For more than 50 years, Shedd Aquarium has devoted people and resources to helping animals in urgent need. Shedd experts have lent a hand to help aquatic animals in the Florida Keys, the St. Lawrence River and in northern Illinois. They’ve responded following oil spills in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and South Africa. And they’ve worked behind the scenes at Shedd, sometimes around the clock, to provide critical care to both temporary and new permanent residents.
Now the current generation of rescuers and rehabilitators has an official name: Animal Response Team. But the goals are the same: rescue, rehabilitate and release or rehome. Here are a few cases—with faces—of the Animal Response Team’s work.
Animal Response Team
Sea otter pups
By far Shedd’s longest response effort, our work with sea otter pups started in 1989 after the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill. A team of marine mammal experts from Shedd joined the around-the-clock volunteer effort at a makeshift sea otter rescue center to clean and rehabilitate the several hundred surviving sea otters, including fragile pups, pulled from the thick oil that fouled Prince William Sound.
While recovered adult otters could be released into clean waters, the orphaned or abandoned pups could not survive on their own and needed permanent homes at qualified aquariums and zoos. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed four of these unreleasable pups with Shedd. Through the years, as other pups stranded in Alaska’s waters, the wildlife agents trusted Shedd to provide the high-risk, high-maintenance infants with the long-term expert care they needed.
Shedd’s most recent rescued pups come from another sea otter population, this one struggling to survive along California’s coast. Luna, a 2014 rescue, was just a newborn when she was found stranded on a beach, malnourished and weighing only 2 pounds. Shedd sea otter experts worked with colleagues at Monterey Bay Aquarium to stabilize the pup and begin her rehabilitation. She was up to 5½ pounds when she arrived at Shedd.
When rescuers discovered Watson, after hikers reported a stranding, the pup was hungry, wet and shivering from hypothermia. No adult otters were in the area, and the pup was in such rough shape that rescuers immediately took him to the aquarium for triage. Watson was tangled in seagrass and covered in sand, leading experts to believe he had been separated from his mother during a recent storm and tossed by waves onto the beach. Without a mother to teach him survival skills, he needed a permanent home. Monterey Bay Aquarium asked if Shedd could Watson, where he found a home at Shedd.
Both little sea otters required several months of 24-hour care, along with training in grooming, diving, foraging for food and other skills, in Shedd’s behind-the-scenes Regenstein Sea Otter Nursery. Today they can hold their own with the four adult sea otters, and you can see them in rough-and-tumble play in the Abbott Oceanarium habitat. Shedd is one of only a handful of U.S. zoological organizations with the facilities, staff and expertise to care for infant sea otters.
Shedd's Animal Response Team traveled to SANCCOB to help offer around-the-clock care to abandoned African penguin chicks.
Shedd Aquarium’s experience in caring for penguinsgoes back to the 1930s, and the Abbott Oceanariumis home to two thriving penguin colonies. But it was another oil spill, this one off the coast of South Africa, affecting 20,000 endangered African penguins, that got us involved in helping a wild population.
In 2000, we sent penguin experts to Cape Town to assist in an international rescue effort coordinated by the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Their experience handling the large birds at Shedd was invaluable as they assisted with the recovering wild penguins’ medical exams.
In 2014, Shedd forged a formal partnership with SANCCOB to provide help during what has become an annual crisis. African penguins only nest on a few small islands off the mainland. Each year, hundreds of breeding pairs abandon their chicks prematurely. The reasons are complex, but adverse human impacts on the birds, including overfishing their prey, play a large role. Rotating teams of Shedd staffers from the animal care and animal health divisions have provided welcome annual help during this predictable event. They’ve had the satisfaction of seeing birds through from rescue to release.
Oil spills continue to be a threat too: Major shipping lanes crisscross the birds’ aquatic habitat—the often turbulent currents where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet—and several more spills from capsized or sinking cargo ships have fouled the waters and oiled birds since Shedd first joined forces with SANCCOB.
Rescued sea lion Cruz is blind, but that doesn’t keep him from training like the other animals! Our experts have built a program based on sound, touch and, most importantly, trust
California sea lions
The Animal Response Team’s first priority with wildlife rescues is to rehabilitate the animals for release back into their habitats. Shedd has lent support to several major rescue centers on the West Coast in past years. In 2016, we answered a call for reinforcements from the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, a small not-for-profit marine mammal rescue center with a big job: handling strandings along 153 miles of southern California coastline. Starving juvenile sea lions were stranding on beaches in record numbers—the casualties of a long-term unusual mortality event tied to climatic and man-made causes.
Shedd sent one of its sea lion experts to help the mainly volunteer staff feed, medicate and rehabilitate nearly 100 young sea lions. Many of the pups could not be saved. But over the course of eight to 12 weeks, others rebounded, grew healthy and strong, and could be released from a ferry to the Channel Islands as commuters applauded.
When release is not an option, due to physical or behavioral limitations, Shedd’s Animal Response Team works with zoo and aquarium colleagues and federal and state wildlife agents to find a permanent home for an animal. Oftentimes that’s at Shedd. That includes two California sea lionsthat were in different but equally deep trouble.
With salmon populations declining overall, Biff was part of a sea liongroup preying on migrating endangered Chinook salmon at a fish ladder along a Pacific Northwest dam. Although the hungry marine mammals were relocated by wildlife biologists, they kept returning for these easy meals. Labeled as “nuisance animals,” they were slated to be culled.
Shedd was part of the marine mammal community that worked out a creative, life-saving alternative with wildlife officials to place the sea lions at aquariums and zoos. The still-visible identification number on Biff’s back, applied in the field by veterinarians to monitor his location and eating habits, is a reminder that when his number was almost up, Shedd’s animal responders helped find him a safe new home.
Cruz was just a pup when he was found on the California coast in 2012, alone, lethargic and blinded in both eyes. He was taken to a marine mammal rescue center where he was stabilized and X-rayed. The stark black-and-white images showed metal shards in his skull from gunshot wounds that destroyed his vision. As he was nursed back to health in California, Shedd’s Animal Response Team, impressed with the pup’s spunk and energy, offered to provide him with the lifelong special care he would need.
Cruz is the first blind marine mammal to be rehabilitated at Shedd. The training team adapted their techniques to fit Cruz’s sensory abilities: Instead of visual cues, they use words and other sounds to guide his training sessions. Meanwhile, Cruz amazed everyone with his ability to learn physical spaces by the touch of his whiskers and evidently a great memory. In the end, Cruz can do everything Shedd’s other sea lions can do except see.
Forty animals, from tiny coralsto sea turtle Nickel, make their home at Shedd thanks to the efforts of the Animal Response Teamand the 17 global partners we provide support to in our shared mission to give a second chance to animals in urgent need.
We’re looking for advocates to share these stories and pledge to help protect animals and their habitats. See how you can #ActWithShedd and make a difference for wildlife.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
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