An open mind led to a career working with animals for Michelle Benedict ’94

As an aquarist at Dolphin Quest Oahu in Hawaii, Michelle Benedict ’94 is responsible for the well-being, care and training of more than 100 animals representing more than 30 species. She provides a suitable habitat, water quality and social structure, and researches and creates diets.

“I’ve always loved science, biology specifically, and there was no question of what my major would be at Ripon,” Benedict says. “However, without a clear plan on what to do with that major, I choose classes that piqued my interest and fulfilled requirements.”

A class marine biology trip to Mississippi with Dr. Bob Wallace, professor of biology and the Patricia and Philip McCullough 1969 Professor in Biology, was, in hindsight, a defining moment in her life.

“(During) my first-ever trawl, I brought up an adorable little cowfish which I promptly picked out of the bucket and kissed,” she says. “I was so excited by the whole experience.”

Since graduation, Benedict has had the opportunity to work with marine animals. Her first post-graduate job was as an AmeriCorps participant, caring for the marine animals at the Marine Science Society of the Pacific Northwest, a nonprofit marine science center in Washington State. During this time, she discovered a grey whale skeleton and created an exhibit for which she won the Hood Canal Environment Achievement Award in 1997. Within a few years, Benedict was hired as a permanent staff as executive director.

Now, in Hawaii, Benedict not only creates a suitable habitat for animals but is part of an enrichment program that includes training through positive reinforcement. This training allows her to be in close proximity to the animals to monitor their appetite, motivation and provide mental stimulation. She has trained a yellowfin surgeon, Rico, who can swim through hoops, follow targets and spit water, among other things.

Benedict also brings guests in the water to participate in the hope it would inspire them to think differently about the ocean and its inhabitants.

“When kids ask me how they can get a job like this, I always tell them, take the classes that are most interesting to them in college and be open to where it takes you,” she says. “I didn’t see how perfect a combination of classes I had selected until I was well out of school and using my education.”

She also is part of a leadership team which guides operations at the location and coordinates stewardship activities; is the education liaison; volunteers as an education docent at the Waikiki Aquarium; and teach local students about marine conservation.

“I love working with the fish and educating people about the ocean and its pivotal role in the continued existence of our species along with many others,” Benedict says. “It is very rewarding, particularly when my students — animal or human — have the ‘ah-ha moment’ and something clicks.”

All these activities keep Benedict very busy, but her love of animals and her desire to educate and conserve keeps her going.

“People often ask me how a Chicago girl who attended a Wisconsin college ended up taking care of fish in Hawaii,” she says. “I tell them this is the job I never knew I always wanted.”

Mra Than ’17
New York, New York

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