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Stingrays easy to handle in Shedd Aquarium’s new exhibit

‘Stingray
Touch’

♦ Through October (end date is weather-dependent)

♦ Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

♦ (312) 939-2438;
sheddaquarium.org

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:42AM



In her 24 years as a Shedd Aquarium member, Joan Reylek only once touched a Shedd animal, during an errant encounter with a sea otter.

That changed recently for Shedd members — and on May 17 for all guests — with “Stingray Touch,” the newest seasonal aquarium exhibit that allows visitors to plunge their hands into a warm saltwater pool to experience the scratchy and silky feel of a stingray.

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Reyleck, 56, from Chicago’s Bridgeport community. “I think you appreciate the rays a lot more when you can touch them.”

“Stingray Touch” features nearly 50 cownose and yellow stingrays, silently swimming through 18,000 gallons of salt water in a pool atop the Shedd’s “Wild Reef” exhibit.

It’s a light-filled slice of nature in Chicago, an exhibit in an airy tent surrounded by carefully manicured gardens where water-colored flowers are beginning to bloom and other plants are grown as food for select Shedd animals.

Visitors entering the exhibit must scrub up like soapless surgeons, washing their hands and forearms with water only (stingrays don’t like soap).

Consider taking off watches, jewelry or anything else you don’t want submerged in salt water. Then lean into the water, heated between 78 and 80 degrees, as the stingray group swims laps around the pool’s edge.

“They’re very well-known to be very curious and gentle and graceful,” said Bill Van Bonn, Shedd’s vice president of animal health. “It’s a really cool way to see the animal.”

Safety for both visitors and the animals is paramount.

Two guides sit on lifeguard chairs, speaking about the animals and watching visitors to make sure they don’t toss food or their entire bodies into the exhibit.

Despite the bad press stingrays got after Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin was killed by a stingray barb piercing his chest, the animals are trained to interact with humans.

“They use (their barb) as a defensive mechanism in the wild if they were to be attacked by other animals,” Van Bonn said. “It’s very unusual for people to be injured. These guys have been acclimated to being here at the aquarium. They’ve been hand-fed and appear to be excited to see people.”

It would be hard to get one’s hand on the barb — stingrays swim fast — but even if one did, Shedd staff regularly trim the stingers with dog nail clippers.

The animals, from Florida, started their acclimation to human touch when aquarium staff dropped an empty wet suit into the pool.

Once the stingrays were used to that, a human wearing a wet suit jumped into the tank, followed by hand-feeding, aquarium collections manager Michelle Sattler said.

In the wild, stingrays swim in giant groups. Here, they also like to stick together.

While there are other ways to personally meet the animals at the Shedd, like the beluga encounter, “Stingray Touch” is by far the most affordable.

It is included in the Total Experience Pass ($37.95 for adults, $28.95 for ages 3-11) or as a $5 add-on to the Shedd Pass ($28.95 per adult, $19.95 for ages 3-11).

“It’s a treat and a privilege to be able to meet them up close,” Van Bonn said. “Be nice, be kind, be gentle and enjoy them.”



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