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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2011

Fishing for a childhood dream to come true

Shedd Aquarium offers Trainer for a Day program

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO -- Childhood dreams don't die -- they are just put on hold.

That became clear to me a few months ago when my sister called with a request. A psychologist for nearly a decade and the mother of two children, she wanted the chance to finally live out the goal she set for herself 25 years ago.

"You know how I always wanted to be a dolphin trainer?" she said.

And so early on a recent fall Saturday, I found myself in knee-high rubber boots and overcome by an intense smell of raw fish as I participated in the Trainer for a Day program at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

One of the aquarium's many educational encounters, Trainer for a Day offers visitors a chance to experience the day-to-day duties of one of Shedd's trainers. Paired up with an "animal care specialist," visitors get behind-the-scene access to those areas where the aquarium's famous mammals live and an opportunity to shadow those who care for them.

Although visitors can surely spend hours among the aquarium's massive salt and fresh-water tanks, Shedd Aquarium is much more than fish and coral. Making their home in a marine mammal pavilion, known as Abbott Oceanarium, are Pacific white-sided dolphins, beluga whales, and harbor seals, as well as Alaska sea otters and penguins.

Over a period of four hours and by visiting every nook and cranny in the Oceanarium, we saw eye-to-eye with some of the aquarium's cutest and most vocal residents.

But first things first. We had to change clothes.

Once handed my morning's uniform, I'll admit there was an involuntary laugh -- form-over-fashion was obviously the standard at Shedd. But after I realized that most of the staff was wearing tall rubber boots and high-waisted khakis, the ensemble didn't seem so bad.

At least there were no pictures. Yet.

After meeting with our designated trainer, we watched a film to give us the basics about animal care and instruction. With a bit of understanding of what we were about to embark on, we went to the aquarium's "kitchen" to see what was for lunch. Fish. Lots of it.

About 650 pounds of restaurant-grade fish is sorted by hand every day at Shedd Aquarium for its many residents. It was busy in the kitchen when we stopped outside the door so although we saw -- and smelled -- the process, we didn't participate. That meant we were spared from a full day of what was sure to be an intensely fishy body odor.

We also visited the underbelly of the aquarium, where massive pumps hummed loudly to keep the nearly 3 million gallons of salted water circulating in the Oceanarium's many pools. The water temperature is kept at 65 degrees to ensure the comfort of the animals, which all hail from the Pacific Northwest.

All but the penguins, that is.

The first of the animals we visited were Shedd's rockhopper and agellanic penguins, who happened to be off-exhibit during the aquarium's "fall cleaning" of their habitat. After a foot bath -- a quick dip of the boots into a solution of bleach and water -- we sat to the side as trainers fed the penguins their morning fish. And although we were asked not to touch the animals, the trainers noted that they couldn't exactly enforce the same rules with the curious birds, who waddled over to peck at my shirt and jump into my lap.

Throughout our time as trainers, we were given access to non-public areas, including Whale Harbor to visit with the beluga whales -- each named in the native language of the Inuit people -- and the neighboring pools where the dolphins roamed. We also made stops at the medical pool and experienced behind-the-scenes feeding of the sea otters and harbor seals. At each stop, we saw trainers safely interacting with the animals and rewarding them with praise and fish.

Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of Animal Programs and Training, said in a phone interview that the genesis of the Trainer for a Day program was the thousands of calls to the aquarium each year from students interested in shadowing or interviewing a trainer. Because there were more requests than possible ways to respond to them, the staff developed a program that was first designed strictly for students and then expanded to include anyone.

Since its inception about seven years ago, Trainer for a Day has attracted participants most weekends. To date, thousands have donned the signature boots and Trainer-for-a-Day T-shirt -- thankfully no wet suit required -- for the brief but educational encounter.

"We have a trainer dedicated to each experience. It makes it unique. It really is showing you what is happening on that particular day," Mr. Ramirez said. "Our desire is to educate and to inform and to give people an up-close and behind-the-scenes look at what we do."

Although we had visions of spending hours feeding and interacting with the animals, Trainer-For-A-Day was a realistic experience. We learned quickly that it took years, including hundreds of volunteer hours and a months-long unpaid internship, to be considered for a position as an animal care specialist at Shedd. And it took more years before a full-time staffer would begin to work with the animals. In fact, only 30 percent of a trainer's day is spent with animal interaction. The rest of the workday is made up of cleaning, food preparation, as well as meetings, record keeping, and public interaction.

We didn't wait years but it was a few hours into our "work" day before we were able to have a little more personal time with the animals. During the beluga whale session, my sister and I came face to face with Mauyak, or "soft snow," the oldest of the white whales. After a brief instruction on hand signals, we prompted her to speak -- noises that come from the whale's blowhole by moving her forehead, or melon -- spin around in the water, and rise out of the water to touch, or target, our raised hands with her head. Because whales like the sensation of their tongues being rubbed, we were also able to praise her with a rub of the tongue, which was surprisingly smooth.

And there was the photographer.

Off to the side of the pool, an aquarium staff member shot pictures as we interacted with the playful and personable whale. We were given one photo each as a parting gift while others were available for purchase.

I guess that outfit will be immortalized after all.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or419-213-2134.



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