Two weekends ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Shedd Aquarium. Not being a native Chicagoan, it was also my first experience at the Shedd. That being said, I can confidently predict that it will not be my last.
The John G. Shedd Aquarium is far more than one of Chicago’s greatest tourist attractions. As well as entertaining millions of members of the public, it provides a home for more than 30 000 aquatic animals every day, many of them rescued from horrible circumstances. Some examples include that two of the four sea otters were rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, while four of the five sea lions were rescued from starvation or other deadly events on the west coast. Each of these animals is cared for by the trainers at the Shedd, and many of them take part in the shows that entertain so many people.
I was privileged to take part in one of the Shedd’s Extraordinary Experience programs. These programs allow you to go behind the scenes and experience the way that the Shedd runs, as well as opportunities to get up close and personal with many of the wonderful animals that the Shedd looks after. Starting at $52 for a Behind the Scenes tour, these experiences also include all-day admission and express entry to the Shedd – a definite plus over standing in the long lines on weekends!
The experience I took part in was called Trainer for a Day. I was led by Joe Heyden, Class of 2001 (Criminal Justice), an animal care specialist who took a roundabout method of getting into zoology. After graduating from Loyola, he finished a Law degree at DePaul University and went into the music business, before eventually deciding that it wasn’t for him. Over four hours, Joe told the three participants in the program about the life of a trainer. For newcomers in the Shedd, work starts at 5am with individualized food preparation for the thousands of animals in the aquarium. Approximately 25% of the time in an average day is spent on food preparation, with another 25% spent on cleaning the environments that the animals live in. A further 25% of the time is spent interacting with the animals, including training and maintaining the health of those creatures. The final 25% is spent interacting with the public, administration, and planning to make the Shedd even better.
The three of us began with a video description of the Shedd and the training that takes place there. Then we were immediately off to a training and feeding session for two sea otters. One of the wonderful things about the Shedd program is that all of the training for the animals is completely based on positive reinforcement, which means that no animal is ever punished for being unable to complete a task. Instead, if an animal misunderstands, or is learning a new task, the trainer will move to a simpler task that the animal can complete easily, and allow the trainer to give them a reward. Seeing the sea otters scampering around the enclosure, retrieving their toys and doing somersaults in the water was incredibly cool! We then went to a feeding session for the penguins, standing in their enclosure with the little critters brushing against our rubber boots. While some penguins were not eating, as they were in the process of molting, one curious chick was constantly wandering around the walkway, which ensured we watched where our feet were going! While we didn’t get to spend as much time with the dolphins as with the other animals, we were able to feed them, and learn something – dolphins love gelatin! Not only is it a great way to give them medicine, it also keeps them hydrated and is just fun to play with! One of the other animals that is fun to play with is the sea lion. This was made incredibly clear during one of the shows – no other large animal at the Shedd can jump out of the water and run along the walkway! But the definite highlight of the experience was playing up close with the beluga whales. As you can see by the expression on my face, it was an incredible amount of fun! It also gave a real insight into how rewarding working at the Shedd must be – to see the blissful happiness of the animals you work with must infect you with joy as well.
Perhaps the most astounding thing that I learned, apart from that Beluga whales enjoy being tickled on their tongues, is the extent to which the Shedd depends on volunteers and interns. Volunteers can be working at the Shedd as little as four hours a week, but they are essential to the smooth-running of the world’s largest indoor aquarium. Along with the three classes of interns (fall semester, spring semester and summer), they help to provide the manpower and energy to keep costs down and the continuous working of the aquarium.
Further, as Joe told me, volunteering is a great way to help get the internship, which is extremely prestigious. In fact, it’s how he got his job working with some of the most interesting animals in the world every day. Even if that isn’t what you are looking for, volunteering is a great way to give back to one of the cultural icons of Chicago, and have a ton of fun in the meantime! I’m certainly going to try to do it next semester, and I hope you do too!
For more information on the Shedd Aquarium’s Extraordinary Experiences Club, go to www.sheddaquarium.org/premium_experiences . For more information on volunteering at the Shedd, go to www.sheddaquarium.org/volunteering .
All the best from me!