From Primitive Tanks to the Oceanarium: A Conversation with Bill Braker, Retired Director of the Sh

Over the course of his long career, Bill Braker transformed the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago from a small aquarium into the largest in the nation at the time of his retirement. He was also one of the original incorporators of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (then the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums) when it became independent from the National Recreation and Parks Association in 1971. Braker served as President of AZA and was an influential leader in the profession for decades. Here is his story.

@ Mark Rosenthal

A native to Chicago, Braker became familiar with the aquarium at a young age. “The Shedd Aquarium was one of the places I went as a little boy,” he remembered. “While studying at Northwestern, I became acquainted with Mr. Brunsdal, the associate director [of the aquarium.]” Once Braker graduated, he came back to visit the aquarium in hopes of finding work. “I went back to see if there were any jobs available,” Braker recalled. “That was in 1950. Mr. Brunsdal was not sure if there were any openings. At that point, the director, Walter Chute, came back from lunch and he suggested I talk to him, which I did. He said they needed someone to go on a collecting trip to Key West and asked if I was interested in it. I said absolutely- it sounded very good.” Braker went down to Key West with the staff of the Shedd Aquarium to catch fish for the aquarium. “I stayed on through the summer,” he added. “I was married in September and shorty after that I was drafted into the army.”

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While serving in the Korean War, Chute wrote Braker asking him if he would want to come back to the aquarium. “They wanted someone to train to take over as director at some point,” he recalled. “This sounded very promising.” Braker came back to the aquarium as assistant curator and would be promoted to director in 1964, a position he would keep for 29 years.

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When Braker took over as director of the Shedd Aquarium, it was a dramatically different institution from the world-class facility it is today. “The aquarium was rather primitive,” he reflected. “During the World War, the aquarium was not considered a priority and could not get the materials for any repairs. Of course, money was a problem also. Glass fronts had broken out because saltwater went into the reinforcing rods and gotten into the cement.” Braker believed it was not until 1955 the aquarium finally was about to get enough money to get the materials it needed to do repairs and improvements. “They did a big repair situation mostly on the saltwater side,” he added. “They kept working on it and eventually the tanks were all repaired.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

Once the repairs were finished, the Shedd Aquarium’s staff began modernizing its exhibits. “Half of the aquarium was freshwater fish while the other half was saltwater fish,” Braker remembered. “There were no marine mammals at all. What we did was try not to put all fish of the same species in one tank but, to be a more interesting display, have two, three, four species in one tank that live together in nature. That would be more interesting and educational to our visitors.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

The Shedd Aquarium’s exhibits became not only better for the animals but also more educational. “We started an exhibits department that would accompany the live animals and have more information about where these animals lived in nature,” Braker continued. “This brought us to the point where our visitors became a lot more interested in what the aquarium was showing. It wasn’t just a gold fish bowl anymore.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

A major milestone in this trajectory was the opening of Caribbean Reef in 1970, a circular 90,000-gallon tank in the middle of the Shedd Aquarium’s first floor. “We had not done [those kinds of] mixed species, large tanks before,” Braker articulated. “One of the first things we did was I went with several of the trustees throughout the country and visited other major aquariums like San Francisco (Steinhart Aquarium), Vancouver and Marineland in California. We thought this was one great project we could develop right her in Chicago. At that spot, there had just been a sunken pool with a glass railing around it. It wasn’t very interesting so we tore it out and build the reef exhibit here. The board of trustees was rather hesitant to go ahead with it [as] they thought it might not be a success. [Fortunately] they did go ahead with it and raised the money.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

“That was our first attempt to show a natural habitat for these fish,” Braker continued. “It turned out to be a very, very successful exhibit. It has been redone three times now but is still very successful. People stand there and watch all the fish. We have divers go into the tank and talk to people through the underwater glass.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

The aquarium also needed a more professional staff. “You have to remember when I joined the aquarium in 1950 there were only 40 employees,” Braker remarked. “I was the only person there that was a college graduate. It was very difficult to hire anybody; the reputation of the aquarium wasn’t very good because of all the problems they had with the cracked glass [and other things.] Eventually, as we went ahead, we got more professional people to come in and work [for us.] Little by little, people began to hear about the improvements being made and it was easier to hire people with some college education. The aquarium started to become well known and people wanted to have a career there.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

Braker began to become heavily involved in AZA (then AAZPA) to learn about best practices. “I would go to those meetings, talk to comrades there and get [information on] how you take care of these species,” he reflected. “I learned an awful lot about the proper care, feeding and so forth of these animals.” However, Braker acknowledged a lot of what the aquarium learned came from trial and error. “We learned through trial and error what they should be fed and how they were eating it,” he elaborated. “When I first started there, most of the food given to the fish was pretty primitive. It was [things] like horse heart and cut up small freshwater fish and did not really nourish the fish the way it should. Little by little we found what was more suitable for each species. We began feeding specimens plant food when they needed it and we hired people who had experience curating these various species.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

Braker cited the creation of the education department as crucial to the aquarium’s growth and success. “We never had an education department so we worked with an architect on the board of trustees to design an education facility,” Braker stated. “A lot of [our conservation and research work] came after we got our education department established and brought in people who had this experience.” He also mentioned sending staff to AZA meetings as vital to the aquarium growing.

