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The bizarre story of NC’s Charlotte the stingray

An aquarium said in February that Charlotte, a round stingray, was pregnant, drawing international headlines. But the facility near Asheville, N.C., now says the ray is sick, not pregnant. In this image from an April video update by the Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO, the ray has a noticeable bulge on her back.
Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO
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Screenshot by NPR
An aquarium said in February that Charlotte, a round stingray, was pregnant, drawing international headlines. But the facility near Asheville, N.C., now says the ray is sick, not pregnant. In this image from an April video update by the Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO, the ray has a noticeable bulge on her back.

It turns out a Stingray in Western North Carolina that went viral earlier this year after a reported mysterious "immaculate pregnancy," isn't pregnant after all. The Aquarium & Shark Lab in Hendersonville last week confirmed that about its Stingray, named Charlotte, after people around the world wondered for months where the stingray pups were. One of those people was reporter Emily Cataneo, who went looking for answers and was almost arrested in the process. She wrote about it for The Assembly, and she joins me now.

Marshall Terry: So, we're going to get to that part about nearly being arrested in a moment. But first, remind me how this story with Charlotte began.

Emily Cataneo: Charlotte's saga began in February, when the aquarium owner, whose name is Brenda Ramer, sent out an email to a private aquarium listserv as well as a press release to the media stating that she had the stingray — Charlotte — who was living in a tank with no male ray and had become pregnant.

So the press release included two theories, one of which was that Charlotte had been impregnated by one of the sharks in the tank — which is absolutely absurd and not scientifically possible. And the other theory was that she had been impregnated through parthenogenesis, which is, basically, asexual reproduction.

So the media and people online went absolutely wild for Charlotte and her story. But then months went by, and there were no pups. And the aquarium's updates grew more and more sporadic.

My involvement began a couple weeks ago when my editor at The Assembly texted me and said something along the lines of 'I think we should look into what's going on with Charlotte.' I jumped on it, and I drove up to Hendersonville to see for myself.

Terry: And when you got there, you were kind of surprised by what you found, right?

Cataneo: Somewhat. So, I knew that this was an unaccredited aquarium. Though it's quite small, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a pet store. You know, when I got there, I went inside and I saw a lot of tropical fish, some corals, puffer fish — and then I saw Miss Charlotte herself swimming around her tank.

Terry: Now, where does this part about you almost getting arrested come in?

Cataneo: As I mentioned, I was able to go into the aquarium. I introduced myself and identified myself as a reporter to the young volunteers working behind the counter. And they told me that I could not go in as a reporter and conduct interviews and take photos and videos and audio unless I went through their PR person, who we later found out is the owner's daughter.

I said sure, fine. I'd love to come in as a guest. So I put away my audio equipment. I bought a ticket, I went in, looked around. Probably spent about 30 minutes or so in there, and then I left with the intention of going back into the aquarium later in the afternoon. I wanted to poke around the town, maybe do some person-in-the-street interviews.

So I was out on the public sidewalk. I did one interview with a couple who were exiting the aquarium who were big Charlotte fans. They had come from Baltimore and Atlanta, respectively, to check in on Charlotte.

And then I sat down on a public bench to wait, just see if anybody else came by who I wanted to interview. And then a Hendersonville police officer approached me and said that she had gotten a call saying that a reporter was harassing people. I said, 'Well, I didn't harass anybody.' And she said, 'Great. Well, you're obviously welcome to continue to do your job as a reporter, but if anybody doesn't want to answer your questions, then don't force it.' And I said, 'Sure. Great — will continue to not force it.'

And then she and another officer, a male officer, went into the aquarium, and that's when I realized, Oh my god, the aquarium called 911 on me. The officers came back out. They said Brenda, the aquarium owner, wants to have you booked for trespassing. We're not going to do that — but if you go back into that aquarium, we'll have to come back and arrest you.

After I brushed off my initial shock, I thought, OK — well, I wasn't sure if something weird was going on at this aquarium before, but now I'm pretty sure that something weird is going on.

Terry: Well, as I said at the beginning, the aquarium just last week confirmed that Charlotte is not pregnant after all. So was this all just a publicity stunt?

Cataneo: Sadly, I think we'll never know. There is a possibility that Charlotte was pregnant back in February and that she lost the pups. the aquarium claimed at the time, and is still claiming now, that they got confirmation of a pregnancy. That's not true, actually. They got a vet saying it looks like she could be pregnant. Those look like they could be eggs, which is not the same thing. as an actual confirmation.

In a video interview that Brenda Ramer did with a local news station on Friday, she (was) asked if this was a stunt or a hoax. And she says, 'Oh, this wasn't a stunt. This wasn't a hoax. That's not what I'm about.' And then she sort of dissembles and tried to end the interview.

But, ultimately, like I said, we'll never know if it was a publicity stunt, if it was a mistake on the aquarium's part that went too far, or if perhaps Charlotte really was pregnant and ultimately lost her pups.

But I do think it's important to emphasize that although the aquarium is positioning this so-called twist that Charlotte has a reproductive disease as something completely unexpected and mysterious and unforeseeable — that's just not true.

Marine biologists have been saying since the beginning that there was a possibility that Charlotte had a disease and that she should be checked out by a vet.

Terry: So what's the lesson here for us in the media? And, just as people consuming viral things online every day, when it comes to checking out those stories that are too good to be true or seem to be too good to be true?

Cataneo: I think the media is really culpable in spreading the misinformation in this story. Like I said at the beginning, the shark-ray hypothesis that Brenda Raymour propagated is absolutely preposterous.

One marine biologist I spoke to said it would be like if an anaconda and a person had sex with each other. He said many things would happen if an anaconda and a person had sex, but an anaconda-human hybrid baby is not one of them. So I think that sort of highlights the absurdity of some of what the aquarium is saying.

There are two lessons that I think the media should take away from this. One of which is fact check everything. Get a second source on everything.

But the other is: Think about who the source that's sending you a press release is. You know, this had come from the Georgia Aquarium, for example, which is a very famous and venerated institution in Atlanta. It's still obviously worth checking any press release you get, but perhaps not as essential as it would be when you get a press release from an unaccredited, unaffiliated, tiny, privately-owned aquarium. Think about who that person is, what their qualifications are and check with experts on what they're saying.

Terry: Thanks for joining me and talking more about your reporting.

Cataneo: Thank you so much. For having me, it was a pleasure.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.