With visitors away, animals play: How aquariums are operating during the pandemic

By Emily Leclerc
BU News Service

On March 15, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois released Wellington the rockhopper penguin into the Amazon, documenting his adventure on their Twitter account. He waddled and flapped about, observing the Shedd’s array of Amazon fish. The black-barred silver dollars seemed to be just as interested in him as he was in them. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California commented “calling this a peng-win!!” on the video.

Wellington has since become a returning character on the Shedd’s Twitter feed. He has explored the aquarium’s Wild Reef with several Magellanic penguins in tow, and recently Wellington took a field trip to visit the Shedd’s beluga whales, where Kayavak, Mauyak and baby Annik swam close to the glass to get a good look at the rockhopper penguin.

Wellington and his adventures have inspired other aquariums to follow suit and tweet videos of their animals taking aquarium tours. Aquariums are currently empty of all people outside of essential animal care personnel which makes it safe for the care team to let animals, like penguins, out of their habitats.

“We still have to take care of our animals,” Kelsey Long, the director of media relations at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida said. “Our animal care team is still maintaining our animals’ normal schedules with playtime, feeding and enrichment.” 

Aquariums across the country care for a massive variety of animals. Many also operate as animal hospitals and rehabilitation centers for injured or stranded sea creatures. Clearwater is a working marine hospital, Long said. 

“Our work can never stop,” Long said. “We are still responding to strandings and animals in trouble. Animals still need care.” 

Clearwater’s animal care staff are continuing to keep their animals fed and happy despite being closed to guests, and in some ways, the animals are enjoying this time more than when the aquarium is flooded with visitors.

“Our animals are getting even more playtime because the care team has more free time to play,” Long said. “Our team continues to challenge them and give them enrichment. Even though we are not showing it to people, our team still gets to enjoy them.”

The silver lining to this unprecedented situation is that aquariums have an opportunity to do upkeep that they normally wouldn’t have time for. 

“We are able to get a lot of deep cleaning and touch ups done,” Long said. “When our political officials say we can open up again, we will be bright, shiny and clean for our guests.”

Normally aquariums rely heavily on the income provided by visitor admission in order to keep their facilities running properly. With their doors forcibly closed, cutting them off from a main revenue stream, many aquariums are suffering financially. 

For the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, the money gained from their visitors goes directly into their research and the care of their animals. 

“We closed right before spring break, and that’s normally one of our busiest weeks of the year,” said Stephannie Kettle, the public relations manager at Mote. “The cost of running the aquarium is normally funded by the admissions from the aquarium.”

With the aquarium closed to visitors, Kettle said they must rely on donations and volunteers to keep the facilities running.  

“We have a really supportive community here in Sarasota, a lot of really active donors, a lot of great volunteers,” Kettle said. “So we’re able to hopefully tap into some of their support during this tough time.”

Many aquariums have been taking to the internet to ask for support to make up for the financial hit. Clearwater is giving out plush toys in rescue stretchers for every $100 donated. They are also using their social media platforms to promote fundraising events and host live streams. 

Mote, through live streams, has been promoting their local community partners such as local brewing companies that lend Mote support. They are encouraging people to symbolically adopt animals as well. Monterey and the Shedd are running similar programs to make sure they can continue to provide proper care for their animals. 

“We miss our guests,” Long said. “We hope that they will continue to support us.”

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