May 31, 2024 - News

Searching for the truth about Charlotte the N.C. stingray

Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO's storefront

Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO's store front. Photo courtesy of Emily Cataneo.

TikTok's most famous stingray, Charlotte, is not pregnant after all.

Why it matters: The California round ray gained internet celebrity status in February, when the humble Hendersonville aquarium she calls home announced her "miracle pregnancy."

  • But as Charlotte's alleged pregnancy dragged on — four or five months longer than the average round ray pregnancy lasts — questions arose about what was going on with the animal.

Driving the news: Two days after The Assembly published a story about the stingray, the Aquarium & Shark Lab by Team ECCO late Thursday announced that Charlotte has a rare reproductive disease that has "negatively impacted her reproductive system."

  • Aquarium officials said "the findings are truly a sad and unexpected medical development."
  • The diagnosis also seems to confirm what one expert interviewed by The Assembly suspected: A reproductive disease that could have led to cystic ovaries or an engorged uterus.
  • On Friday, Brenda Ramer, the aquarium's owner, confirmed to TV station WLOS that Charlotte is not pregnant.

Catch up quick: Though Charlotte hasn't been around a male stingray in years, she was expected to give birth to as many as four pups sometime in February, the aquarium said.

  • At the time, the aquarium, a privately-owned nonprofit, also suggested the impossible: Perhaps one of the two male sharks Charlotte shares a tank with could have impregnated her.
  • The media gobbled it up, and Charlotte's story made national and international headlines.
  • Charlotte's story drew visitors from all over to Hendersonville, a mountain town of 15,000, the Assembly reported.
  • The aquarium later stated that Charlotte had conceived through asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, but never retracted its shark paternity claims, The Assembly reported.
  • In April, four pups changed to "a pup," The Assembly noticed in an Instagram comment made by the aquarium.

Behind the scenes: In May, The Assembly, a long-form North Carolina magazine, decided to investigate Charlotte's situation.

  • The outlet put Raleigh-based reporter Emily Cataneo on the case.
  • As she was traveling for a separate story on a Big Foot Festival, Cataneo stopped in Hendersonville to check in on North Carolina's favorite stingray.

It didn't exactly go well.

  • Charlotte seemed fine, but the aquarium called the police on Cataneo, who, unlike Charlotte, is definitely pregnant.
  • For Cataneo, the encounter only raised more questions about whether the aquarium was hiding something.

When I read her story, I had to know more about what Cataneo learned. So I called her up.

Here are some of my biggest takeaways from our conversation about her reporting on Charlotte:

Fish, unlike mammals, birds and reptiles, have no legal protections in North Carolina. ECCO is not accredited, as many zoos and aquariums are, Cataneo found, highlighting how the facility's lack of oversight might impact the welfare of its fish.

  • Cataneo had known that ECCO was a mom-and-pop operation, so she wasn't surprised that the storefront looked more like a pet store than an aquarium.
  • "But I think that a lot of readers ... assumed that I was going to like a big institution," Cataneo said. "And it's really not that."

Outlets nationwide published clickbait headlines about the possibility of sharks and stingrays mating when ECCO first announced Charlotte's pregnancy.

  • Experts quickly debunked the idea. But at that point, it was too late, Cataneo told me.
  • "If everybody has seen the shark-ray story," she said, "you can't guarantee that they're all going to see the updated, correct information. So there are still a lot of people out there who think that a shark and a ray could mate and have a baby."
  • (That included my well-read husband, who initially told me about Charlotte a few months back. When I told him I was working on a story about the stingray, he immediately brought up shark-ray babies.)

The behavior by ECCO's team only made the public — and Cataneo — more curious.

  • "Having the police called on me set off alarm bells for me," Cataneo said.
  • A pro bono spokesperson for the aquarium, who happens to be the owner's daughter, also refused to answer basic questions about Charlotte and the aquarium.
  • "She has daily physical and visual exams," the spokesperson, Kate Foley, told Cataneo about Charlotte.
  • On social media, ECCO blocked scientists who commented on their posts. When a TikTok creator visited the aquarium, staffers were over her shoulder, telling her to make sure she wasn't taking videos, Cataneo reported.

The bottom line: Ultimately, all the questions about what was happening with Charlotte could have been cleared up if the aquarium had been transparent about the stingray's veterinary care, Cataneo told me.

  • ECCO did not respond to a request for comment from Axios.

Editor's note: We've updated this story with the latest on Charlotte's condition.

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