Aquariums refreshed at Pratt Education Center; new focus brings excitement to historic setting

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Pratt Education Center Director Diedre Kramer checks in with a buffalo fish, native to Arkansas River waters, now at home in a refreshed aquarium tank at the center and part of a major renovation project at the KDWPT facility.

From the outside, the Pratt Education Center, near Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism headquarters east of Pratt, looks to be frozen in time. Ice in the front fountain pond reflects the winter season, while the large red-brick building with green wood trim, built in the early 1900s, reflects an era of historical significance and stability. 

But visitors who step inside the Pratt Education Center in 2021 will immediately experience a refreshed look into what makes Kansas outdoor wildlife a coveted treasure, as reflected through the eyes of education center director Diedre Kramer.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on the tanks,” said Kramer. “My ultimate goal is to highlight the diversity of Kansas wildlife and aqua-culture here. We are so glad to finally have the first phase of renovation done in the aquarium.”

Twelve large aquariums in the center of the first floor of the education center have been renovated with new, multi-color, hand-painted backgrounds. Realistic branches and underwater foliage along with interactive explainers create a whole new experience for those who have been through the center before or for those who are coming in for the first time.

“We have six 300-gallon tanks and six 600-gallon tanks, so it takes a lot time for maintenance, and a lot of water to keep these all looking good,” Kramer said.

While some tanks already have fish swimming in them, others are part of an on-going park ranger project to catch, acclimate, then exhibit aquatic life naturally found in nine Kansas waterbodies.

“The list of waterbodies we are highlighting with our large aquariums now includes Ozark Streams, the Verdigris River, the Cimarron River, small and large Flint Hill streams, Wilson Reservoir, reservoirs throughout Kansas, the Kansas River, the Arkansas River (two tanks) and the Upper Republican River,” Kramer said.

Two Arkansas River tanks already have life swimming and feeding inside. Channel catfish, flathead catfish, quill backs, gar and buffalo fish come up to the front of their exhibits, almost as if they want to visit with viewers, or at least get a better look at whomever is looking at them. Other live displays at this time include a variety of turtles, toads, snakes, lizards and other amphibians. A wide variety of animal habitats with stuffed models provide a definite Kansas prairie ambiance with interpretations and explanations available at each station.

“We like to allow people to enjoy the exhibits at their own pace,” Kramer said. “There is always someone here to answer any questions, as needed, but self-tours really give visitors a change to hone in what interests them most.”

While visitors are allowed into the education center during open hours, Monday-Friday from 1-4 p.m., Kramer said that much of the interest and education has gone online since pandemic shutdowns last March.

“We did open back up in June 2020, with social distancing rules and masks required,” she said. “But we do a lot of virtual tours now and interactive online studies. We have worked really hard on updating the facility and making it part of the 21st century. We love the history here and certainly don’t want to lose any of that aspect, but it has been fun to update and refresh the whole experience.”

Kramer said having open hours in the afternoons allows her time to get all the aquatic and amphibious life feed and cared for in the mornings. She does have help from AmeriCore volunteers, necessary to keep things running smoothly as the aquatic tanks must be drained, cleaned and refilled about twice weekly. But when she is not cleaning, caring for center creatures or conducting tours, Kramer is hard at work on the next phase of renovations.

“Our next big project is the reptile and amphibian exhibits,” she said. “The turtles are nearest and dearest to my heart. I am passionate about conserving the ornate box turtle in Kansas.”

Kramer comes by her interest in Kansas wildlife naturally, growing up along Prairie Dog Creek near Norton, Kansas.

She said, as a child she loved plants, the outdoors, prairie life, and walking her family’s cattle pastures. She also often visited the nearby Upper Republican River which is one of the featured, refreshed, tank exhibits at the education center.

“Kansas has so much to offer as far as being an outdoor environment,” she said. “A friend of mine once said that we are so underrated here. I hope to change that by educating people and helping them to see what our wildlife treasures are.”

As spring and summer approach, Kramer said she hopes to get back to work on a pollinator garden in the front education center grounds, as well as continue work inside refreshing exhibits and making Pratt Education Center more online user-friendly.

Find current online access to Pratt Education Center at 

https://ksoutdoors.com/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Museums-and-Nature-Centers/Pratt-Education-Center/Pratt-Gallery#prettyPhoto

Pratt Education Center Director Diedre Kramer and her loyal companion dog, Noir, wait in the front hall of the KDWPT facility to welcome guests.
Eggo, a bull snake who lives at Pratt Education Center, is a representative reptile of one of Kansas' largest native snakes.
Orange plastic fence has been placed around pollinator garden seedlings, a project started last fall at the Pratt Education Center at KDWPT headquarters east of Pratt. The education center interior has undergone a season of renovation under the direction of Diedre Kramer, Education Center Diroctor.