Kristen Neria, fabrication manager, makes plastic jelly from a recycled pop bottle at John G. Shedd Aquarium on Nov. 29.

Kristen Neria, fabrication manager, makes plastic jelly from a recycled pop bottle at John G. Shedd Aquarium on Nov. 29. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye / December 3, 2012)

Where a normal person might see random fabric hanging from the ceiling when going through a car wash, Shedd Aquarium staff members see the makings of a sea otter habitat. Recycled bottles become jellyfish. PVC? Twigs for penguins nest.

Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary is all in a day’s work for the four members of the Shedd’s fab shop, the place where they create the display pieces that the 2 million plus who flock to the Shedd each year will see inside the exhibits.

“We take artificial materials and make them look very real, as much as we can,” said Kristen Neria, assistant director of exhibit services at Shedd. “This job changed the way I look at everything because when I go to a hardware store, nobody can understand when I say ‘I’m looking for this but I don’t want to use it for what you think I want to use it for.’ That’s really hard to explain when I go to a store.”

“We get inspiration from wherever we go,” added Jim Komar, senior exhibit specialist at the Shedd. “The gears in our head are always turning.”

That’s how bolts of burgundy felt fabric that would normally be used to shine your ride wound up in the bowels of the Shedd, where the fab shop resides, far removed from the blubbery belugas and the glowing jellies. There, exhibit technician Stephanie Sovar painstakingly transforms the car wash material into imitation kelp creations designed to enrich the otters’ lives.

“We’ll go to different stores with our life experiences and we’ll say this stuff’s always wet and we need it tough, what’s always wet and is always getting beat up … hey, car wash,” said “It’s one of the few materials that sea otters cannot destroy. I’m sure they can tell the difference (between the imitation kelp and real kelp), it’s just they can get into trouble with this without getting injured.”

“We would not want anything that the animals could ingest or get hurt/tangled in if they can rip it up,” said Lisa Takaki, senior director of marine mammals via e-mail.

Sovar’s team works closely with animal trainers to come up with pieces that are equal parts durable and enriching. Take PVC tubing, for example, which often makes up the plumbing in human facilities. For penguins, it becomes “twigs” that the Aquarium’s penguins will turn into nests.

“We make the twigs weigh about the same, look the same so the animals are kind of fooled but in a good way,” Komar said. “It stimulates breeding behavior and it helps them to think.” “We go back and forth between designs,” Sovar said. “I need to figure out where (each piece) is going in the enclosure, what materials I can use that (the animals) will not destroy or harm themselves on, and also I have to design it to their benefit--what’s going to enhance their experience.”

Or, in one case, enhance Shedd visitors’ experiences.

One of Neria’s proudest accomplishments from her days in the fab shop is turning a bunch of old soda bottles into the jellyfish visitors see hovering overhead in the current display in the Aquarium’s long-running Jellies exhibit.

“That’s one of the things we’re really good at is just being creative and finding average household and building materials and turning them into something crazy,” she said. “Turned out that just recycled bottles, we could go get them from the recycling center, cut them up, melt them and make them into these perfect little jellies.”

The car wash felt currently in the otter exhibit was donated by a benefactor and has only been in use since the summer. Determining whether or not it would work as a permanent part of the exhibit was a matter of trial and error.

“Not only is the saltwater a tough medium, but the otters themselves can tear things apart easily,” Takaki said. “The fab shop would bring the prototype to us to test. We would move the otters off the habitat, dive in and install it, then have observations while the animals interacted with it. We would then be able to give feedback to the fab shop and they could make design changes.”

Sovar was in the process of designing a hammock and an underwater display piece for the otters when RedEye visited, pieces of paper carefully placed atop the burgundy fabric that will eventually be cut up into strips.

“The marine mammals team wanted something on the surface that they could play with so they have every possible level of interaction, and this is what I came up with,” she said. “(I was) just watching their little quirks, their little behaviors, and so I came up with a hammock idea.”

So why exactly would a sea otter need a hammock in its habitat? Sovar said it’s for the same reasons any of us would want one in ours.

“They like to roll around in the kelp in the longer strips and wrap it around themselves,” she said. “They can lay in the hammock and take the strips and bring them in and just roll around in them. They can nap on the top of it.”

“We have noticed that they like to lie inside round plastic saucers (used for sledding), and the hammock might make a nice variation of that,” Takaki added.

Designing and fabricating the pieces is no small task.

“Whenever we design a toy or enrichment piece, it takes several weeks or months to make sure the design is safe, strong, etc.,” Takaki said.

“We’re very lucky because we do this all in house with a small team. We’re able to do welding and painting and sculpting and casting and mold making, really run the gamut,” Neria said. If the pieces don’t look like anything you’d see out in the wild, Shedd officials said that’s because they’re not supposed to.

“We can’t put something that looks realistic in the tank because they would shred it in a day, they could choke on the materials,” Sovar said.

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