Shedd’s Trainer for a Day program takes you behind the scenes and lets you do the work
There I was, eye to eye with Nalvark, a large male beluga whale. And he was looking at me as I stood in cold water up to my ankles a foot from him—this beautiful animal.
I watched the top of his head twitch—the melon— and I felt overwhelmed and privileged. While I had no way of knowing what he was thinking, I hoped this was a respectful meeting of two beings.
“I like their melon and the noise they make,” said my son, Zachary, in an awed whisper, standing at my side in the water.
My son and I took a day trip just a few miles from our home to the Shedd Aquarium for the Trainer for a Day program. But we felt we had stepped into another world, a magical one.
This is a great program but not a big one. Only three people are allowed to do it at a time and these are carefully scheduled. And it is not for everyone.
First, it is expensive—this program costs $350 a person, $300 for members. Only children 12 and over are allowed to participate. Kids ages 12 to 15 must be accompanied by a paying adult.
At first blush, you might think: Why don’t I just just buy two round-trip tickets to Florida? We’ll rent a boat and wave to the dolphins in the ocean. While you are right—the Shedd’s price tag would cover most of your Florida costs —if you have a child even mildly interested in marine biology, you will have seriously miscalculated the value of this experience.
Also, this is not an easy day. You must be willing to put on the khakis and the rubber boots that go with the job. You also must be willing to dig deep and shove your hand into a bucket of fish and squid. And you have to love the smell of mackerel in the morning.
For my 12-year-old son and me, none of this was an obstacle. (OK, we were guests of the Shedd, so cost was not a factor, but the other stuff was not daunting.) We simply asked where and when.
The day begins We met Kelly Schaaf in an educational room near the trainers’ area—an almost back alley area that takes you to the behind-the-scenes holding areas for the animals.
Schaaf, an animal care specialist, has been at the Shedd for more than three years. She was very kind and very patient.
The program is designed to be hands on. This means you do the hard, gritty work a trainer must do to ensure these great animals are taken care of day in and day out. But a hands-on experience does not mean you should expect to be touching the animals, because those who care for the animals don’t want to expose them or you to any problems. So, you are up close and very personal but your hands are better suited scrubbing algae—not on our schedule that Saturday—or weighing the daily food and cleaning the kitchen.
Schaaf gave us the uniform—T-shirt, pants and boots—and safety directions for us and the animals. For example, each time we went through a door to an animal holding area, we stepped into a disinfection bath; another is waiting on the other side of the threshold.
We joined a briefing with other animal care specialists—some in wet suits and others in khakis and blue shirts. We learned that at the Oceanarium shows there is so much more going on than a performance. While the audience is hearing the education and conservation messages and watching specific Pacific-white-sided dolphins perform a jump or a breech or a vocalization (techno-speak for making noises), the other trainers are working with the animals, sometimes taking a urine sample or checking the animals’ flukes, flippers and dorsal fin.
The shows put the animals through specific paces and are different each time. These are training investments. The movements will help the animals during medical exams, tank cleaning or transporting them in an emergency.
Each animal not only has a name and personality but also a color and shape. Trainers hold the colored shapes in the water to call the animals. It also is a system to mark their food buckets since each has specific dietary needs.
CJ makes the day Throughout the day, we helped to weigh the sea otters—could anything be more fun? But we were a safe distance back, since otters are not predictable.
We picked out the morning toys for the belugas—five Frisbees. We held a mirror for the dolphins. Vanity is not uniquely human. Each of the dolphins came to admire its beautiful dark gray, black-and-white coloring, and they are entitled. It was a wonderful way to learn each animal—Piquet has a scar over her eye, while Tique’s blow hole is dark.
We also measured the remains of the morning meal to see what was not eaten, counted out the afternoon eats and cleaned up the kitchen.
Everything we observed or did, Schaaf reported in detail on computerized notes about each animal. Each trainer must do this, recording the play, the food, the attitude and the appearance of each animal. This gives trainers an idea of patterns and habits, and alerts them to any problems.
We noted, for example, that Sira, the dolphin, who had been having some stomach problems, did not eat much in the morning.
I understand that some advocates take great issue with these wonderful mammals being held in captivity. And, I must admit, seeing the belugas and the dolphins swimming in a tank, albeit a beautiful and clean one, gave me a sad feeling.
But I also know we will not help these creatures if we do not know them. Learning about them in captivity is crucial. And many of these animals were rescued from the wild.
Such as C.J., a 450-pound sea lion that is not yet on public display. He was amazing. “I liked when he walked up on to the cement,” my son said. “He came so close.”
As we walked out, my son looked at me and said, “Before I wanted to be an entomologist. But now I want to be a marine biologist.” Priceless.