I’ve taken all the classes, so I know about the biology and stuff. But actually taking care of the animals is a whole other ball game. —Megan Taylor
SANDY — It may not be as glamorous as dolphin training, but an internship at the Living Planet Aquarium is just as rewarding, educational and exciting to those seeking aquatic-based careers.
Certainly more meets the eye than what the public sees in the aquarium’s tanks and exhibits. Volunteering their time for work experience and education, animal husbandry interns have backstage access with duties vital to the aquarium.
It’s up to them to ensure the animals not only stay healthy, but also happy. That means doing everything from scrubbing tanks, to hand feeding octopuses, to entertaining electric eels.
Four college-aged interns — Megan Taylor, Tiera McAdams, Alison Williams and Cami McKellar — shared their experiences working in animal husbandry at the Living Planet Aquarium, 725 E. 10600 South. They all have their own stories, their own favorite animals, and their own reasons for devoting their summer to the care of the aquarium’s aquatic creatures.
However, they all have one thing in common: They say the education and experiences their internships provide are invaluable and perfectly fit to help them achieve their dream careers.
Whether an aspiring student has an interest in marine biology, oceanography, zoology or biology in general, an animal husbandry internship grants hands-on experience vital for a career in such fields, McKellar said.
“In school you’re sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor talk, and you’ll have some fun labs and stuff, but this is like nothing I’ve ever done before,” she said. “This is like a lab all the time — and a fun one at that.”
Taylor said it would be impossible to learn what she’s learning now at the aquarium from books or lectures.
“I’ve taken all the classes, so I know about the biology and stuff. But actually taking care of the animals is a whole other ball game,” she said.
Interning at the aquarium takes a lot of hard work that can sometimes be messy, including jobs like cutting up frozen squid for the animals to eat, or even cleaning up after cockroaches. But it all pays off.
“It’s definitely a rewarding experience,” Williams said. “All the hard work you put in, like cleaning and prepping food and everything, is definitely worth the time you get to spend with the animals. Plus, it’s cool to see behind the scenes to see how everything works and operates, and you’re always around animals. That’s hard to turn down, really.”
McAdams said the fellow interns and aquarium employees also make the Living Planet Aquarium an enjoyable place to work.
“You can tell all the people that are here really care about the animals, and that’s my mindset, too, so it’s nice to be surrounded by people like that,” she said. “Everyone’s doing the thing they love so it’s not as hectic or crazy. Even if you’re in a bad mood, you’re doing something you love, so that makes it better.”
In addition to her animal husbandry duties, McAdams also works as an educational aquarium presenter by sharing fun animal facts with the public.
"I love being out there because I get to share it with the kids, and sometimes their faces just light up when you tell them something crazy,” she said, such as octopuses having a reputation of escaping their tanks, and that they can fit through holes as small as a quarter.
McAdams also said her opportunities at the aquarium are doubly rewarding, because she spreads her knowledge to people who might otherwise never get the opportunity to see aquatic life, while also giving her oceanic experience that wouldn’t be otherwise be possible living in a place nowhere near an ocean.
“I get to teach people to conserve, especially in places like Utah where they can’t look at the ocean and see for themselves, so it’s rewarding in the sense that I love it and it’s going to help the future and educate,” she said. “Also, we don’t have an ocean or a shore or anything like that that’s close by, so this is definitely a gateway to learning what I’m going to do in the future by still living in Utah.”
All the interns said the most exciting part of their work is being able to feed the animals up close and personal. Taylor said it’s also fun to “enrich” the animals’ lives by giving them toys or interacting with them to keep them from getting too bored. They’re there to keep the public amused, so someone has to return the favor.
“That’s when their personalities come out,” Taylor said. “Some of them are really smart — you’d be surprised — like the puffer fish. If you don’t feed him fast enough, he spits at you and gets really mad.”
McKellar said her favorite animal is an octopus named Rufus. In order to entertain him, she once fed him with her bare hands, and she got to feel his suction cups on her hands as he took his meal. Rufus also tends to have a very lively personality, she said.
“Sometimes you walk past the tank and he’ll perk up and it’s like he’s looking at you and he knows you,” McKellar said.
Additionally, she said she really enjoyed entertaining the electric eel. Since he seems to appreciate the time to play, she sometimes moves his food around with her feeding stick to let him chase after it as if he were chasing his tail.
McAdams said she loves to feed the sharks. To do this, she leans over the tank with a piece of squid clenched in the jaws of her feeding stick until a shark snatches the snack.
Taylor said she enjoys feeding the stingrays, which are also in the shark tank. As she leans over the tank to toss the food, numerous stingrays bob up and down at the edge and reach for the food. She doesn’t go a day without getting splashed, she said.
Her favorite animal is a stingray named Mellow because of his gentle disposition.
“We call him Mellow because he’s super sweet and the other ones are always fighting and they get me really wet,” Taylor said. “But Mellow is always like, ‘I’ll just eat it if you give it to me.’”
Williams said she especially enjoys feeding the penguins and seeing all their different personalities.
“They’re so cute, how could I not like it?” she said.
Apart from having an interest in biology, McKellar said she would recommend an internship like hers to aspiring students only if they are not squeamish and are at ease with interacting with animals.
“Things will smell bad, and things will have strange textures,” she said. “It also helps to be comfortable around animals. You can’t do a lot of things if you’re constantly flinching away from them.”
McKellar, Taylor and McAdams said after seeing what it’s like to work behind the scenes of an aquarium, they’d be perfectly content to have a career in animal husbandry.
“I would be so happy if this was my career,” McKellar said. “I know I have a lot of schooling I need to go through to learn a lot more, but I’m just happy that I am learning things that I’m actually excited about.”
Those interested in applying for an internship at the Living Planet Aquarium can go to its website for more information about available positions.