Behind the Scenes at the Shedd: Protecting Wildlife

Not only does a visit to Shedd Aquarium entertain and inform, it can also pull on your heartstrings.


This world-class aquarium regularly rescues and rehabilitates injured animals that no longer can survive in the wild. These animals then join the exhibits at the aquarium, for guests to learn about and enjoy them.

“Providing for the health and wellbeing of animals is what Shedd does best,” says Tim Binder, Vice President of Collections Planning. “It’s incredibly rewarding to offer lifelong homes to animals that would not survive in the wild. Each of these unique cases increases our ability to answer the next call to help an animal in need too.”

Case in point? Nickel the giant green sea turtle and Athens the red-tailed hawk.

In 2003, a marine biologist noticed a young green sea turtle struggling in Florida waters. Thin and weak, the turtle couldn’t submerge or paddle her hind feet. A deep gash ran along her carapace—or upper shell—unmistakably the mark of a boat propeller. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sent the disabled turtle to the Shedd, because of its diagnostic expertise and ability to provide long-term rehabilitation and a permanent home.

Named Nickel because of the 1975 5-cent coin that Shedd veterinarians found lodged in her esophagus, she now swims well enough to be comfortable in the all-glass Caribbean Reef next to the main Shedd entrance. As one of the few rehabilitated giant sea turtles on permanent display in the United States, Nickel has become a beloved icon, fascinating 2 million visitors each year as she moves majestically throughout the 13-foot-deep display.

Athens the red-tailed hawk was struck by a car. Other institutions could not rehabilitate the bird; his flight was a flappy flop. Athens arrived at the Shedd in 2010. Full rehabilitation required that he be grounded and undergo extensive physical therapy twice a day, while perched on a trainers left arm.  Kelly Schaaf, Manager of Sea Lions and Birds Of Prey, explains, “Athens eventually trusted us so much that we discovered new facets of his personality. He started to make little chirps and squawks.” Schaaf smiles and says, “He kind of sings to us.”

Now Athens is one of the strongest fliers in the Shedd Aquatic Show. Like Nickel, he has become an icon and a symbol of Shedd’s successful work with injured animals.

Shedd Aquarium By The Numbers:

  • #1 most-attended aquarium in the U.S.
  • 2.17 million annual visitors
  • $112.7 million in local economic impact
  • 634,238 guests entered with free general admission
  • 16 of the last 22 years as Chicago’s most-attended cultural attraction
  • 179,000 students attended free of charge
  • 16,400 tickets donated to community organizations
  • 15+ field research programs to conserve wildlife and habitats around the world
  • 29% water reduction over the past 5 years

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Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez