State Aquarium Addition Will Save More Wildlife During Disasters

By David Sikes

Long before the big Texas freeze in February, planners at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi were well on their way to more than doubling the facility’s wildlife rescue-and-rehabilitation capacity.

Completion of the 27,000-square-foot Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue is expected in late 2022. 

The idea began after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, says Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. Since then, wildlife along the South Texas Gulf coast have endured challenges that demonstrate a growing need to enhance the aquarium’s operations.

The actual planning for this facility began in 2019, but much of the design work was accomplished during the COVID 19 pandemic — mostly through ZOOM meetings. 

During the summer of 2019, the Coastal Bend faced a period of unusually high tides and strong winds, which battered the sea-turtle population around area jetties. Many turtles became stranded on the rocks. All were rescued by several organized efforts and later released. 

“We had a 100 percent survival rate,” Gilbert says. 

Since Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Gilbert says wildlife die-offs and stranding events have become more common along the Texas Gulf Coast. Aquarium officials realized that space for rescued animals would be inadequate if this trend continued. The February freeze dramatically punctuated this point, with thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles.

The aquarium currently has 5,000 square feet of indoor space for treating and housing sick or injured animals, plus another 7,000 square feet of outdoor enclosures. It’s the only Texas facility permitted to care for birds, sea turtles and marine mammals.

While visitors already can view some of the aquarium’s permanent rescue animals, such as sea turtles and raptors, there is no public space for viewing medical and rehab operations.

This will change with the non-profit’s new $15 million facility, including an interactive theater where visitors can watch rescue and rehab efforts in action. The facility also will provide a real-time viewing area of medical procedures behind glass, as well as a view into the wildlife rehabilitation process.

This interpretive center, with no entry fees, was underwritten by the ExxonMobil Foundation.

This space will be dynamic, mainly because of rescue dramas like the one that unfolded in February. 

“I don’t think anyone fully appreciated how the sea turtle population has grown,” Gilbert says. “With the new center, if you were to visit a week after a freeze, you would really get to see a full-scale rescue-medical operation at work.”

Biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service headquarters in Florida helped designed flexible ways to expand capacity for large rescue events, with a 95 percent survival/release rate for as many as 3,000 turtles during an emergency. 

“The February freeze was as big a challenge as (Hurricane) Harvey was for us,” Gilbert says. Natural gas to power the generators now makes the center self-sufficient for seven to 10 days.

“The key is to rescue them quickly so they can recover in clean, filtered water, all run on auxiliary power (which we have now mainly for hurricanes),” Gilbert said. “Soon we’ll have these safeguards in place to offset freeze events.”

Gilbert also considers the new facility an educational institution, capable of recruiting wildlife conservationists and promoting a sustainable conservation ethic for generations to come. 

“I view this center as a one-stop facility that will showcase the wildlife- conservation network throughout South Texas,” he says. “Hopefully, this will further the public’s stake in conservation by helping them understand their part in rescuing, reporting and preventing wildlife harm from natural events or from man-made causes.” 

TSA Annual Average Rescue/Rehab Activity 
Marine mammals: about one    
Sea turtles: 30-50 (spiked to 1,700 in 2020)
Birds: 300-350.
Rescue/Rehab Partners and Their Roles
  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: transport injured wildlife to the center, help release birds, take sea turtles offshore 
  • National Park Service: formalized partnership, the Aquarium/Park Partnership for America's Keystone Species, outlines the Rescue Center's ability to rehabilitate birds and sea turtles found within the park
  • National Marine Fisheries: administer both the marine mammal and sea turtle stranding networks
  • Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network: joint operations to recover stranded marine mammals and rehabilitate them
  • Texas SeaLife Center on North Padre Island and Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) in Port Aransas: assist with large-scale events
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: permitting agency, helps with large events
  • City of Corpus Christi: logistical help during turtle cold-stunning events

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Two Fantastic Fall Venison Recipes

Read all about writer Brandon Weaver’s first deer hunt in the November issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, then try out these incredible recipes yourself.


Ground Venison Mediterranean Bowl


“Herbs and game go so nice together,” says Chef Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin. He likes bright green herbs like mint, cilantro, parsley and dill.


Inspired by Griffiths’ recommendation, I combined the great flavor of ground venison with tabouli, a classic Mediterranean salad. It’s the perfect pairing. 


I take the traditional tabouli recipe and add a little gluten-free twist. I replace the bulgur wheat, traditionally found in the dish, with riced cauliflower. The version has a really nice crunch and is hearty enough for a cold day. 


Serves two hungry people or four folks saving room for dessert. 


