At a time when many people are afraid of going to their local store, Kira Knotts is hanging out with sharks. As a keeper at the New York Aquarium, swimming with the sharks is both a labor of love and a routine affair.
I met Kira through the Sid City Social Club, a weekly Zoom confab hosted by Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig. Fascinated by their full-time job as a shark keeper at the New York Aquarium I soon discovered they were just as badass as their job.
Graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 with a degree in marine biology and a minor in animal behavior, their career began swimmingly in 2014 when they began volunteering at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. From there, Kira interned at the Georgia Aquarium and Disney’s “The Living Seas with Nemo and Friends” at the EPCOT pavilion in Orlando in 2016.
From there, Kira headed west and worked as a full-time biologist at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas from 2017-2019 before landing a sweet gig as a full-time shark keeper at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island, Brooklyn, in October of 2019.
Although there are no great whites or hammerheads at the New York Aquarium, visitors are excited to see their sand tiger sharks up close. Often swimming with their mouths open, sand tiger sharks often appear scarier because their jagged and sharp teeth are exposed as they move through their habitat.
Conjuring images of fear and terror, many species of sharks are as viewed both deadly carnivores and one of nature’s greatest mysteries. Sadly, their image problems aren’t helped their portrayal in mainstream media — most notably the Jaws and Sharknado films — as well as sensationalist documentaries that focus more on their encounters with man than their actual place in the animal kingdom.
Setting the record straight, Knotts gave needcoffee.com the lowdown on sharks, shark behavior and the details of their cool job.
Rob Levy: How did you get such a cool job?
Kira Knotts: Just like any job! With lots of time spent interning and then many job applications. I did however, go to school for marine biology with a minor in animal behavior with the hopes of working one-on-one with sharks in some regard.
RL: How did you become interested in sharks?
KK: I grew up on the coast of New Jersey, with yearly family road-trips down to Florida for snorkeling in the Keys. So, I’ve always harbored a love for the ocean. But my interest in sharks actually started as an interest in stingrays after visiting the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, with my high school oceanography class. I was taking a bunch of electives then, in my junior year, in order to get an idea of what I wanted to do in college, as I was discouraged from applying with an undecided major. Adventure Aquarium had just opened their brand-new stingray touch pool, and between that and the shark tunnel, I don’t actually remember any other part of the aquarium.
RL: What are your day-to-day duties like?
KK: Every morning and every evening before we leave, we take exhibit temperatures and record digital readings of the water qualities, which includes salinity, pH, ORP output, and water turbidity. We also observe all the animals in our care before we open to the public for the day, that way if anyone is behaving outside of their “normal” behaviors, we can properly address the situation before guests arrive. As a team, we have tailored nutrition regimens for each species, and sometimes for individuals, so we are responsible for their food preparation. Depending on the species, the sharks are fed a few times a week, but never consecutive days, due to their natural digestion, which is about forty-eight hours. So, most of the rest of our day is split between feeding animals, recording feeding behaviors, observing, and exhibit maintenance. These exhibits are their homes. We want them to be living their best, as close to natural, lives as possible.
RL: What can we learn from sharks?
KK: The biggest thing we can learn from sharks is just how important they are to the ocean ecosystem and to their respective niches. I like to equate it to the Yellowstone wolf population problem, and how without them, prey species will boom and wreak havoc on the environment. But in a less serious fashion, they teach us to take a bite out of life and to keep moving forward.
RL: What has been going on at the aquarium during the pandemic?
KK: The aquarium closed shortly after New York went into its lockdown mid-March. We didn’t reopen until the last week of August. All non-essential personnel were sent home to work virtually, but keepers, park maintainers, life support operators and security still had to come in daily. So, my life continued as normal. After we re-opened in August, regular aquarium visitation has made it feel like there wasn’t even a pandemic to begin with.
RL: What can you tell us about sharks that we may not already know?
KK: All sharks are different. And though I hate to anthropomorphize, they do have their individual “personalities.” Some sharks and rays at our aquarium have trainer preferences, too. And there’s nothing quite as heart wrenching as figuring out an animal doesn’t want you to work with it. LOL.
RL: How dangerous are they really?
KK: This question is situational. It’s not that they are, it’s that they can be. Sand tiger sharks are naturally non-aggressive, but even non-aggressive animals can turn on a dime if mistreated or provoked. Dogs are the same way, but you don’t see anyone claiming that dogs are dangerous, when in fact, they can be. This is not to say that there aren’t any shark species I would be nervous about swimming with. Sharks with naturally higher testosterone levels will have higher aggression levels.
RL: How do sharks adapt to living captivity?
KK: First off, we say human care. Captivity has a very negative connotation with it, and the work we do at the aquarium is all positive; research, education, outreach, conservation, etc. As for adaptations, there really aren’t any, other than the fact that they probably become a little lazy. Their feeding schedules become routine for them, so they know when to expect the next meal and therefore do not have to exert energy into hunting. Which is good because we don’t want them eating their tankmates!
RL: Is your job in any way dangerous?
KK: Of course! Sharks are still wild animals. And while there are some that are milder tempered than others, or those that will tolerate a certain amount of tactiles, all sharks can do some serious physical damage if provoked or mishandled. But sometimes it’s just bad timing. Maybe I don’t get my hand out of the way in time after leading a shark into a stretcher. Maybe a shark comes out of sedation during a veterinary exam. I’m not afraid of any of our animals, but I do give them serious respect, and they have to be treated accordingly. Not to mention that the job itself is very physical. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you can hurt yourself. It’s very common for people in my line of work to have back and knee problems by the time they’re thirty.
RL: Do you interact with any of the other animals at the NYC aquarium?
KK: My job mainly applies to the sharks, rays, turtles and other fish within our shark gallery. As for the marine mammals, it’s important for them to maintain a bond with their trainers and their trainers only, so interaction with them is very limited, but it has happened. I also helped feed the penguins once.
RL: Why do you think people are so scared of sharks and do sharks get a bad rep?
KK: Media hype and fearmongering have absolutely devasted the magnificence of sharks. This is why I hate shark week. What started out as a celebration of these wonderous animals and scientific discovery has turned into nothing more than exaggerations designed to arouse fear and to manipulate. Are they a little scary to look at? Sure. It’s a mouthful of never-ending teeth that looms out of the darkness, and this certainly doesn’t help. But painting them as bloodthirsty maneaters is outrageous, as this is simply not the case. Tigers can rip your face off, but you don’t see them getting a bad reputation because they are furry and have an aspect of cuteness about them. If sharks were furry, maybe their lives would be treated differently.
For more information on the New York Aquarium visit https://nyaquarium.com
And our very own Cosette shares Kira’s opinion of shark week, which why she created her own shark week several years back to work out her frustrations.