In Stingrays at Caribbean Cove, an exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, you're encouraged to touch these cartilaginous creatures. You can even feed them for a dollar.
Usually, the petting zoo doesn't have stingrays.
But in an exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, you're encouraged to touch (gently) and feed (at $1 a pop) these cartilaginous creatures, cousins of the sharks who share their space.
Stingrays at Caribbean Cove just opened and runs through Sept. 29.
"The pool is rather low to the ground," said Hannah Petri of the zoo's education department. "It's quite easy to dip your hand in while you lie flat on the ground. The quieter you are with your hands, the most likely you are not to scare them off. Touch them with a flat hand down the center of their backs."
It's hard for Chris Taylor not to love the rays.
"Stingrays have a beautiful gliding motion. They're quite docile," said Taylor, an expert on sharks and stingrays at the Illinois Natural History Survey.
He intends to see the exhibit. Taylor is so into stingrays that he takes a University of Illinois class to Belize so they can swim with them.
Stingrays can gather dust, and Taylor's students sometimes write their names in that dust. "They're perfectly safe to swim with," he said.
In St. Louis, Stingrays at Caribbean Cove features cownose rays and southern stingrays, horseshoe crabs, plus bonnethead and white-spotted bamboo sharks. (Sharks don't normally eat stingrays, Petri notes.)
Stingrays and sharks are elasmobranchs, with skeletons made of cartilage and gill slits.
Rays thrive in warm water. Some of the St. Louis denizens have been rescued from Chesapeake Bay, Petri said.
"They fly through the water," Petri said of their attraction. "It's not just floating, it's the same motion as a bird" in slow motion.
The rays in zoo display cavort in a 17,000-gallon warm saltwater pool under a tropical-themed pavilion. They are hardy and interact well with people in a safe and fun manner, the zoo notes.
Just don't step on one, said Taylor: They react with panic. St. Louis keepers are trained to be gentle on the stingrays.
"The keepers who get in the water with them do the 'stingray shuffle' so they don't accidentally step on them," Petri said.
At the zoo, the stingrays' barbs are painlessly clipped back just as human fingernails are clipped. They're made of keratin, like fingernails, Petri said.
(Adventurer Steve Irwin, the Australian wildlife expert known as the Crocodile Hunter, died when he swam over a large stingray, appearing like a predator, and as the barbed tail waved about in the stingray's panic, Petri said, it went into his heart.)
If humans get to be too much for the creatures, the pool also has solitary space and places for the animals to rest if they choose. The 20-inch-deep pool includes a waterfall and a state-of-the-art life support system.
"There aren't many hands-on marine exhibits in the Midwest to engage with sea life," Petri said.
The show was created by Living Exhibits, a nationwide company that works with zoos.
If you want a sneak preview, check out http://www.stlzoo.org/stingray  and the smartphone app created in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Seafood Watch.
Seafood Watch also offers tips on the best fish to eat, taking into account overfishing, pollution and other factors.
What do stingrays eat? Small shellfish and squid, the kind of food sharks also like, Petri said. They help maintain healthy populations of shellfish.
Learning about stingrays and sharks can help us understand why we need to treasure our oceans, she said.
"We can do lot of very simple things like recycling, not using plastic bags, not pouring oil in drains," she said. "It all ends up in rivers, which end up in the ocean."
If you go
What: Stingrays at Caribbean Cove
When: Through Sept. 29, during zoo hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through May 23; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8-7 Friday-Sunday from May 24 through Sept. 2)
Where: St. Louis Zoo, 1 Government Drive
Tickets: Zoo admission plus $4 per person; Zoo Friends members at the family level and above may use their Anywhere Plus passes for admission; children under 2 are free (purchase a one-day Safari Pass for $10 and receive free admission to Stingrays at Caribbean Cove and other attractions)
Also: Admission is free the first hour the zoo is open; stingray feedings are $1 per cup