Essential employees are pivotal during a pandemic. From frontline health care workers to grocery store teams and truck drivers delivering goods, we honor their work and sacrifice. However, the “essential workers” at OdySea Aquarium who have been caring for its 6,000+ animals throughout the coronavirus pandemic prefer not to be labeled “essential.” Whether it is Christmas or quarantine, tending to the needs of the animals is simply what they do, all-day, every day.
“Unlike museums with static artifacts, our business involves a living collection that needs constant care and attention, even during a pandemic,” says Jessica Peranteau, Director of Animal Care and Education at OdySea Aquarium. “Our job as animal caregivers remains the same 365/24-7: ensure the safety and well-being of the animals in our care.”
OdySea Aquarium was forced to temporarily close to the public on March 21 (normally the Aquarium’s busiest time of the year) as part of the shelter-in-place order issued by Arizona’s Governor. Without guests, the venue lost its largest and most important source of income.
Necessary layoffs reduced the animal care team and changes were implemented to ensure the safety of those remaining. Staff quickly adapted new protocols, splitting themselves into two teams, Team Sunshine and Team Rainbows (upbeat monikers to foster positive outlooks), that worked on opposite days of the week and minimized physically overlapping to further reduce exposure of the virus. This safety net ensured the care of all Aquarium wildlife: if someone on one team tested positive for COVID-19, forcing that entire group into quarantine for two weeks, the other team was able to take over caring for the beloved animals.
“Our animal care team is like family. We work very closely and very well together, and care about one another far beyond the walls of our building. It was a huge blow to lose so many to furlough and then be divided further,” says Peranteau. “But those that remained were committed – and used to working holidays, weekends, evenings, and overnights. All around us schools, churches, restaurants, and businesses closed – the Aquarium too, and life changed quickly with new rules of engagement – but the needs of the animals did not change, and neither did our commitment to their world-class care.”
Though enhanced safety procedures were implemented to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, the animal care specialists were no strangers to high sanitary and safety precautions.
“When you work around animals, you are constantly cleaning up after them and providing clean habitats. Washing our hands often and sanitizing work areas and high touch points is nothing new in this industry,” Peranteau says. “We were already very well poised to handle the increased cleaning measures because of the nature of our jobs. But we have added wearing masks and are practicing social distancing between team members whenever we can now.”
While closed, the OdySea Aquarium animal care teams maintained the animals’ normal schedules with feeding, playtime, and enrichment. Directors like Peranteau pitched-in with their teams to execute daily duties and admitted they welcomed the opportunity to get back to their “roots” in direct animal care. Working with the “one team – one dream” mantra, albeit on different days or within six feet of one another, everyone went the extra mile. Even OdySea Aquarium’s Executive Staff and General Manager chipped-in, diving the exhibits to deep clean and lessen the workload. Animal care teams also became critical contributors to the OdySea Aquarium marketing team while quarantined. Since they were the only ones permitted inside the building, these multi-taskers provided the images and videos used on social media and for distance learning content. Several team members turned into regulars on local news broadcasts via video interviews from inside the Aquarium and shined during weekly Facebook LIVE sessions, showing off their animals and assuring fans that all was well with their feathered, furry, or finned friends.
All this dedication and effort kept OdySea Aquarium on the public’s radar while the animals were none the wiser to any chaos happening outside their OdySea Aquarium bubble. Though oblivious to the pandemic, all was not lost on the animals; changes in their caregiver teams and the abrupt absence of guests did not go unnoticed by certain species.
“Thanks to years of relationship building, we have incredibly strong bonds with our animals. Beyond interacting with our team, many of our animals’ daily routines include spending time interacting with our guests too,” explains Peranteau. “With the forced closure of OdySea Aquarium, we’d be remiss to say that some animals weren’t missing the visitors. We kept this in mind as we made very concerted efforts to spend dedicated time with the animals that are used to a high amount of human interaction.”
Lunch dates with tropical birds and “field trips” around the Aquarium with penguins and sloths became common occurrences for the animal care specialists, filling the void for missing visitors.
“Likening this to parents with kids during these COVID times, you want to provide them with as much normalcy as possible,” says Peranteau. “We, too, want to keep the animals’ schedules as consistent as we can, giving them everything we did pre-pandemic, so they continue to thrive like you would want your children to do.”
On May 21, exactly two months to the date of closing, OdySea Aquarium reopened under new health guidelines and precautions, with enhanced cleaning procedures to ensure the safety of its visitors and to align with the continued safety of the team members and animals.
“OdySea Aquarium has always been about engagement,” explains Greg Charbeneau, Vice President and General Manager of OdySea Aquarium. “Our biggest challenge since reopening has been welcoming back guests at limited distances – all in the name of safety. We miss sharing our animals to a crowd of visitors, bestowing our knowledge and passion in that setting. However, like many businesses, we have been resourceful and found ways to deliver that engagement such as speaking to guests at proper distances from elevated lifeguard chairs and purchasing new microphones to handle Q & A sessions with our visitors from behind the exhibit windows.”
The pandemic has changed how OdySea Aquarium operates but caring for the animals never waivers. The team is proud that the animals are thriving through this time and despite the necessary modifications, OdySea Aquarium still delivers on the guest experience.
“The exhibits remain amazing, educational, and fun. The ideas, the modifications, and the hard work has paid off as a visit to OdySea Aquarium remains a wonderful, memorable, quality experience,” Charbeneau says. “We want our visitors to understand that our commitment to the animals’ and everyone’s safety is also a commitment to the community. Safety is a partnership, and we want to be around for a long time.”