CHARLESTON, S.C. — With 5,500 creatures from bald eagles and river otters to sharks, stingrays and thousands of smaller sea life, the South Carolina Aquarium is giving visitors a glimpse at just how staff members care for all those critters.
The animal care exhibit that opened Saturday at the aquarium on Charleston Harbor provides a look into a real veterinary operating room, videos, interactive electronic displays and hands-on exhibits.
“We have mammals, we have fish and we have birds all of which require a lot of different types of care, “said Whit McMillan, the director of education for the nonprofit aquarium. “We wanted to give everyone an appreciation that we are really committed to caring for our animals.”
The $69 million aquarium, with permanent exhibits portraying the natural habitat of South Carolina from the mountains to the sea, opened in 2000.
The centerpiece of the new exhibit is a circular window looking into the aquarium’s new surgery room. An interactive display allows visitors to push a button and see a video on what each piece of equipment does.
The equipment, most of it donated, includes such things as an anesthesia machine, an endoscope and, unlike most veterinary hospitals, piped in salt water.
Another exhibit shows what veterinarians can discover using X-rays and microscopes and how surgery is done on a fish.
Dr. Shane Boylan is the veterinarian in charge of caring for the aquarium’s creatures.
“The animals are not willing to be good patients but they are usually very tough animals,” he said. “If you get them over the hump, they will do the rest for you.”
Since the aquarium opened, it has successfully rehabilitated and released 110 sea turtles and is currently treating 18 patients.
“The window is there to increase the guest experience. For an 8-year-old it’s a wow factor that they can see through the window,” Boylan said. But during surgery “I don’t want people banging on the glass and interrupting and if they don’t understand it, it could be a trauma for a child.”
Sometimes animals have to be euthanized “when you run out of therapeutic options and the fish’s quality of life, as we understand it, is not optimal,” Boylan said.
“The public might ask why even try, you can get another one in the ocean?” he said. “But these are our animals and we want to do the best for them.”