North Central College - Naperville, IL

A co-worker of a different feather

An interview with Naomi Roots ’05 at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium includes her favorite penguin sidekick, “405.” The curious bird seems to enjoy exploring the shoes of her visitors and a camera lens by pecking with her beak. Later she tries to arrange a towel—her “security blanket”—into a nest and settles on Roots’ lap. After about 30 minutes, Roots knows that 405 would rather be swimming in her environment with her penguin friends.

As an animal care specialist, Roots teaches visitors about penguins in Shedd’s Penguin Encounter Room. “When you take time to introduce them to the public, it reminds you of the joy you get from working with the animals,” she says. “And here in the city, it’s hard for children to understand how their actions affect the natural world. Seeing these animals up close is a way to inspire them to care about the environment a little bit more.” 

The rest of her work days are spent caring for and training 30 penguins (Magellanic and Rock Hoppers) and five otters. With the help of a team of volunteers and interns, her mornings are consumed with food preparation. The restaurant-quality fish that arrive frozen must thaw over two days and then receive a thorough rinsing and inspection. The otters ingest other foods in addition to fish and their diet is carefully prepared. “Otters eat 25 percent of their body weight every day because of living in cold water and the amount of calories they burn,” Roots explains.

By far, Roots’ favorite aspect of her job is husbandry training. The penguins and otters learn to accept veterinary care, for example, when she touches them with a stethoscope and then rewards them with a treat. “The type of training we use can transfer to all types of species of animals,” she explains.

As a biology major at North Central, Roots explored all areas of the field and enjoyed a trip to find salamanders and involvement in the student organization NCC Green. Studying abroad in Costa Rica inspired her to join the Peace Corps after graduation and she was assigned to Nicaragua as an environmental educator. She returned to Chicago and decided to use her talents as a volunteer at the Shedd. Later she was offered an internship and then full-time employment. Roots has worked at the Shedd in some capacity for three years.

“I had never thought about working with animals as a career until I came here,” Roots says. “But now I don’t see myself doing anything else.” Roots may be reached at

North Central Now Fall 2011