So Much More Than An Aquarium—A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Shedd

By Christie Wilcox | February 25, 2014 5:22 pm

Earlier this month, I was in Chicago for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. It was a whirlwind of fascinating scientific talks, engaging workshops (one with me!), and delightful networking with some of the greatest science writers, editors, and press officers. But that Sunday, I slipped away from the conference with my friend (and excellent science writer) Allie Wilkinson. There was, of course, only one thing in Chicago that was worth missing the exquisite program provided by AAAS: The Shedd Aquarium.

A lionfish at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo by Christie Wilcox

A lionfish at the Shedd Aquarium. Photo by Christie Wilcox

The Shedd Aquarium is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world and houses over 30,000 animals that are seen by some 2 million visitors annually. A few million gallons of seawater flow through its diverse and engaging exhibits, which range from local fisheries to exotic reefs from thousands of miles away. Highlights include the oldest aquatic animal on exhibit in the world (Granddad the lungfish), an abundance of marine mammalsa wobbegong and a sawfish, and—my personal favorites—several species of lionfishes. But beyond experiencing the aquarium itself, Allie and I were treated to a personal behind-the-scenes tour, led by communications & public relations manager Nicole Minadeo with help from Dr. Kristine Stump, Shedd’s newest research postdoc.

To kick the tour off, Allie and I were shown around behind the exhibits by senior trainer Gretchen Freimuth, who has been working at Shedd for 16 years (20, if you count her time as a volunteer). Gretchen took us around the kitchen (where over 700 lbs of fish are prepared every day!) and showed us the inner workings of the Abbott Oceanarium.

We were introduced to some of the animals that aren’t on exhibit, like the birds of prey (yes, they have birds, too!). These feathered friends are an outstanding example of how the aquarium is committed to rehabilitation and animal welfare even when the animals aren’t in full view. Though the birds are occasionally brought out on the exhibit floor to interact with the public, they spend most of their days behind a closed door. The moment that door was opened, of course, Allie and I were greeted by loud screams of three red-tailed hawks—a behavior, Gretchen explained, the team has been working hard to promote. The team uses a method called “scanning”, where they train an animal to perform on command by first rewarding a behavior the animal does naturally. Echo, Tacoma and Shasta were clearly intrigued by our presence, and happily vocalized to get our attention. Gretchen explained that Echo (male) and Tacoma (female) have been particularly vocal lately, calling back and forth. “I think there’s a little attraction there,” she said, grinning. Each bird has their own personality—Tacoma was comfortably perched on her right leg, her left foot curled in relaxation, across from the stoic Echo. Meanwhile Shasta shifted around her enclosure, constantly changing her viewpoint to really investigate the strange humans in her space. Gretchen explained how each came to live at the aquarium because they could not be released into the wild. Tacoma and Shasta were hit by cars, for example (Tacoma is still blind in her left eye).

Not to be ignored, Rainier—a large barn owl—joined the conversation by hooting. He was found as a fledgling and raised by a woman for years before being turned over to a local rehab facility. To this day he prefers women, says Gretchen (his friendly hooting was confirmation). In the far back, we were introduced to Logan, a great horned owl, once nicknamed Oscar the Grouch. He was found with a stick in his eye in a cemetery. His original rehabbers hoped to release him, so he was trained to act like a natural bird—complete with a dislike for humans. When they realized he wasn’t going to survive in the wild, they were stuck with an ornery bird. The Shedd staff didn’t care, and agreed to give him a permanent home. “He’s come a long way,” said Gretchen. Hours upon hours of training has warmed him to the staff, and he can even be brought out to see the public.

The ever exuberant Laguna. Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium

The ever exuberant Laguna. Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium

