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Morning Shift

Hello From The Otter Side: Shedd Aquarium Offers New Sea Otter Experience

If you’ve ever spent any amount of your work day watching heart-melting videos of otters holding hands in the water so they don’t float away from each other, then you’ll be happy to hear about a new chance in Chicago to meet the sea pups one-one-one.

The Shedd Aquarium announced this week the launch of a new behind-the-scenes experience that allows visitors to interact with the Shedd’s sea otters, take part in feeding and learn about their individual stories.

The hour-long program costs about $110, or $95 for children younger than 12, and $65 for Shedd members. The price also includes admission to the full aquarium, express entry and a ticket to the next available aquatic presentation.

Morning Shift gets otter the studio and goes behind the scenes at the Shedd Aquarium’s new experience. We also get some insight into sea otter care and behavior with Jen Becker, a trainer at the Shedd.  

Shedd Aquarium trainer Jen Becker takes 'Morning Shift' behind the scenes of its new otter encounter program to meet the otters Kiana (pictured) and Ellie. (Stephanie Kim/WBEZ)

What you get out of the Shedd's new otter experience

Jenn White: This isn’t an inexpensive experience. It runs $110, or $95 for children younger than 12, and $65 for Shedd members. And people can see the otters with a regular visit to Shedd. How is this experience different? 

Jen Becker: With this experience, you're literally getting right up close, eye -to-eye with a sea otter in our behind-the-scenes space. You get to come behind-the-scenes, potentially touch one of them, see how soft their fur is, get to feed some of them at the plexi [glass] in our back area, and really get up close and personal with our sea otters.

White: What is the Shedd hoping to teach visitors about otters through this program?

Becker: Sea otters are really important to the environment. They are keystone species, which basically means they are kind of like a keystone in an arch. In the wild, they live in kelp forests and in those kelp forests there are often sea urchins. And the sea urchin population can get out of control and take out most of the kelp. And the sea otters are actually there to eat the sea urchins to help manage the whole ecosystem. So if you take the sea otters out of the equation, you can have a really bad situation out in the ecosystem.

Kiana, 16, and Ellie, 4, swim around in the Shedd's otter reserve habitat. The otters are among the rescues that live at the Shedd Aquarium. (Stephanie Kim/WBEZ)

How the otters find a home at the Shedd Aquarium

White: Three of the four sea otters visitors can meet were abandoned in the wild. How often does that happen? 

Becker: Usually every year we get a notification that there are a couple strandings. Sometime we can take those strandings in if they need to be placed into a zoo or aquarium. Ellie and Luna were our last two that came in. Ellie is three [years old] now, Luna is four. These two were found on the beach—one by a jogger, another by someone walking by—they heard the pups squealing. What happens is Monterey Bay Aquarium will monitor that pup for about 24 hours to make sure they are in fact stranded. If Monterey Bay has the facility to take in that otter, they will; if not, they contact zoos and aquariums like Shedd and that's how they end up here. 

What does it take to care for an otter? 

White: Talk a little bit more about the daily care of an otter, especially if you're raising them from a pup. 

Becker: Raising them from a pup is a 24-hour job for sure. They need to be bottle-fed [with] a special formula that we make for them. Then they are taught to open up shellfish, how to get shrimp open, we teach them how to groom, etc. 

White: You said that otters are very curious creatures, but how do you ensure they don't get overly stressed when interacting with people in this way? 

Becker: So we spent a lot of time on this program. We started working on it about a year ago, really getting the otters accustomed to interacting through the plexi in a good, polite way. All the training that we do here at the Shedd is positive-reinforcement training. So basically what we're looking for is nice, calm behavior, and keeping [their] paws in this location until we ask them to do otherwise. And they've done an amazing job at learning "Ok, I'll get some kind of reward at some point, but right now I need to just hang out and be nice and take food very kindly from whoever is giving it to me."   

(Stephanie Kim/WBEZ)

GUESTJen Becker, a trainer and animal care specialist at the Shedd Aquarium

LEARN MORE: Sea Otter Encounter at the Shedd Aquarium 

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