Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Keeper Spotlight: Loribeth Aldrich

A new monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for all of the animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

Name: Loribeth Aldrich

Title: Aviculturist

In charge of: Native songbird collection in River Journey, hyacinth macaws and penguins in Ocean Journey, occasional bird show presentations in the Ranger Rick Backyard Safari gallery

Loribeth Aldrich has been working as an Aviculturist at the Tennessee Aquarium since 2007. But she began working as an aquarium camp volunteer at age 14 and has also worked at IMAX and in the education department. Now in her late 20s, she says she is proud to have been at the Tennessee Aquarium for half her life!

A typical day for Loribeth is very busy. Each day starts at 8:00 a.m. with a walk through of the River Journey exhibits that hold the animals in her care. She looks for anything out of the ordinary and new hatchlings.

Around 8:30 Loribeth heads to Ocean Journey where the penguins are ready to be fed. Usually, volunteers arrive in the mornings to help prep fish and clean the penguin exhibit. But, occasionally she’s the early bird grabbing the food buckets and heading downstairs to the kitchen. The penguins eat anywhere from 35 to 70 pounds of fish a day, depending on the time of year, so prepping it can take up to half an hour.

Once fish is weighed and divided into three feedings, she heads back upstairs to gear up to enter the exhibit. To keep warm (and clean) in the 45 degree exhibit, Loribeth must not only wear special boots required to keep out germs, but also dresses in rubber overalls called “greens” and a fleece and rubber jacket.

After dressing and entering the exhibit, Loribeth and the volunteers spend about one hour hosing, scrubbing, cleaning windows, disinfecting the exhibit and feeding the birds inside the exhibit.

During breeding season (April-October) when chicks are present Loribeth also spend LOTS of time cleaning nests, to make sure no gak (regurgitated fish parents feed to chicks) is left inside them.

She also weighs the chicks daily to make sure they are growing as they should be. This year, Loribeth has also been hand feeding two chicks being raised in a back up area several times a day.

Once the exhibit is cleaned and birds are fed she moves on to the backup area where there is usually a lot to clean. Keepers even disinfect the rocks used in the exhibit! Throughout the breeding season, rocks are changed out in order to keep the nests clean. This also helps keep the pungent penguin perfume from becoming too powerful. This is a very physical job, lifting hundreds of pounds of rocks to clean and haul in and out of the exhibit.

Loribeth’s other occasional penguin duties include checking bands on flippers so they are not too loose or tight and providing enrichment such as showers, bubbles, snow, or popsicles to the penguins. One of the most entertaining forms of enrichment is penguin painting. Keepers place canvas on the floor and the penguin Picassos waddle through pools of non-toxic paint. Their feet, and sometimes tails, create unique and colorful patterns. These “works of art” are available for guests to purchase in the Ocean Journey gift shop.

Around 10:00 a.m., Loribeth must scramble out of her penguin gear and move upstairs to the hyacinth macaws. (This means traveling from 45 degrees to 80 degrees in a matter of a minute!) The macaws then get weighed and placed out to their island for the day. After giving them food, water, and toys, Loribeth returns to the penguin exhibit to deliver a program for guests at 10:30 am.

After a quick run at lunch (she is currently training for her first marathon!), she is due back for a second chick feeding and stops by to visit the hyacinths. They are given a second toy, or a shower, and a snack. Then it is on to the 1:45 penguin show. Afternoons are often a chance to catch up on paperwork and fit in a macaw training session.

At the end of the day, she starts closing the penguin exhibit (pulling in food pans, weighing uneaten fish and disposing of it, rinsing the exhibit and feeding any chicks in back up one last time) and brings the hyacinth macaws in for the night.

On Saturdays, Loribeth also helps with six Ranger Rick bird shows throughout the day, handling owls, parrots, a hornbill, and toucans.

Although she stays very busy, she says “I love this job and it makes it all worth it! To know that what I do directly affects the animals keeps everything in perspective. There is a quote I love by a keeper named Meryle Nelson, that says ‘Our quality of work is their quality of life.’ I try to remember that each day.”

Got a question for Loribeth? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with hashtag #QTheKeeper. We’ll be tweeting the answers next Thursday, September 26 from 3-4:00 p.m.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Oscar the Sea Turtle's Rescue by Taking Home Your Very Own "Oscar"!

In May, 2003 a little Green Sea Turtle arrived at the Florida Marine Science Center, covered from head to toe with green hair algae. The Marine Science Center staff called him “Oscar” because of his resemblance to “Sesame Street’s” Oscar the Grouch. He was missing his right rear flipper and about a third of his left rear flipper. The injury to his right rear flipper—most likely caused by a predator—was old and had already healed.

However, his other injuries were extensive. He had a deep cut from a boat propeller through his carapace (the top of his shell) down into his plastron (the bottom of his shell). His lung was exposed and it expanded outside the wound area with every breath he took. The wound was also filled with silt and debris.

Marine Science Center staff members cleaned his wound and began to stitch it up. This was very difficult because every time Oscar took a breath, his lung came out of the opening, so they had to stitch him up one exhale at a time.

Within a month, Oscar began to behave more like a sea turtle but with one small problem—he was buoyant in the water and bobbed like a cork. Why is Oscar so buoyant? Many things can cause air bubbles in turtles. Foreign bodies, obstructions, bacteria, protozoa, polyps or parasites are possible causes. Many sea turtles that experience trauma have buoyancy control issues from their injuries. But Oscar has developed his own style of swimming with his front flippers. (Watch him go in a recent shot from out Secret Reef tank below!)

Although the Florida facility’s mission is to return rehabilitated turtles to the wild, Oscar’s extensive injuries make him non-releasable. Instead, Oscar (then about the size of a dinner plate) came to the Tennessee Aquarium in 2005 as part of the Gulf of Mexico exhibit. Oscar later made his move to the Secret Reef in Ocean Journey. This meant a deeper tank and more neighbors. He now swims beside more diverse marine species, and has even been spotted chasing some of the sharks that share his tank.

Today, Oscar weighs around 125 pounds and is thriving as one of the Aquarium’s most recognizable animals. According to Aquarist Jake Steventon, he has certainly made his home in the Secret Reef. “Oscar has his favorite napping spots, including a couple where he can wedge in under the rocks to keep his rear end down,”said Steventon. “He is pretty fearless and mischievous. He is unafraid to try to steal the sharks’ food from right under their noses.”

Oscar with Aquarist Jake Steventon

While he continues to grow (Green Sea Turtles can grow to weigh 400 pounds), he serves as an important reminder of both human impact on ocean life and the power of our efforts to save it. Each year, hundreds of sea turtles are injured by boat propellers, trash in the water or by natural causes like encounters with predators. More public education is needed to help save sea turtles like Oscar and other marine animals impacted by our presence in their environment.

While Oscar will enjoy life at the Aquarium for years to come, you can now bring home your own special edition Oscar plush to mark the 10th anniversary of his rescue. This new stuffed animal is missing its tail, whole right, and half of its left flipper. And, just like the real Oscar, this cuddly soft creature has an injured shell. “Oscar the Plush” is an inspirational gift that can be found in the Aquarium’s Gift Shops.

Check out "Oscar" by Oscar, a "tap-able" story about Oscar's journey to the Tennessee Aquarium!