Many of the animals in the aquarium come from rehabbers. The aquarium has taken in orphaned otters and injured turtles. They have an entire program for rescue dogs. And, of course, some of their largest and loudest inhabitants—the California sea lions—were saved by Shedd. The biggest of the bunch, Bill and Tanner, were both captured because they were problem animals in the wild. They, like a number sea lions, had developed a taste for eating Chinook salmon at Bonneville Dam in Oregon. It’s a delicious but dangerous desire, as sea lions that are caught on the dam are branded with a number (700 for Biff, 011 for Tanner), and if they return, can be euthanized by the state. Shedd stepped in and offered Biff and Tanner homes rather than let that happen—no small consideration for animals that weigh in at 689 and 485 lbs respectively. The other sea lions at Shedd have similar tales. Cruz, a young male sea lion, was discoverd disoriented on a beach—further investigation revealed he was shot in the head by a shotgun and is completely blind. Undeterred by his impairment, the staff have created a unique target that rattles for his training. “He’s a real inspiration,” said Gretchen. But it was Laguna—Cruz’ companion and “best friend”—that quickly stole my heart. At only 70 lbs, he’s one of the smallest sea lions at Shedd. Found slim and hungry, he was rehabilitated and released, only to be found malnourished again six weeks later. Clearly unable to survive on his own, he now graces Shedd with his boundless energy. “He’s particularly fond of toys,” Gretchen explained. Watching him swim and run around his enclosure was like watching a puppy begging for attention. I could almost hear him scream Play With Me! as he came over to us, batted at a toy, then exuberantly circled around his habitat.

Lana Vanagasem, Shedd Staff, feeding penguins at SANCOBB. Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Lana Vanagasem, Shedd Staff, feeding penguins at SANCOBB. Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Shedd doesn’t just help animals at the aquarium—its expert staff travel around the world to lend a hand to animals in need. As we peered down on the penguin exhibit from the light well above, Gretchen told us about her recent trip to South Africa working with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to rehabilitate more than 500 endangered birds. Gretchen and Lana Vanagasem, another member of the marine mammal care team at Shedd, flew 8500 miles to help respond to the unusually high number of African Penguin strandings this year. Though SANCCOB rehabilitates 1,000 to 3,000 birds every year, they put a special amount of effort into the conservation of African penguins, which are listed as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List. Gretchen spent two weeks helping feed, exercise, and monitor the progress of several hundred penguins, each of which she had to catch up to six times a day. It was exhausting work, she said, but SANCCOB was grateful to have her expert hands helping them out.

Gretchen knows a lot about penguin health, as she has helped take care of the Rockhopper and Magellanic penguins on exhibit at Shedd. Shedd has a very successful penguin breeding program. The staff oversees every penguin couple (“They’re full of personality—and drama!” said Gretchen) and makes sure that they’re good parents before giving them full parenting control. For first-time couples, the team will pull and incubate the egg off-exhibit, replacing the egg with a dummy one. If they incubate the fake well, the duo is allowed to incubate their own egg the next go round. The staff continue to keep a close eye on the couple as the chick grows, stepping in to cover if the penguins fall short of their parental duties. All of Gretchen’s previous work with chicks at Shedd made her a huge help to SANCOBB, said Nicole. “It’s great that we’re able to learn from the animals here at Shedd to help other animals in need.”

Learning from the animals at Shedd is exactly the point, explained senior staff veterinarian and our next tour guide, Dr. Caryn Poll. After saying our goodbyes to Gretchen, Caryn took Allie and I on a tour of the A. Watson III Armour Center for Aquatic Health and Welfare—Shedd’s impressive and state-of-the-art animal hospital, complete with its own microbiology lab, water quality lab, and pathology lab. Taking care of more than 30,000 animals is no simple feat, especially with the diverse set of species at Shedd. Each taxonomic group has unique physiological quirks. “You can’t take regular IV fluids off the shelf and give them to a stingray,” for example, explained Caryn—so the staff makes their own, designed specifically for elasmobranchs. Since the aquarium houses a large number of aquatic species, they have special equipment for dealing with animals that can’t leave water. They also have a lot of portable equipment. “Fish are pretty easy to move,” said Caryn, but there’s no way they’re getting a beluga whale up to the hospital. Most of the time, they’re not dealing with sickness or injury; they’re just doing routine exams. The goal, said Caryn, is to have baseline health data like our doctors have—what’s a “normal” red blood cell count or temperature of a whale, for instance—on a wide variety of species that we currently have limited information for.

“How do you know when a fish is sick?” Caryn asked us, as an example. The answer isn’t always straightforward. The care staff rely on  trainers and those that interact with the animals daily to alert them to odd behavior or looks. She showed us pictures of one such case: a California moray with a large lump. The veterinary staff x-rayed the bulge, examined it using ultrasound, and finally took a biopsy to confirm the worst: cancer. The large lymphoma proved to be difficult to surgically remove, as it had become embedded with blood vessels and taken over a large part of the animal’s stomach. In what ended up as hours of surgery, Caryn had to make the tough choice to remove most of the eel’s stomach. But, the tumor was fully excised, and the moray is now an eight-year cancer survivor—one of the aquarium’s many success stories.

