Shedd Aquarium rescues aquatic animals from illegal wildlife trade through confiscation efforts

ByZach Ben-Amots WLS logo
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
An Ocean on the Lake: Wildlife Confiscation at Shedd Aquarium
An Ocean on the Lake: Wildlife Confiscation at Shedd Aquarium

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Every animal living at Shedd Aquarium has a story, whether they were rehabilitated after a major injury or born as part of a conservation breeding program. Sprinkled throughout the exhibits at Shedd are aquatic animals who were confiscated and rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.

In typical confiscation cases at Shedd, local, federal, or international government agencies contact the aquarium to provide immediate medical care and to coordinate long-term placement of rescued animals. While those agencies spend years pursuing lawsuits and convictions against the criminal parties, medical staff at Shedd are focused on animal welfare.

"Caring for animals is what we do all day, every day," said Erica Hornbrook, Shedd's director of animal care and sustainability.

Confiscated animals often arrive at Shedd in poor medical condition, having dealt with neglect and cruelty during their transportation. Often, many animals have already died upon arrival.

"Sometimes we're pulling through most of what comes to our doorstep, sometimes we might pull through half," Hornbrook said. "We're always gonna try and save as many (animals) as we possibly can."

Most of the confiscations that go to Shedd are delivered by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, so that medical staff can triage and treat the animals before finding them a comfortable, permanent home. Such was the case with a confiscation of 80 Arapaima - fish that grow from a few inches as hatchlings to 10-foot adults - several years ago.

In some international cases of confiscations, Shedd staff will travel abroad to contribute to global conservation efforts. In 2018, Dr. Matt O'Connor traveled to Madagascar after 10,000 radiated tortoises were discovered malnourished and stored in a small building, waiting to be illegally sold.

Alongside local doctors in Madagascar, animal experts and other veterinarians from around the world, O'Connor helped keep the mortality rate to around 10-percent and save around 9,000 tortoises.

"It's extremely fulfilling to get to go somewhere like Madagascar, take everything that you've learned here at the aquarium," said O'Connor, "and apply that to radiated tortoises in the wild to help their populations."

'Confiscation' is episode 10 of 'An Ocean On The Lake,' the multi-part behind-the-scenes series from ABC 7 Chicago and Shedd Aquarium. This week, ABC7 delves into the work Shedd does in collaboration with local, national, and foreign governments to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Find every episode on our homepage for "An Ocean On The Lake," or watch on our ABC 7 Chicago connected TV App.