“Otter-ly” Adorable Animal & Trainer Relationships for Valentine’s Day

At Shedd Aquarium, animal trainers celebrated Valentine’s Day by showing love to the special animals in our care. Five experts showcase the most rewarding part of their jobs, favorite memories, and what a typical day is like working with our animals. Whether its Nickel, a rescued green sea turtle, or Charlotte, a Magellanic penguin, these special stories will “toad-ally” give you the warm and fuzzies!


Nickel, a rescued green sea turtle, and Michelle Sattler, collections manager for the Waters of the World galleries and Caribbean Reef, were “o-fish-ally” brought together in 2003. Accordingly to Sattler, being able to provide Nickel with a home that’s safe and stimulating has been very rewarding. Nickel enjoys being scrubbed on her shell, so much in fact that Shedd installed scrub brushes on the bottom of her platform so she can scrub whenever she wants! Nickel enjoys eating bok choy, which she will receive as a special treat today. Nickel is also cared about deeply by Matt Finn, her rescuer in Florida, who was recently reunited with Nickel this past November.

Green sea turtle, Nickel and trainer Michelle Sattler. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Green sea turtle, Nickel and trainer Michelle Sattler. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez


Another special story involves Mari, a sea otter, who was brought to Shedd after a well-meaning kayaker took her to wildlife officials, unknowingly separating the pup from her mother. Since U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided she couldn’t return to the wild, Shedd provided her a forever home. Lana Vanagasem, manager of marine mammals, and other members of the animal care team hand-raised the otter pup in 2003. This significant otter, Mari, needed around-the-clock care, including grooming, bottle-feeding, transitioning to solid food and introductions to the rest of Shedd’s sea otters. Vanagasem shared her favorite moment with Mari: when the pup would crawl into her lap onto a white towel to groom and dry off.

Sea otter Mari and trainer Lana Vanagasem. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Sea otter Mari and trainer Lana Vanagasem. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez


In addition, Lana Vanagasem shares a close relationship with Charlotte, a Magellanic penguin previously known as penguin chick number 410. Charlotte hatched at Shedd and was hand-raised by Vanagasem and members of the animal care team. According to Vanagasem, penguins are interesting in that their affection with trainers and other penguins sometimes will wax and wane depending on other factors such as finding a mate and that becoming their focus. She also notes that penguins physically recognize the trainers and how rewarding it is to walk out to their habitat and have all the birds exit the water and follow her around!

Magellanic penguin Charlotte and trainer Lana Vanagasem. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Magellanic penguin Charlotte and trainer Lana Vanagasem. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez


Zoë Hagberg, an aquarist who works with animals in Shedd’s special exhibit, Amphibians, has formed an attachment with the aquarium’s Amazon milk frogs. This specific group of Amazon milk frogs was born at Shedd last year around Valentine’s Day and were raised by Hagberg since they were little tadpoles, which was an incredibly special and meaningful experience for her. Hagberg enjoys watching the frogs to see if they are exhibiting any new behaviors or interactions with the other frogs. According to Hagberg, the job never gets boring for her.

Aquarist Zoë Hagberg and an Amazon milk frog. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Aquarist Zoë Hagberg and an Amazon milk frog. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez


When our beluga whale Kayavak became an orphan at 5 months old, supervisor of marine mammals Jessica Whiton was a member of the team that provided around-the-clock care for the animal. Over the years Whiton has taught Kayavak her basic husbandry behaviors. After working with Kayavak for 17½ years, Whiton describes her relationship with the beluga as spending time with an “old friend”. Whiton is currently teaching Kayavak to select her own reinforcements after completing a behavior, whether it’s a tongue scratch or fish! Whiton especially enjoys that her job is science-based, but that it also depends on relationship building, trust and communication.

Trainer Jessica Whiton and beluga whale Kayavak. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
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. www.sheddaquarium.org
  • Jerry Thomas, Sr.

    Great pics, Brenna!!!!!

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