The next stop on our tour was the water quality lab. One of the most important jobs at the aquarium is the monitoring and maintenance of the millions of gallons of water that flow through the exhibits. The water quality lab is armed with three technicians and an army of volunteers that, together, run up to 60 samples a day through as many as 20 different tests—that’s 1200 tests every day. But the tests only act as snapshots, like photographs, said Caryn. To see water changes in real time, the team puts high-tech data loggers that contain 12 different probes into the exhibits, then downloads and reviews the information afterwards. The number of hours spent monitoring and maintaing the aquarium’s water is staggering, but it makes sense, says Caryn. “Water quality is 99.9999% of keeping aquatic animals healthy.”

Finally, it was Kristine’s turn to take over, and she led us back through the Teen Learning Lab towards her office. The Teen Learning Lab is one of Shedd’s newest additions—a space designed by teens for teens to geek out with access to innovative modern technologies. The center features whiteboards and pin boards as walls, Apple workstations,  iPads, LCD projectors and mp3 players. Kristine will soon be teaching a workshop there for marine enthusiasts, and other Shedd experts offer classes and workshops gears to stimulate and inspire the next generation of tech-savvy conservationists.

Kristine, me and Allie in front of Shedd's shark tank. Photo taken by Nicole

Kristine, me and Allie in front of Shedd’s shark tank. Photo taken by Nicole Minadeo

Kristine is the newest hire by Shedd’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research—one of six post-docs picked up in the past two years. The center is responsible for research outside the aquarium. Phil Willink and Solomon David are working close to home on migratory fishes in the Great Lakes. Then there’s Lesley de Souza, studying aquatic biodiversity more than 3,000 miles away in Guyana. Tse-Lynn Loh is working on Project Seahorse. And there’s the Bahamas group: Alex Tewfik working on lobster, and Kristine and her work on Nassau groupers. This diverse team is led by the vice president of research at Shedd, Chuck Knapp, whose been studying iguanas for 20 years.

Shedd has spared no expense for their research wing, providing the team with spacious offices, a state of the art wet lab space, and a dedicated research vessel—the R/V Coral Reef—on hand in the Bahamas. The Haerther Center even has its own library, complete with access to scientific journals. It’s more than some university labs have at their disposal, and certainly far more than I expected. “I had no idea an aquarium could be like this,” Kristine told us. Neither did I.

What I saw behind the scenes at the Shedd Aquarium was truly incredible. The entire building is bursting with energetic, expert staff dedicated to the welfare of animals, both on-site and around the world. Their clear passion for their work is infectious. As someone who is familiar with a number of zoos and aquariums, I am truly impressed with how forward-thinking, research-oriented, and conservation-dedicated the Shedd Aquarium is. I expected to have a fun day wandering around the many exhibits and getting lost in the beauty of the marine world. What I got was a sneak peak behind the curtain at how the aquarium really works, what its staff truly value—and it made me appreciate Shedd in a way I never expected I would.

Not that the aquarium itself disappointed in any way. The exhibits were as stunning as they were diverse, and I could have easily spent hours just watching the fish swim by. But I don’t need to tell you about all that, because you can go see all that for yourself the next time you’re in Chicago—and I strongly recommend you do.

I put together a little video from the exhibits—enjoy!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
  • Teresa Wagner

    You forgot to mention the captive dolphins and whales at this aquarium. I don’t see anything on Shedd’s site about them being rescues. Are the dolphins from the killing cove at Taiji, Japan? And from where were the Belugas taken from their families and homes to be “on exhibit” in artificial tanks?

    • kurtlieber

      Excellent point Teresa! I stopped visiting the Shedd in the 90′s. That is when they captured almost a dozen dolphins from the waters off Catalina Island, California. None of those captive cetaceans are in the Aquarium for rehabilitation. I refuse, and I hope all you do as well, to visit the Shedd ever again, until they release ALL their captive whales and dolphins.

      • Teresa Wagner

        Thank you for the information. Whether from the killing cove in Taiji or Catalina Island, they were forcefully taken from their families and their ocean home. For what? Profit in the guise of education? I would not support this cruelty at any aquarium, anywhere. Empty the tanks Shedd.

  • Barbara Lovett

    Empty the tanks! Shedd is an abusive prison for the dolphins and whales. Watch Blackfish and don’t buy a ticket to view the slavery!

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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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