The surprise isn't that the Shedd Aquarium now has an exhibit where visitors can touch stingrays as they glide by, but rather that the most popular aquarium in the U.S. hasn't had one before now.
Usually called something like Stingray Bay or Stingray Cove, such exhibits have been popular at zoos and aquariums around the country for at least the past decade. Just a dozen or so miles to the west, Brookfield Zoo has had one since 2007.
But being late to the petting party doesn't diminish the potential impact of Shedd's warm-weather exhibit, named, bluntly, Stingray Touch.
"Hey, guess what? I just touched a stingray as it went by," reported an excited Rainier Hughes, who'll soon turn 3. "It was kind of squishy and soft."
Rainier, of Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, was on hand with parents Kym and Jim Hughes at a members-only preview Monday morning. The exhibit opens to the public Friday.
Nearby, Shedd's aquarium collections manager Michelle Sattler fed the rays chunks of squid from a container that once held tiramisu gelato.
The best description she's heard for the texture of the animals — active, sociable cownose rays and shyer yellow rays — came from a colleague, Sattler said: "Like a hard-boiled egg."
"Kind of slimy, like slimy sandpaper," said Katie Franseen, 28, visiting with her two sisters and the Chicago kids for whom she's a nanny.
"Like a mucus covering over them," said Larry Reylek, 62, of Bridgeport, a Shedd member who was wearing a Brookfield Zoo sweatshirt and described Stingray Touch as "almost a carbon copy" of the suburban zoo's exhibit.
The cownose rays flap smoothly through the water, looking like purposeful leaves or flattened bats or steampunk airplanes, half modern and half ancient. As they grow accustomed to the tank and to people, veteran stingray exhibit attendees said, they will become bolder about approaching the extended hands.
"At Sea World, they're so used to people, they almost devour you," Reylek said, meaning with attention rather than actual carnivorous intent.
The exhibit, located under a rigid tent with open walls on the aquarium's south terrace, brings novelty to the Shedd and potential relief from some of the crowds inside the building.
It also is a response to customers, who have consistently ranked getting to touch animals high on their wish lists, said a spokeswoman. The Shedd has a tidal pool exhibit that allows visitors to reach in and feel such animals as starfish.
In keeping with the Shedd's mission, Stingray Touch's "very intimate connection," Sattler said, should inspire people to "make a difference" for the rays and other creatures. It may also inspire the purchase of Stingray Touch tumblers, coffee mugs and — go figure — shot glasses at the new, outdoor souvenir stand.
Whatever the exhibit's impact on wildlife or the wallet, it's kind of a wondrous thing, after rinsing off at the exhibit entrance, to just plunge your hand into the 30-inch-deep pool and stroke these wild animals.
It's even more wondrous if you recall that TV animal handler Steve Irwin died in September 2006 after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb. That was in the wild, though, and Irwin made a career out of courting animal danger.
The Shedd's stingrays, which will number about 40 in the tank at a time, are regularly debarbed, a process compared with trimming a fingernail.
"In fact, we use a dog's toenail clippers to do it," said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, Shedd's vice president of animal health.
Staff will be monitoring the health of the rays, he said. In 2008, Brookfield lost 19 of the animals in its exhibit when a power-supply glitch started a boiler but failed to restart a cooling device, leading to a 10-degree temperature spike in the animals' tank.
The rise to 90 degrees suffocated most, but not all, of the rays in the tank. Fourteen rays, eight sharks and three horseshoe crabs survived, and Brookfield reopened the exhibit, located just east of the central fountain, after two weeks.
The Shedd's exhibit is rays only, an 80-by-22-foot tank with a guitar's curvy lines, a waterfall at one end and low, wide masonry walls. The tank holds 20,000 gallons of salt water and a thin covering of sand on the bottom.
Although not in swimsuits, staffers perch on lifeguard chairs at either end of the tank to keep an eye on the human-animal interactions. "Keep your hand parallel" to the tank bottom, a lifeguard advised, "for a successful touch experience."
Appropriate touch is important. You are not supposed to press on the stingrays or grab their tails. But if you stick your hand in the middle of a school of them swimming by, you'll likely be rewarded with a snout bump, a stroke of the winglike flaps and a chance to come up with your own description of what these extraordinary animals feel like. The answer is not "chicken."
When: Friday through fall, as the weather permits
Where: Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: $5 add-on to Shedd Pass ($28.95 adults) or included in Total Experience Pass ($37.95); 312-939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org
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