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Chicago's Shedd Aquarium Builds Hospital - 2002-10-19

Aquariums not only have to feed the many species of fish and other animals in their exhibits, they also have to take care of them when they get sick. In Chicago, the Shedd Aquarium has just built a hospital it says will not only keep its healthy, but also help scientists learn more about them.

In a brightly-lit basement room of the Shedd Aquarium, veterinarian Martin Greenwell and a few colleagues are standing around a stainless steel table, repairing the shell of a Colombian slider turtle. "Right there, you can see where the shell was cracked and removed," he said. "The white part is actually bone. She has been disinfecting it, cleaning it out, and she is going to apply a fiberglass patch with quick-setting epoxy."

The turtle is just one of many patients the staff will see on this day, in the aquarium's new animal hospital. The Shedd is one of just a few aquariums in the United States to have such an elaborate, centralized facility. Vice president for conservation Jeff Boehm says the hospital can treat most of the 8,000 animals that live in this building. "We joke that this is almost like being a physician in a small town," said Jeff Boehm. "We have hundreds of different species and thousands of different animals and while we can predict and try to schedule what we are going to do each day, the phone will ring and one of our clients will be calling and we will have to go out and see something new and different."

The aquarium just spent more than a $1 million on this new facility, which looks a lot like any modern hospital examination room.

Lab technician Bob VanValkenburg demonstrates an endoscope: a long, flexible tube with a light and a tiny camera lens on its tip. He says the scope lets veterinarians see inside animals. It was recently used to check the stomach of one the aquarium's new sharks. "We were concerned that the animal was not actually eating," he said. "We investigated, used the endoscope, and actually found out it was eating. It was eating secretly."

Machines like the endoscope and the hospital's portable ultrasound device have been used for years to examine humans. But Jeff Boehm says the helps the staff provide better care to the animals, and study them more closely. "We are looking at animals here daily that other scientists have not looked at closely, certainly other aquatic animal clinicians have not looked at closely," he said. "Every day, we are pioneering new procedures, we are exploring new things, we are surprised at findings. One of our goals is, in addition to taking the best care of animals that we can, is to learn about them."

Down the hall, Dr. Greenwell is assisting colleagues as they examine a small, bluespot stingray. It is among 1,000 animals that will live in a new Philippine reef exhibit when it opens next year. "After this stingray is anesthetized, we are going to do a physical exam, look at the eyes, mouth, the gills, the entire body surface," said Martin Greenwell. "We are going to do an ultrasound exam of its abdomen."

Veterinarian Natalie Mylniczenko says she and the other staff doctors still have to move their equipment to the big tanks when a dolphin, whale or other large creature needs attention. But, she says it is more efficient to be able to bring the smaller animals to the new facility. "Before the laboratory at the Shedd Aquarium had a small room, and veterinary services would be split up in different areas," she said. "Now, we have everything in the same place. It makes it very convenient to bring animals here and do our full work-up on them."

Within the next year, the hospital will include wet and dry recovery wards: cages for turtles and other land-dwelling animals, and tanks of various sizes for patients that swim.