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Ripley's 'Touch Tanks', Petting Zone For Sharks, Stingrays, Under Fire

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Sharks may not be that into you.

Despite claims from Ripley's Aquarium of Canada that its 'touch tanks' let humans get up close and personal with these "tame and lovable creatures of the deep," nearly 30,000 people beg to differ.

An online petition is calling for the aquarium to stop the practice, suggesting sharks, as well as stingrays and other animals in the exhibit, don't feel the warm and fuzzies.

Just the stress.

"Sharks, stingrays and other fish are included in the exhibit, and spend their days being poked and prodded by visitors — it's no way for animals to live," reads the petition, created by Toronto resident Ruslan Benko.

Well, not exactly, counters Andy Dehart, the aquarium's director of husbandry.

As Ripley's "top animal guy," Dehart knows firsthand how inspirational it can be to, literally, get a feel for an animal -- even if it is little more than a couple of fingers on the back of a whitespotted bamboo shark.

"My career started with having a touch encounter with an animal in an exhibit in a small aquarium. From there it led me to want to explore the oceans a little bit more."

And from there?

A passion, he says, for the ocean. And a lifetime of advocating for the preservation of marine life.

And how does touching marine life fit into that laudable aim?

"The goal for this to kick away that perception of shark's as man-eating killers," Dehart explained.

"What we've found at aquariums throughout North America and the world is that these touch encounters do a great job of putting a backseat to the perception of these animals being dangerous."

Indeed, at less than three-feet long, most of the world's sharks fall well short of the Jaws-like proportions so very alive in the public imagination.

They're also "sedentary, bottom-dwelling creatures that have no interest in harming humans whatsoever."

But do they have an interest in being... petted?

"In all of our touch encounter areas," Dehart notes. "The animals have an opportunity to move away. In both our shark touch exhibit, as well as our stingray bay exhibit, the animals freely can move into the touch areas and into deeper portions of the tank that our guests physically cannot reach."

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