyze any issues that may arise. For example, you can go back and look at all the historical trends for water pooling or water quality – trends that are important to watch for aquatic husbandry. ZIMS has a good way of doing it that will only get better over time.

10 – What’s next for you?

Eliminating single use bags (Image credit: In Our Hands)

I was recently promoted to being the Registrar and Animal Resource Manager. A big part of my responsibility going forward will be getting more staff trained on entering information into ZIMS. Now that we’ve gotten tablets, I’m hoping to get the training going. As a Registrar, I would like to take a step back and do one big training with everybody on basic record keeping, the do’s and don’ts, what language to use, and how to word things, what to record and what not to record. I think we need to just refresh everybody on that before even we start training into ZIMS.

Something else I’ve recently gotten passionate about in the aquarium field came out of attending a plastic symposium in California recently. The workshop really inspired me to eliminate single use plastics which we have started to tackle at the Florida Aquarium. I think we have a good start, because we are a member of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP). ACP is an organization that started a few years ago that we are a part of, where every member has made a commitment to eliminate single use plastic straws and bags. We just finished our first campaign called In Our Hands, which is about educating on trying to reduce your single use plastics. I’m really excited to be a part of it and working with our Vice President of Conservation on moving it forward. I’d love to expand it even more into our community, the local restaurants and maybe even see Florida become the California of the east coast.

Plastic generation vs recyling trend (Image credit: In Our Hands)

11 – Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Gosh, we’ve talked about so much. I’d say that ZIMS is very helpful in multiple ways, and I look forward to it improving and adding so many cool features that can benefit animal welfare, husbandry, conservation.

I also just want to say that I’m really appreciative of all the efforts and help that you guys do and how the help support email and how quickly people respond to that on your end is amazing. The fact that you are always at these conferences and at ZRA is something I always look forward to and appreciate. It’s great how much you guys are involved.

About Katie Kisner

Katie Kisner is the Registrar and Animal Resource Manager for the Florida Aquarium. Along with her regular daily responsibilities, she is involved with the aquarium’s scuba dive program, assisting the sea turtle rehab team, and organizing FLAQ’s wellness program. Katie has been involved with AZA institutions since 2009 when she volunteered for Niabi Zoo in Moline, Illinois. After completing the Zoos and Aquariums Certificate Program at Western Illinois University, she worked as an AmeriCorps educator at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island and in the Commissary and Registrar’s Office at Lowry Park Zoo. With experience and knowledge of a registrar’s responsibilities, Katie discovered her niche in the zoo and aquarium field. When Katie is not entering data into ZIMS or buried in paperwork, she enjoys cuddle time with her Siamese cat, Chica. She is a Tampa Bay Lightning (hockey) fan and enjoys spending time outdoors. She volunteers for Vets for Pets non-profit organization and participates in Tampa Bay Clean ups.

Katie Kisner enjoying boating (Photo via Katie Kisner)


Originally published on the Species360 blog on December 4, 2017

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