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Sea Lions at Shedd Aquarium Bring Joy to Chicago Families Amid Closure

Bounce Children’s Foundation Connects Aquarium to Families for Virtual Sea Lion Meet and Greets

June 18, 2020

Sea lion Cruz sits on the rocks of his habitat with his nose held high.

Despite a temporary closure, Shedd Aquarium connected Chicagoland families raising children battling chronic illness with several rescued sea lions. The aquarium teamed up with Bounce Children’s Foundation to identify families to participate. This virtual experience gives a glimpse into the aquarium’s animal care sessions by pairing a family with an animal care team member at the aquarium. Kids and adults alike get to meet a sea lion, learn the animal’s rescue story and practice verbal, auditory cues that allow them to be an animal caretaker for a day.

“We were inspired to initiate this program by one of our rescued sea lions, Cruz, who is blind but thriving at the aquarium,” said Madelynn Hettiger, manager of sea lions and birds of prey at Shedd Aquarium. “Cruz responds to verbal and tactile cues, so we wondered if he could respond to voices heard through a tablet, and once we confirmed it we recognized that this would be an incredible opportunity to connect with those who can’t physically come to the aquarium due to illness or disability. At Shedd, we believe that up close and personal animal encounters deepen connections with aquatic life and work towards our mission.”

Shedd’s animal care program involves building a trusting relationship between animals and the people who care for them, as well as providing physical exercise, mental stimulation and familiarization with behaviors for health care. During a typical visit to the aquarium, guests have an opportunity to see animal care in action during aquatic presentations. But without regularly scheduled presentations, Shedd virtually brings animals into the homes of families who would be unable to visit the aquarium otherwise.

“At Shedd, we believe that up close and personal animal encounters deepen connections with aquatic life and work towards our mission.”

Madelynn Hettiger, manager of sea lions and birds of prey at Shedd

Partnering with Bounce Children’s Foundation to fulfill their mission to transform the lives of chronically ill children and their families, the program provides an unforgettable experience that brings them face-to-face with an unbelievable animal.

“While living with enormous uncertainty and being locked-in at home is difficult for everyone, it’s especially stressful for Bounce families who are extremely high risk,” said Joan Steltmann, CEO and founder of Bounce Children’s Foundation. “The opportunity to provide an interactive, fun Shedd experience brought excitement, connection, and hope to the kids and their whole families. Seeing rescued sea lions overcome their challenges, inspires Bounce Kiddos, their siblings and their parents to push through the obstacles they face. Support from individuals and organizations to our Bounce It Forward program offers unique, high demand, experiences that restore resilience and shift Bounce Families from surviving to thriving.”

“This experience gave our family something to look forward to, which is a really big deal!” said April Luna, Bounce Mom. “Having an immune compromised child, we must be extra careful during the global pandemic. Our encounter with a sea lion and the Shedd Aquarium staff brought joy to my whole family!”

This program is part of Shedd Aquarium’s suite of growing and evolving accessibility initiatives that look for innovative ways to make meaningful connections between our guests and aquatic life in ways that consciously honor their individual comforts, needs and ability levels. While this experience is only offered through the aquarium’s accessibility partners, there are several ways for the general public to virtually connect with Shedd by visiting:

Photos of the virtual sea lion meet-and-greets and families participating can be found here:
Photo credit: ©Bounce Children’s Foundation

Visuals of a training session with Shedd’s sea lions can be viewed and downloaded here:
Visuals Credit: ©Shedd Aquarium