Native plants and animals at the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center.
Turtles, bobcats, and perch are just a few of the many species that can be found on the island
Linda Lynn and Paige Dillard, Oklahoma
MEDICINE PARK – The doorstep of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge seems like a secluded place to find an aquarium.
But the man who made it, Doug Kemper, has roots in the area and a long career building and overseeing aquariums.
Kemper, the executive director of the Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center, was also responsible for the aquariums in Baltimore, New York City, Seattle and the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.
He was the founding director of the Seattle Aquarium and the Oklahoma Aquarium. The aquarium in Jenks would be his last project.
“I thought I was retired,” said 76-year-old Kemper. “I did a bad job when I retired.”
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A Lawton native, Kemper couldn’t resist the request of Medicine Park city officials, who turned to him to build a similar tourist attraction in their cobblestone community of fewer than 300 residents.
Kemper believed that an aquarium, zoo, and botanical garden focused primarily on Oklahoma fish, wildlife, plants, and flowers would fit perfectly into the wilderness Gateway Medicine Park.
Mount Scott and Lake Lawtonka are less than a mile from the Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center, which is home to a long list of Oklahoma fish species from bluegills to bluecats.
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Popular game species such as trout and black bass can be found in the aquarium as well as paddle fish, crappie, catfish, pikeperch, perch, carp, drum, darter, shiners and many other species that live in the waters of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has about 175 species of native fish, and the aquarium shows 40 to 60% of them at any one time, Kemper said.
There is also a “creepy crawly animal” exhibit with tarantulas, black widow spiders and scorpions.
Outside the aquarium, a small zoo features river otters, a bobcat, coyote, white quail, an alligator, and several species of snakes and turtles.
In “Turtle Town” children can feed red-eared riders and East River cooters with slices of sweet potato.
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Among the residents is “Samson”, a giant alligator snapping turtle. Aquarium staff member Kai Kaapuwai, who ran Turtle Town, said Samson is one of the largest captive turtles in Oklahoma, with an estimated age of 80-105.
“We were too scared to weigh him,” said Kaapuwai. “We don’t want to lose our arms.”
In addition to the feeding turtles, guests can get up close and personal with Bobwhite quail by feeding the birds in an enclosure where the quails rush to their shopping like hens do to feed hens.
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Venomous Oklahoma snakes are on display in the snake hut. Guests are not allowed to feed them.
Educational animal presentations with an Oklahoma animal are given each day. That July afternoon, Rocket the Raccoon was seen abandoned by his mother along with his siblings, said Kobe Louis, a member of the aquarium team.
“He’s living a happy life now,” said Louis, adding that ice cubes with berries in them were Rocket’s favorite treat.
The aquarium also features some exotic species such as a boa constrictor, piranha fish, electric eels, bowfish, and more.
Medicine Park is a historic tourist magnet
Marilyn Jennings of Healdton, who made her first visit earlier this month with her husband and two grandchildren, said she wasn’t expecting to find an off the beaten path location with such a collection of fish and wildlife.
Kemper said most visitors are surprised by the size and scope of the Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center, given that it is in such a small town.
Medicine Park was Oklahoma’s first resort when it opened in 1908. Its founder, John William Elmer Thomas, bought the land and built it up as a summer resort and health resort, extolling the medicinal qualities of nearby Medicine Creek that the Plains Indians had told him about.
Nearly a century ago, Medicine Park served as a haven for dignitaries from President Theodore Roosevelt and Will Rogers to outlaws like Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd.
In 1926 Thomas was elected to the US Senate and sold the park to a company. The Great Depression and the beginning of World War II followed, the beginning of many difficult years for the resort, which brought financial hardship and a population decline.
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Medicine Park was in disarray by 1984, but the city’s remaining residents worked with students from the University of Oklahoma and the Association for South Central Oklahoma Governments for a grant to help restore the city.
The town’s characteristic cobblestone walls have been repaired, huts have been renovated and shops have sprung up.
Bath Lake in the middle of downtown is still a popular swimming hole today. Guests pay $ 3 a day to take a dip in the refreshing water and admire the beautiful falls.
Aquarium funded through local efforts
In search of additional attractions, Medicine Park officials turned to Kemper, who began his career at the Oklahoma City Zoo in the mid-1960s as a reptile manager.
They liked his idea, and in 2010 the first fundraiser for the Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center took place. Morning butterfly garden.
Since then, new displays have been added and more are planned for the future, such as a summer butterfly greenhouse and a mountain lion display.
Kemper said there really wasn’t enough money in the budget for marketing and advertising, so the aquarium relied mostly on word of mouth to attract visitors. The aquarium draws around 70,000 visitors annually, he said.
“We love it,” said Healdton’s Dewayne Jennings, adding that his grandchildren’s favorite show was Turtle Town.
“They like to feed the turtles,” he said.
Medicine Park Aquarium & Science Center
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: The hotel is located on State Highway 49, less than 1 mile from the entrance to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
Entry: Adults (13-61 years old) $ 12; Seniors (age 62+) $ 10; Teenagers (6 to 12 years old) $ 10; Military: $ 10; Children (3 to 5 years old) $ 6; free entry from 3 years.