As one of the nation’s first zoos dedicated to marine life — and a longtime leader in the rescue and rehabilitation of manatees, sea turtles and other animals — Miami Seaquarium is a storied place where learning and conservation have taken center stage throughout its 66 years of operations.
We, along with other modern zoos and aquariums, know our role is changing as the world’s views on animals in human care evolves. Science regarding their treatment and the increasingly sophisticated care they receive continues to grow in step with the public’s expectations. We work hard to provide an environment where visitors can learn and enjoy animal encounters in a responsible way. Many, including this paper, have posed ways for us to improve how we operate and share information about our animals.
We are improving and will continue to do so.
When I took the role of attending veterinarian at Miami Seaquarium this year, I identified several areas where we could enhance the level of care the animals receive, including cross-department communication and preventive care. With support from expert veterinarian consultant, Dr. Tom Reidarson, we are acting to improve the lives of Miami Seaquarium’s animals every single day.
While our clinical skills as veterinarians are important, our ability to communicate clearly and openly is equally crucial. Teamwork creates the most informed understanding of each animal, and enables us to develop the optimal care plan. I share my recommendations and the reasons behind them, and listen to the animal care staff. In some cases, they spend more time with the animals than their own families, and their knowledge is incredibly valuable. As the attending veterinarian, it is my goal to instill a welcoming, open communication style regarding animal care. In turn, I have received a positive response from the entire team, including the curators, training staff and animal-care specialists.
Leveraging our collective teams’ expertise, we have enhanced preventive care. For instance, we are incorporating practices such as full body ultrasounds into routine care. Armed with this information, and continuing to obtain voluntary blood, fecal, gastric, respiratory and urine samples, we can review each animal’s health status and body condition, working directly with training staff to create the best possible care plan for each animal.
For example, we find Lolita’s blubber body index (BBI) through ultrasound exams, giving us an objective way to assess her body condition. Her current BBI shows she is in good physical condition. Her bloodwork and body condition indicate better health when she consumes a smaller base weight of fish, averaging about 135 pounds. Fish organs and gastrointestinal contents — the “guts” — have been added into Lolita’s diet, as these contain many important nutrients.
Lolita is in good health, especially considering her advanced age. Dr. Reidarson calls her one of the healthiest geriatric orcas he has ever observed.
As the lead veterinarian, it’s my job to ensure one thing above all: that our animals remain at the center of all we do at Miami Seaquarium. From the design of our educational presentations, to the way our teams collaborate on care, to how we share what we learn — it’s all conditional and centered around each individual animal’s behaviors and personalities. While our veterinarian team often leads this work, it must be informed and tailored with behavioralists, specialists and operators to help us do what’s best for the animals.
Updates are well under way at the Seaquarium including enhanced habitats, new water filtration systems and fortified structural elements to ensure animal welfare and inspire conservation-minded behavior in our guests. Our team members love these animals.They have spent their careers caring for these unique and wonderful creatures. They display a level of commitment that works through tropical storms, hurricanes — and even a global pandemic — to make sure the animals of Miami Seaquarium receive the care they need.
Staying ahead of expectation — to bring the best of what we know to the care of our animals — is motivated, in part, by the passion we bring to our work. We will focus every single day on improving and enhancing the quality of our care. We commit to always trying to do better, to learn and share more and be accountable about the work we do.
Shelby Loos, DVM, is attending veterinarian at Miami Seaquarium.