Shedd Aquarium: Ellie

Ellie, a southern sea otter pup, was found on a beach in Carmel, California. Monterey Bay Aquarium staffers rescued her and sent her to Shedd for rehabilitation. (Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium.)

Once nameless and homeless, a southern sea otter pup is now a permanent resident at John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

In January, the 10-week-old pup was found alone on Carmel Beach in Carmel, California. Staff at nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium tried but were unable to find her mother. Monterey Bay rescued the pup, then called Shedd for assistance. The pup traveled to Chicago from California and landed in the care of the aquarium’s animal care staff. They gave her a name: Pup 719.

Pup 719 responded well to the staff’s care, transforming from weak foundling into a strapping, 15-pound sea-otter toddler. Because the pup is a marine mammal, she couldn’t be returned to the wild, so Shedd became her forever home. Shedd then launched a contest to give her a real name. The winner: Ellie. She joins a big family: Shedd houses 32,000 animals, representing more than 1,500 species, in its vast lakefront facility.

Ellie’s rescue and rehabilitation “was truly a team effort, and a testament to both organizations’ commitment to the rescue and rehabilitation of animals,” says Tim Binder, executive vice president of animal care for Shedd. Southern sea otters, an endangered species, are a “keystone species,” Binder says, meaning they play a crucial role in the health of their ecosystems. “Their threatened population needs immediate attention from animal care experts and conservation scientists alike,” Binder says.

Shedd, along with other members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, does more than its fair share to rescue, rehabilitate and, when possible, return marine animals to their natural environment. When that’s not possible, Shedd gives them a home. Over the past two decades, Shedd has provided a forever home for 40 animals, including sharks, fish, sea otters, sea turtles, sea lions, and even a few dogs.

That’s in addition to the hundreds of animals Shedd has aided around the world, by sending response teams to critical locations and helping staff at other aquariums. A sampling of Shedd’s global rescue efforts: Sea turtles “cold stunned” by a sudden drop in water temperature on the United States’ East and West coasts; African penguin chicks abandoned during “stranding season” in January; sea turtle nest relocation and egg emergence in Mexico; sea lion pupping in California; and sea otter pupping in Alaska.

Given Chicago’s status as a world port, Shedd is also often the first call customs agents make when they seize endangered corals, fish and sea turtles.

Who stays at Shedd, and who returns to the wild? It all depends. Marine mammals, such as sea lions and otters, stay, as the U.S. Government has deemed them non-releasable. Coral and fish confiscated by U.S. Customs agents might stay at Shedd, or end up at other AZA institutions.

Shedd’s rescue mission includes happy stories, such as Ellie’s, as well as bittersweet ones. There’s Cruz, the aquarium’s sea lion, who was shot in the face by a human. Bullet fragments in his skull have rendered him blind for life. Shedd staff spent a year devising new ways of training Cruz to enable him to live a rich, full life even while sightless.

In another rescue mission, Shedd specialists confiscated more than 100 arapaima, the world’s largest freshwater fish, from an illegal wildlife trafficking ring. Despite valiant efforts, more than half of the fish did not survive. Those that did are now undergoing rehabilitation; some will stay at Shedd and others will travel to accredited aquariums for their forever homes.

Shedd’s rescue mission resonates with Bridget Coughlin, who this spring became the aquarium’s fourth president and CEO, and the first woman to hold the job. “It’s a constant need we have here at Shedd,” says Coughlin, who grew up on a hobby farm between Denver and Colorado Springs. “My parents were constantly acquiring different animals,” she says. “We rescued two sheep, so we had lambs.”

For the 2 million people who visit Shedd each year, seeing animals like Ellie fosters an understanding of how human activity and natural events affect animal life. “Even slight weather patterns, an El Niño or El Niña cycle, overpopulation or underpopulation, human encroachment on natural habitats — the list is long and really specific,” Coughlin explains. “It really links the human-nature connection,” she says.

As for Ellie, “she is as loveable as her pictures,” Coughlin says.

Coughlin, whose first day at Shedd was April 11, deems her work “better than a kid in a candy store.” There’s a big treat on the horizon for her — her first Shedd gala. The June 11 fundraiser is titled “Dark Waters: Explore the Mysteries of the Deep.”

The event includes cocktails on Shedd’s outdoor terraces; a look at its special exhibit, Amphibians; a show in the Abbott Oceanarium; and dinner in Shedd’s historic galleries. Proceeds from the event will fund Shedd’s animal rescue and rehabilitation efforts, as well as other programs at the aquarium.

“It’s such a nice blend of raising needed money for our mission, and a great way to use our facility in a different way,” Coughlin says.

Read the Better Makers: Chicago Children’s Choir Surprises Shedd Aquarium’s Dark Waters Gala Guests.

More from Make It Better: