May 20, 2015 08:13AM
By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
You could almost call her the mother of the aquarium. She nourishes the animals. She cleans up after their messes. She keeps them safe, all the while with eyes in the back of her head.
Lead aquarium keeper Alexis Shorb of the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s Scott Aquarium graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a degree in marine science. She cares primarily for the sharks and stingrays, a duty close to her heart.
“I like animals that could potentially hurt me, I guess,” Shorb quips. “I remember when I was a kid and I was first allowed to watch Jaws. It actually made me want to go to the ocean. I guess I was one of those weird children.”
Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, Shorb grew up spending summers at the shore. She began working in landlocked Omaha more than three years ago at the beginning of the aquarium’s $6.5 million renovation. She helped built the eel tank from the ground up. “Being part of the renovation and wearing that hard hat has been another lesson that I never thought I was going to be able to do.”
Her past jobs, which include Disney’s Epcot Center and SeaWorld, have led her to hand-feed leopard sharks, bonnetheads, and stingrays. And yes, she did get bit.
“When you’re feeding anything with a mouth, it’s only natural that sometimes they will get you.” She dismisses the experience as a “glorified paper cut.”
Twice a week at feeding time, Shorb and crew raise the side curtains in the shark reef. “It makes a physical cue for the animals that they are about to get fed,” she says. The sharks politely line up in conveyer belt fashion to enjoy a selection of blue runner, bonito, mackerel, salmon, or squid.
“We use long tongs to hand-feed,” Shorb explains. “We’re actually able to distinguish which shark is which by individual birthmarks,” which allows the zoo to monitor keep accurate records on food intake.
For reasons other than what one might expect, she loves tank-cleaning time. “My favorite part is just being in the water and having a zebra shark swim by me and having the kids just watch with those big eyes. I like showing people that sharks aren’t man-eaters.”
Shorb’s broad duties include being responsible for one million gallons of fresh sea water (mixed on site) and over 1,000 sea creatures. “Pipes break. Floods happen. Nothing like getting a radio call saying there’s water dripping into the gift shop,” she says.
She also plays Cupid with a pair of tasseled wobbegongs, a species of carpet shark. “I’m kind of like Match.com. I want to put him in with her and hopefully we’ll have some babies.”
Shorb finds early mornings at the aquarium magical. “Everything’s peaceful and all of the lights are just coming on. All of the animals are waking up and are just starting to get active.”
Just like a mother relishes her cup of coffee before the kids awaken, Shorb begins another day with her beloved sharks and stingrays.