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May 31, 2024, 11:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   May 31, 2024

I generally click fast on sea creature news and “What is really going on with Charlotte the stingray?” by Emily B. Cataneo, published this week by North Carolina digital news magazine The Assembly, was no exception.

This story has everything — a purported immaculate conception, sketchy “mall aquarium” intrigue, police coming after the reporter, quotes from locals (“Some days the traffic on the other side of the street is backed up for nearly half a block”), and real science facts on the reproductive habits of stingrays, with one of the best quotes from a marine biologist I’ve ever seen. It also had impact: Not long after its publication, the aquarium in question was compelled to offer its first update in months, admitting that Charlotte is not actually pregnant but has a rare reproductive disease.

“This story is really two stories in one: Local aquarium is super shady and stingray does parthenogenesis?!” our staff writer Neel Dhanesha commented. “We’d heard about the second story in the national press, and Cataneo could easily have focused on the first, which is the more obvious local angle. But part of the brilliance of her story is how deeply she engages with the science (or lack of it). A masterpiece.”

I talked with Cataneo and with Kate Sheppard, the managing editor of The Assembly, over email. “The biggest surprise for me came when I reviewed early coverage of this story and saw how complicit the media was in propagating [the aquarium owner]’s bogus claims back in February,” Cataneo told me. “I was especially shocked when I realized how easy it was to expose that some of what the aquarium was saying was patently false (most egregiously, the shark-ray, and most perniciously, the narrative about parthenogenesis as this ill-understood process that might extend ray gestation by months and months). This whole story might never have happened if observers in both the traditional media and on social media had seen the initial press release for what it was back in February.”

She was also surprised, she said, “to learn about accredited versus non-accredited aquariums, and how there’s no official oversight of non-accredited aquariums, nor animal welfare laws protecting fish in the state of North Carolina. It’s an unregulated world out there for animals like Charlotte.”

Cataneo’s favorite moment in a story larded with them: “I love [marine biologist] David Shiffman‘s quotes calling the shark-ray hybrid theory ‘cuckoo banana pants’ and explaining that if a human and an anaconda had sex, ‘many things would happen,’ but a human-anaconda baby is not one of them.”

“Honestly,” said Sheppard, who edited the story, “I was not expecting this to be the assignment that made me worry about bailing a reporter out of jail.”

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