Love of animals motivates aquarium intern

January 18, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

Dr. Doolittle may have thought it grand to talk to the animals, but Western Maryland College biology major Martha Shaver thinks it's equally stimulating to watch them.

As a mammalogy intern at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, she has ample opportunity to do just that.

"Animals have always been something of a fascination with me," said Ms. Shaver, 21, whose month-long internship with the Aquarium ends Jan. 29. "I just watch them to see their different personalities, traits, behaviors."

Ms. Shaver said that as a child in Clinton, Prince George's County, she loved to go to zoos and observe the animals, often finding that they had different attitudes and habits.

"I like to watch the behavior of animals to see how to communicate on their level," said Ms. Shaver, who will graduate in May. "Through observation you can tell what kind of attitudes they have, and how you should respond around them."

Two of Ms. Shaver's sisters, as well as her father, went into science-related fields.

"One of my sisters is a geneticist and the another is an imaging technician," Ms. Shaver said. "My father is a retired medical doctor."

Ms. Shaver fostered her love of animals by studying them in school and taking internships, such as last summer's work with the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary.

"I want to do something with animals as a career, I just don't know what kind," Ms. Shaver said of her experiences. "I spent three months working at the Wildlife Sanctuary taking care of small mammals, like rabbits and possums. I guess dolphins and seals are the other side of the spectrum."

Ms. Shaver helps prepare food for the 10 seals and nine dolphins in the Aquarium's mammalogy department and helps maintain and clean the animals' living areas.

As one of the 10 or so people who care for the seals and dolphins every day, Ms. Shaver said understanding the animals' habits and fears is very important.

"While I have never seen any of these animals react negatively to people, there are certain body signals they'll send out when they are not comfortable, like just swimming away from you," Ms. Shaver said.

The dolphins definitely seem to like human companionship, and follow trainers and feeders as they walk along the edge of the 24-foot-deep tank, she said.

"They come alongside of you like they want to figure out what you're up to," Ms. Shaver said. "They like to know what's going on."

And something always seems to be going on.

From the moment she arrives to work at 8 a.m., she is on call to do much of the footwork involved with caring for the animals, which includes measuring the proper amount of the herring, squid, capelin and smelt fish mixture the dolphins and seals are fed twice a day.

Each dolphin and seal is given food from a bucket marked with its name, which Ms. Shaver must be sure to fill with the correct portion for its particular diet.

"Thank goodness I don't have to remember the amounts," said Ms. Shaver of the portions allotted to each animal. "There is a schedule and chart already prepared."

And then there's no guarantee they'll actually eat it.

She discovered this while taking part in the feeding demonstration the Aquarium gives for spectators viewing the seals in front of the marine mammal pavilion.

Ike, a large, male gray seal -- who very likely could have eaten all his food plus portions of the other seals' grub -- positioned himself on a rock in the front of the exhibit, where he stayed despite Ms. Shaver's valiant efforts to attract him to his feeding rock.

"Come on, Ike," Ms. Shaver called to the animal as he raised his head, pulled a flipper across his face and yawned in reply.

While Ike could have been moody because he is shedding, Ms. Shaver said, there could be a much simpler reason for his lack of appetite.

"Sometimes, they just don't feel like eating," Ms. Shaver said. "Hey, it's the same with people."

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