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Shedd Aquarium Vet's Skills Range From Salamander Surgery to Bird Splints

By David Matthews | October 14, 2015 8:33am | Updated on February 5, 2016 10:41am
 Dr. Matt O'Connor holding turtles at his last job, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Dr. Matt O'Connor holding turtles at his last job, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
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MUSEUM CAMPUS — Dr. Matt O'Connor has removed a tumor from a tiny salamander, tested a koi herpes vaccine and given a marsupial mouth-to-mouth.

His new job will be just slightly different.

O'Connor, 33, is the latest veterinarian hired by the Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive. There, he joins two other fulltime vets and other staff tasked with screening the Downtown aquarium's collection and caring for its 32,000 specimens.

"That's what I love about this field: There's no typical day," he said. 

A Lincoln Square resident, O'Connor comes to the Shedd after a three-year residency at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. In addition to practicing aquatic animal medicine, he will teach it to the Shedd's rotating resident vets.

"Dr. O'Connor brings a diverse mix of hands-on exotic animal care coupled with a strong academic background in preventative medicine, which will make him a crucial asset in Shedd Aquarium's first priority: the very best care for our animals," Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president for animal care at the Shedd, said in a statement.

O'Connor grew up in west suburban Glen Ellyn and said his grandfather sparked his childhood interest in animals and the outdoors during their annual summer trips to Wisconsin. He got an iguana as a pet because his father is allergic to dogs and cats, and called his new gig working at his hometown aquarium a "dream job." 

He graduated from the University of Illinois with bachelor's and medical degrees, and while getting his masters from the University of California at Davis he studied how long a certain herpes vaccine can last in koi fish ponds.

"You get [herpes] in your pond, it'll kill all your fish," he said. 

He also worked for years in private practice at the Animal House of Chicago in Lincoln Square, where among other things, he splinted the legs of a caged bird that flew into its owner's ceiling fan. 

Despite that background in surgery, he hopes he won't be doing too many procedures the Shedd. 

"We're so cognizant of what's going on with the animals we can catch them before surgery," he said. 

Though he's just settling in at his new gig, O'Connor has long-term goals: He wants to be "boarded," or certified, by the American College of Zoological Medicine, a level of recognition he said has been attained by only about 200 doctors in the world. Having gone to the Phillipines to rescue endangered turtles, he also hopes to become active in conservation here and abroad. 

But he knows he has some work to do at home first.

"I don't like going to other countries and telling them how to treat their wildlife if we don't practice what we preach in our own backyard," he said. 

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