Tabouli Salad


4 cups finely chopped baby kale or baby arugula 


3 cups finely chopped parsley


1 yellow bell pepper, diced


14 sweet grape tomatoes, cut into halves (any small tomato will do)


1 bunch green onions, sliced from white to green 


1 cup chopped fresh mint


4 to 6 cloves pressed garlic


1 lemon


1 - 14 oz. bag of riced cauliflower (I like the H-E-B Caulibits)


2-3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil


½ cup crumbled feta


Set oven on warm. Combine veggies (except cauliflower) in an oven-safe bowl or dish. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and squeeze the lemon over the top. Toss the ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Pour a thin layer of olive oil in a skillet and sauté the riced cauliflower and garlic over medium heat until cauliflower is crisp and garlic is slightly browned. Add fresh ground salt and pepper to taste; pour over veggie mixture and toss. Place the bowl in the warm oven. 


Ground Venison


1 pound of ground venison


Processors, both commercial and home, add beef fat to ground venison. When you cook it, there’ll be a lot of excess fat. Sauté venison in a skillet with just enough avocado oil to keep it from sticking. I pour off about ¾ of the excess fat and set it aside. Add fresh ground salt, pepper and cumin to taste. When you add the seasoning, it’ll start to dry out so add back some fat to keep everything moist. 




Use a shallow bowl or a plate with a lip for this dish, so you can mix everything up evenly. Take the warmed tabouli salad out of oven and fill your plate or bowl. It’s all veggies, so don’t be stingy! Add some ground venison and top with feta. I like to spice it up with Yellowbird Habanero sauce or El Yucateco Green Chile Habanero Sauce. Enjoy!



Peppercorn Crusted Venison Backstrap with Kale and Beet Salad


Keep the game-cooking process very simple, so the venison is the star of the show. Coat a six-inch piece of backstrap with avocado oil, coarsely cracked peppercorns and a little salt, and sear it on a hot grill. Per Chef Tre Wilcox’s recommendations, I let the meat rest for the same amount of time as it is cooked. 


The following is my recipe for peppercorn crusted backstrap with pan-fried potatoes and a beet and kale salad. Since the venison is local, I try to source most of my veggies from my local farmer’s market, too. Eat fresh! Eat like a locavore, a person who eats food grown or produced locally. 


Serves two hungry carnivores.


6- to 8-inch piece of backstrap cut lengthwise. I like a 2-inch thick steak so the meat cooks fast without drying out.


8 medium red potatoes, cut into quarters, boiled


8 oz. bag of baby kale. Use half of the bag and save the rest for the Ground Venison Mediterranean Bowl. 


1 large beet, either oven-roasted or boiled. Cut the cooked beet in half and then slice the halves.


1 red bell pepper, diced


1 jalapeño pepper, sliced (optional)


1 bunch green onions, sliced from white to the green 


½ cup crumbled feta cheese


4 to 8 cloves pressed garlic


¼ cup avocado oil


¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil



I set the meat and veggies out as I cook the potatoes, so everything comes to room temperature. 


I’ve had myriad fancy pepper grinders and they all break. The H-E-B Peppercorn Medley Grinder is my go-to seasoning apparatus. You can even unscrew the top and refill it. I generously coat the entire backstrap filets with peppercorn. I’ll salt it after it comes off the grill.  


Preheat the grill on high. You want it hot!


Pan-Fried Red Potatoes


Heat ¼ cup of avocado oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Drain cooked potatoes and smash with a spatula, then add to the skillet. If the oil starts to smoke, turn down the heat. Cook four to six minutes until a golden crust develops. Season with salt, pepper and pressed garlic; add olive oil as needed to keep a light fry going. Flip to brown the other side. Once they’re crisp, add a little more salt and pepper to taste and keep warm in the oven.


Kale Salad


Chop the baby kale, making several crosscuts so the leaves are bite-size. I plate it to the side of the dish and add red bell pepper and green onion. I’m looking for color here, so the beets and jalapenos go on last to complete the rainbow. 




Drop the backstrap on the hot grill and cook 60 to 90 seconds per side (err on the side of less). It’ll cook fast. Pull it off and add just a touch of fresh ground sea salt or my favorite pink Himalayan salt. Let it rest in a warm part of your kitchen so you get a nice medium-rare, warm center. 


Final Presentation


Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a skillet over low heat. Plate the potatoes on the other side of your dish. Warm the sliced beets in the pan, then place them on the greens with some sliced jalapeños. Pour warm olive oil over the salad and finish with feta on top. Slice the backstrap and place down the middle to bridge your greens and potatoes. Enjoy!

 If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.