National Geographic Society Newsroom

Enhancing Our Dedication to the World Around Us: An Introduction to Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Team

The following is a blog post by Tim Binder, executive vice president of animal care, Shedd Aquarium. When zoos and aquariums first opened, we thought of ourselves as modern Noah’s arks – protecting wildlife from the approaching “flood” of species extinction. Now, we have a broader focus on proactive, in-the-field research aimed at habitat preservation and...

The following is a blog post by Tim Binder, executive vice president of animal care, Shedd Aquarium.

When zoos and aquariums first opened, we thought of ourselves as modern Noah’s arks – protecting wildlife from the approaching “flood” of species extinction. Now, we have a broader focus on proactive, in-the-field research aimed at habitat preservation and species protection. We are evolving into conservation centers supported by public awareness and education efforts.

As the environments around us continue to change, however, crises occur in populations globally and animal care professionals are called upon to apply expertise reactively as well. Sometimes this might come in the form of providing a home for a single stranded animal, and other times it may require sending assistance to rehabilitate large numbers of ill and starving animals. No matter the circumstance, zoos and aquariums are uniquely positioned to help.

For John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, proactively searching for solutions to conservation challenges and reactively assisting in environmental crises is our promise.

Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release and Rehome

Tim Binder holds a rescue otter found just weeks old stranded on beach in California (©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

As the Executive Vice President of Animal Care at Shedd Aquarium, I’ve personally been involved in many of Shedd Aquarium’s rescue, rehabilitation, release and rehoming efforts. I was there in 2012 when a newborn beluga whale found itself stranded in Bristol Bay, Alaska after a storm, providing around-the-clock intensive care with a team of marine mammal experts.

I was there in 2015 when Shedd provided assistance with the rescue and rehabilitation of 102 internationally protected juvenile arapaima that were confiscated at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago following an attempted illegal importation. And, I was there in 2014 and 2016, respectively, when we welcomed Shedd’s youngest sea otters, Luna and Ellie, after both were found stranded on beaches in California just weeks old and rescued by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

While just a few, these are some of Shedd’s most memorable rescue stories from the past few years. Shedd’s history of helping animals in need, however, has been going on for decades. Our most notable rescue efforts occurred in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, oiling and injuring hundreds of sea otters. In addition to sending help, Shedd was also able to adopt four non-releasable sea otter pups from the spill.

Since then, Shedd has been in service to partner organizations around the globe who are on the ground and in the water, day in and day out, assisting animals in need. Whether the organizations’ needs are boots on the ground or hands in the hospital, our team is prepared to travel from coasts to continents. This team of animal care experts makes up Shedd’s Animal Response Team.

Joining Forces with SANCCOB to Rescue Seabirds

African Penguins march in a single file line on beach front in Cape Town, South Africa.
Penguins March on Cape Town, South Africa beach (©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

At a time when an alarming number of species around the world are facing critical threats produced by human activity such as overfishing, habitat degradation, plastic pollution and rising ocean temperatures, Shedd’s Animal Response Team has increased its support globally. Our next rescue and rehabilitation efforts this year bring members of our Animal Response Team to Cape Town, South Africa to provide resources and support to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

SANCCOB’s primary objective is to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation and release of ill, injured, abandoned and oiled seabirds – especially endangered species like the African penguin. Each year around this time, a mass abandonment of African penguin chicks occurs in the colonies of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth when adult penguins begin preparing for moulting season. Prior to moulting, an adult penguin prepares its body by fattening itself up for a period of fasting, where it has to remain on land for three to four weeks and wait for its new waterproof feathers to grow. In this moulting phase, the adults are unable to forage to feed their little chicks that have yet to fledge. The chicks then become abandoned and face starvation unless rescued by SANCCOB and its conservation partners.  Since the inception of SANCCOB’s Chick Bolstering Project in 2006, more than 4,000 chicks have been successfully hand-reared and released.

Close-up of the face of a baby penguin chick surrounded by a white terry cloth towel.
One of the thousands of penguin chicks that was successfully hand-reared and released (©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

As of late October this year, SANCCOB has admitted close to 500 abandoned penguin chicks from a few colonies of African penguins in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. They reported that some of the chicks coming in to the center this year are much younger than they’ve admitted in the past (some as young as five days old) and will require a longer stay at SANCCOB and more resources. Nonetheless, the penguins will be in good hands. In addition to Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Team, animal care experts from six other accredited zoos and aquariums will be joining the rescue efforts at SANCCOB.

You Can Make a Difference: Protect Wild Animals

While our efforts are often reactive to population crises, each individual rescue provides a magnified look into the realities animals are facing in the wild. Shedd’s Animal Response Team can take the information we learn from them and share it not just with the broader scientific community, but with the public. By making meaningful connections through personal rescue stories, we can inspire those around us to take action. To this end, we have created a group of inspired advocates called Sheddvocates.

A Sheddvocate (Shedd + advocate) is someone who supports the Animal Response Team’s work through collective actions that help the health and well-being of animals in need. One of those actions includes taking a pledge to reduce personal consumption of single-use plastics – one of the most significant contributors to marine debris. Research has found that 693 species have encountered plastic debris, with nearly 400 involving entanglement and ingestion. Counting entanglement, ingestion and ecosystem damage, the threat of plastic pollution impacts marine species both large and small.

No matter where you are in the world, you can do your part to protect animals from plastic pollution threats by choosing to avoid single-use plastic products. This might include skipping a plastic straw or plastic lid when you order a drink to-go, bringing a reusable shopping bag when you head to the grocery store, or using reusable containers instead of disposable plastic sandwich or snack bags when packing your lunch for the day.

To help us in our efforts, Dawn Dish Soap is generously providing their support for Shedd’s Animal Response Team as our newest partner, as both of us share a mission of educating and inspiring the world about the well-being of animals.

To support the Animal Response Team’s mission and join us in protecting wild animals, visit–Care/Animal-Response-Team1/Become-a-Sheddvocate/.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Shedd Aquarium
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.