CHARLESTON — With 5,500 creatures from bald eagles and river otters to sharks, stingrays and thousands of smaller sea animals, the South Carolina Aquarium is giving visitors a glimpse at just how staff members care for all those critters.
The animal-care exhibit that opens Saturday at the aquarium on Charleston Harbor provides a look into a real veterinary operating room as well as 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, 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 large 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 items as an anesthesia machine, an endoscope and, unlike most veterinary hospitals, piped-in saltwater.
Nearby, another exhibit shows what veterinarians can discover using X-rays and microscopes and how surgery is done on a fish. The wall around the window shows X-rays of various creatures from the aquarium collection, including a turtle with a fish hook caught in its throat.
McMillian said a number of zoos and other aquariums have similar animal-care exhibits.
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. Wildlife do their best to survive so we really just need to keep the infection at bay long enough for them to come back.”
Since the aquarium opened, it has successfully rehabilitated and released 110 sea turtles and currently is treating 18 patients.
While the public can get a glimpse of the surgical suite, there will be a curtain over the window during surgery. The procedures will be recorded and edited and later used as part of the interactive exhibits outside.
“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.”