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Belle Isle's beloved curiosity doesn't make it to new home

THE DEATH OF AN AQUARIUM CELEBRITY: Belle Isle's beloved curiosity doesn't make it to new home

Some say the move to Denver was just too much for Hal

May 27, 2005


As with most epic tales, much will remain unknown about Hal.

How it died -- deep in the night last Friday, sloshing around in a refrigerated tank aboard a truck somewhere between Detroit and Colorado -- is a mystery.

Its exact age? Unknown, but Detroit Zoo officials said it could have been as old as 70.

Even its sex remains murky, though for the last two decades caretakers assumed it was a male, in part because it was a strapping 6-foot, 100-pound bruiser who intimidated those who insisted on peering into its home, trying to figure out what made it tick.

But this much is known about Hal: It was the Belle Isle Aquarium's closest thing to a celebrity, and its legendary status only stands to grow with what some call its untimely death.

"He was a monster, and he would lie in his tank very quietly, and when you looked at him it looked like you were looking at a Zen Buddhist monk," said aquarium supporter Stephen Goodfellow. "You felt like he was looking at you and he would study you as you walked by."

As questions swirl around Hal's passing, those who were fascinated by the giant alligator gar -- a fierce-looking, prehistoric beast with scales as hard as human teeth -- want to focus on its steadfast, if unsettling, demeanor.

"He was a beautiful fish. He made fond memories for thousands and thousands of aquarium supporters and they are all upset about this," said Goodfellow, 51, of Highland Park, who helped found Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium, a group that fought to save the 101-year-old aquarium, which closed last month.

Hal, who likely was around 40 or 50, sported polka dots along its white and greenish body and was named after the computer on the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"The computer had a very calm demeanor but was very sinister... that's how Hal was," said Doug Sweet, the Detroit Zoo's curator of fishes. "As soon as food was dropped in the tank, he was like a rat trap that would go off. As soon as the lights would go out, he'd prowl around."

And here's where the fish tail grows fangs.

Hal was captured in 1982 in a Mississippi bayou and brought to Detroit by former WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) reporter Jerry Stanecki of Bloomfield Hills and other volunteers. They were trying to cheer aquarium staff and visitors after the horrifying murder of 11 fish that died when vandals emptied 5 gallons of chlorine into their tanks.

Stanecki and his crew trolled the waters for two weeks in a small rowboat, stalking the elusive alligator gar, which live across the South and in Cuba and Mexico, dining on whatever takes their fancy.

"We would throw a hunk of mullet out on a barbless hook and I'll be doggone if in a matter of two seconds, wham!" Stanecki recalled. "Zing! You'd hear that rod. We had to lasso it ... and it came shooting out of the water like a torpedo and bit Charlie in the stomach."

Charlie Nobles -- a member of the party -- required stitches, but Stanecki's gang became lifelong fans of the fish, visiting them regularly at the aquarium.

Now Stanecki and others mourn Hal, who was headed to a new home at Landry's Downtown Aquarium in Denver. "What did he die of? I think he either died of fright or heartbreak or just gave up the ghost," Goodfellow said.

Stanecki -- like other vocal opponents of the aquarium's closing -- had another explanation.

"I guess he was probably making a statement to the city of Detroit. 'You've sent me to this death,' " Stanecki said. "I fully expect that Hal will come back to haunt the upcoming election, and Kwame will have to answer to Hal."

Contact LAURA POTTS at 248-351-3292 or potts@freepress.com.

Source: http://www.freep.com/news/mich/hal27e_20050527.htm