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By the time Braker had been director of the Shedd Aquarium for a decade, he felt it began to be regarded as a first-class institution. “We were doing pretty well and bringing the Shedd Aquarium into the 20th century,” he commented. Over the next two decades, the aquarium would continue to modernize and reach new heights. “I was able to convince the board we should have a collecting vessel of our own,” Braker said. “Before we would just pull all of our collecting gear onto a wooden thing in the Bahamas and anchor it there. We would have to wait for two weeks until the boat could take us back to Miami. That experience of being out there on our own taught our collecting crew an awful lot about the natural history of these fish and other marine mammals, where they live, what they eat and how they react to other specimens. When you go into the wild yourself, you pick up an awful lot of information and education you don’t get just sitting in the aquarium watching animals.”

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Braker acknowledged it took a long time for the Shedd Aquarium to become significantly involved in conservation. “We had a board of trustees that wanted to see the aquarium develop as an institution with a very, very good display capacity,” he explained. “For the aquarium to spend their resources on conservation projects was a little bit of a difficult thing to do. Today, the board of the aquarium is very, very interested in conservation and supports the staff all the way on their ideas for conservation.”

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In 1971, Braker was on the Board of Directors of the AZA when it was established as an independent organization from the NRPA. Two years later, Braker was appointed president of AZA for a one year term. During his presidency, Braker approved retaining legal council to represent the interests of AZA in federal proposals concerning the Endangered Species Act and the Injurious Wildlife Act. This marked the first time AZA took legal action to protect its professional interests. Additionally, throughout his career, Braker served two terms on AZA’s Board of Directors and served on the Accreditation Commission, Ethics Board and faculty of AZA management school.

@ Shedd Aquarium

Braker’s longtime brainchild was a major expansion of the Shedd Aquarium that would be a massive recreation of the Pacific Northwest with marine mammals. It would become known as the Oceanarium. “The Oceanarium just about doubled the size of exhibit space [we had] and brought dolphins and beluga whales into the aquarium,” Braker articulated. “The biggest pool there is two million gallons.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

As visionary as it was, it took great difficulty for Braker to convince the aquarium’s board to support the project. “That was rather difficult for the board to wholeheartedly approve and develop,” he remembered. “They were afraid they would not raise the money and the aquarium would have a black eye. We convinced them this was where we had to go, that this was the future. That’s how that particular addition to the aquarium went ahead and it’s been a very, very successful addition.” The $43-million Oceanarium opened in 1991 after decades of planning.

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

Considerable effort was taken in the design and construction of Oceanarium to make it the best facility for marine mammals possible. “I had spent a lot of time visiting other oceanariums and took the best parts from each one,” Braker remarked. “I talked to people about what they would do differently and what they would do over again. We tried to duplicate natural areas as well as we could and hired some people that had experience with duplicating rockwork. We tried to make it as large as we could.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

Originally, the superstars of the Oceanarium were going to be killer whales. “Originally we thought about putting in orcas but it got more difficult to get permits to bring in orcas,” Braker remarked. “We backed off from that and decided to just stay with white-sided dolphins and belugas. The Shedd Aquarium was probably the last institution that received a permit from the Canadian government to collect belugas.” The beluga pod today is one of the largest in human care and has had great breeding success.

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

Another new species to the Shedd Aquarium with the opening of the Oceanarium was sea otters. “We were very fortunate to get sea otters,” Braker recalled. “When there was that oil spill in Alaska, there were a lot of sea otters being rescued that could not be put back in the area they were taken from since there was still oil around. Fish and Wildlife asked us if we would take some of the rescued animals to Shedd Aquarium. Even now, when there is a rescued sea otter they will call us and ask us if we can take it.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

Opening an expansion of the size of the Oceanarium also requires bringing in people with marine mammal experience. “With the Oceanarium, we encouraged some animal care staff to come work for us by offering them a good position,” Braker stated. “We were in contact with people from other aquariums who we’d ask if they wanted to come to this grand new place in Chicago with a little better salary. Over the years you get to meet a lot of people who have experience so you go back to them and say this is what we’re going to do, are you interested in coming. Some of the people we hired had been on our original collecting crew- they knew how to handle the animals and how to feed them.”

@ Shedd Aquarium

@ Shedd Aquarium

The Oceanarium opened to great fanfare in 1991 and represented the pinnacle of the Shedd Aquarium’s growth. Bill Braker retired in 1993 after 43 years with the aquarium and having brought great change. “When I retired, I felt I had done as much as I could do there,” he reflected. “After awhile, you think maybe it’s just time for someone else to come in and add different aspects to the aquarium. It was time for me to go. Maybe the board was ready for me to go. I don’t know.” In 1999, Braker received the Marlin Perkins Award from AZA, the highest honor in the profession.

@ Shedd Aquarium

“I’m fairly proud of what I did considering the condition the aquarium was in when I was first hired and the condition it was in with various additions and improvements when I left,” Braker articulated with pride. “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging but I think those things that happened between 1964 and 1993 showed a lot of great improvement. When I started, we had no education department, public relations department, development department or exhibit department. As for the exhibits themselves, the aquarium had gone from 1930 to 1964 without any really great improvements. We changed our collecting program considerably with getting our own large collecting research vessel instead of just a small boat with a small motor on it. All those things did happen when I was there.”

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Braker shared some reflections on the future of aquariums. “I see a lot of technology coming around,” he concluded. “It’s technology that I do not understand and that’s brought a lot of changes as far as the way the aquarium operates. There’s also been changes in the number of people who work there. when I started, there were only 40 employees and a budget of about $250,000. When I left, there were 240 employees and a budget of $20 million.”

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