Tom Ridenour graduated from the Carroll/Hawaii Pacific University partnership program with a degree in Marine Biology in December, 2010. Following graduation, he completed a six-month internship with the Marine Mammal program at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Below, he reflects on his experiences in that internship.
My experience as a Shedd Aquarium Marine Mammal intern has been one of the most rewarding of my life. I expected I would be doing mostly grunt work like cleaning, preparing food and hauling supplies from place to place. While there is a lot of grunt work, it is also a medium for building some wonderful relationships with fellow interns and staff. Activities like sorting fish, scrubbing buckets and scale checking led to some of the most entertaining conversations in recent memory.
Beyond the grunt, the Shedd staff worked to make the interns truly feel like a part of the team. Interns were invited to see a calf birth and the transportation of a beluga whale, something I thought I would never see until I was a member of the staff. We were even invited to meetings regarding calf events. Seminars were offered to us on beginners training theory and techniques, as well as a resume seminar that covered the resume, as well as the cover letter and interview skills. The head of the marine mammal division at Shedd led the seminars, and the opportunity to ask him questions was valuable to us.
Still, the animals have to be listed as a true highlight of the internship. The Shedd marine mammal department contains belugas, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, penguins, red-tailed hawks and owls. Interns were scheduled to work on one of the animal teams (cetaceans, penguin/otter, or sea lion/bop [bird of prey]). Regardless of the team, the activities were similar. Preparation of food, cleaning of food containers and kitchens, observations, and, with some groups, second-person husbandry techniques were some of the activities that made up our days. I was able to interact with the belugas more than any other group, and they quickly became my favorite. Melon rubs, body rubs, vocalizations, fake blood draws, tongue tickles, water spits, melon bumps, and even kisses were a part of our second-person husbandry activities. To me, being allowed to do any of these was the highlight of my day.
On my last day, I was offered the chance to hug the youngest beluga (he will be two in December), a behavior that he had never done with anyone but his focus trainers, and I eagerly accepted this chance. The result was a heart-warming feeling, a great picture, and being envied by my fellow interns, as well as many of the staff. Of course, this behavior was followed by a spit, so I was not warm for long, but even being spit on by a beluga is rewarding.
Above all else, this internship proved to me that all of my hard work and stress had been worth it. I knew I was in the right field doing what I was meant to be doing.