Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Birthday Special: Lily and the Palm Frond

Today (Sunday, April 20th) is a special day, and not just for those of you who celebrate Easter.

Today is Lily the dolphin's 11th birthday!  In fact, 11 years ago today was Easter on the day Lily was born, hence the Easter-y name.

It's my birthdaaaaayyyyy

So in light of this event, I'd like to share with you a recent experience I had with Lily and her mother, Delilah.  

I need to set this up for you, though.  A few days ago, three trainers from another marine mammal facility came to visit.  It just so happened that one of them was a dear friend of mine with whom I'd worked at another place.  The other two trainers I had seen or knew of via the Interweb, but I hadn't officially met.  

I'm always psyched to meet new trainers from other places, because I love expanding my network.  Not just to be like, "Hey I have 3 more Facebook friends", but because it's awesome to share ideas and experiences.  It's one thing to have a great team of trainers on your staff, but it's also a good idea to respect and admire trainers at other places.  

However, it is a little intimidating, no matter how wonderful they are, to have visiting trainers watch you in session.   Why? For me, it's because I don't want to look like an animal training idiot.  And like this particular situation I'm talking about, the visiting trainers were not at all judgmental.  So it was nothing they did that make me nervous.  It was just the fact that people from another place were there, watching me to some extent.  And when that happens, I act like I'm being watched by the Grand Supreme Trainer On High.   

I'm sure the animals sense it when I'm like this.  They are like, "WTF is wrong with Cat? Why does she have that look in her eye?"  Or with animals who can probably hear my heart racing, they are probably like, "WHY DOES THIS APE LOOK LIKE SHE'S HAVING A CORONARY?  SOMETHING IS ABOUT TO EAT US, ISN'T IT???"


I'm exaggerating a little bit, but you know what I'm getting at.  So the very last session these particular trainers watched was our afternoon dolphin show with Lily and Delilah.   I had Lily, and was ready for a great show.  

Let me tell you about our birthday girl.  She is adorable, and very bright.  And while I'd argue most animals have minds of their own*, there are different levels of this.  On the continuum of Animal Mindedness, Lily falls here:

Steady Eddy                                                  Half 'n Half                                             Einstein

Yeah, she's pretty sharp

Lily also is sensitive to change, which occasionally creates challenging training scenarios.  For example, when I first started working with her, I got in the water knowing that she hadn't really had much exposure to people swimming with her if they didn't have dive gear on.  So I took it slow, doing everything I knew was considered effective active desensitization while trying to build a relationship with her.  I read her behavior to make sure I wasn't pushing her too fast, nor coddling her too much.  And the session was going really, really well with a lot of progress.

And then my watched beeped underwater.

Oh, that was it.  Lily couldn't handle it, this Temporarily Terrifying Thing (or Triple T).  She raced around the habitat; one tiny little beep the trigger of so much anxiety.  Of course, it didn't take her long to realize this beep wasn't a harbinger of bad tidings, but simply symbolic of: 1) the elapsed hour and 2) my inability to figure out how to turn the sound off of my Wal-Mart watch.


Anyways, you get the picture.  So back to the story.  I was standing on our floating docks, ready for a great show with one of the best dolphins I've known.  She was really attentive, had perfect control and bright eyes.  The show started off really great, actually.  My nervousness of being observed by Other Trainers quickly dissipated and I found myself lost in my session with Lily, which of course is exactly what you ought to do when working with animals.  She was playing with her football, she was emitting her behaviors to great criteria, and she was really tactile-motivated.  These were all the makings for a great Lily show.

Suddenly, Lily's attention faltered.  She began sitting off to the side; a sign that you're losing your animal's attention.  Instead of begging her to focus on me, I just let her choose her path.  If she wanted to leave to check something out (or race around the habitat in protest of a Triple T like a watch beep), then she could do that.  If she wanted to continue with the show, she could return to criteria control.  But she did neither of these things.  She remained in Lily Limbo, one eye on me, her mouth slightly open, and the other eye on some mysterious and as yet unseen Thing.  

What Thing have you detected?

I heard one of our underwater platforms make some noise that I hadn't heard before.  Thinking back to the watch, you can deduce that new and sudden sounds were not Lily's cup of tea.  "Oh," I thought.  "It's the platform.  I'll just do some active desense and she'll be fine in a few minutes."  

As I am deep in thought and training, I see one of our new trainers in the A-B position we have for each show (acting as a safety spotter and to provide variability for the dolphins) signaling to get my attention.  She was stationed across the habitat, and with the noise from the crowd and the show narrator's microphone, it was difficult for me to hear her.

I looked up.  She pointed at the sunglasses on top of her head, then pointed in the water.

Oh NO! I thought.  My sunglasses fell in.  I felt for them on my head, and didn't feel them.  My panic was only interrupted by the logical thought that of course I wouldn't feel them on my head, they were currently in use on my face.

I looked back at the A-B trainer and shook my head.

She pointed again at her sunglasses, then in the water.  

Oh NO! I thought.  My sunglasses croakies fell in the water!!!

No! The A-B trainer signaled to me.  She pointed more dramatically at HER head, then back down to the water below where she was standing.

Oh! I got it, I thought.  The A-B trainer dropped HER croakies in the water.  No problem.  Lily and Delilah will both bring us random things from their habitat in return for a reward of some kid.   I asked Lily for the retrieval behavior, which she responded to zealously.  She swam directly to where the A-B trainer had signaled the fallen croakies had gone.

The subject of our problem

And then, Lily was gone.

She circled around and around the object, coming up only for a breath.  

It's worth mentioning at this point that because these dolphins have a long history of bringing back objects to their trainers (like park maps, palm fronds, their own toys, and the occasional random item dropped by a person or a sea bird), I wasn't worried about Lily's safety with the croakies.  While I tried to get her attention back so that she could leave the item alone AND we could finish the rest of the show AND so I could eventually get in and get whatever was down there, Lily was too fixated on the newest toy in her habitat.

The A-B trainer looked at me.  I was able to hear her say something like, "Is Lily cruising**?"

I was initially perplexed at this question, because I thought what was going on was clear.  The trainer dropped her croakies, I asked Lily to go get it, and Lily opted to examine the croakies from every angle possible instead of bringing them back to me.

I replied, "Yes, I sent her on retrieval to get your croakies!"

"No," the trainer replied.  "Croakies didn't fall in."

Now I was thoroughly confused.  It wasn't easy to have an in-depth conversation without trying to shout over the narrator and look like a panhandler yelling to passing cars, but I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on.

"What fell in?" I said loudly.

"A guest's sunglasses!" she said.    And then I saw a guest waving sheepishly right above the trainer's head.  "Sorry!" the guest mouthed.

I think he dropped his sunglasses, too

At this point, the show was almost over, but Lily did decide to come join the fun for the last few behaviors.  She was still very distracted, but when you have two dolphins in a show and you actually have, well, two dolphins present with their trainers the show when there's a fun fun play thing they'd rather have because they can trade it for prizes later, you take that as a win.


Regardless, I knew I needed to get the sunglasses out since Lily was just content to stare at them instead of bring them back.   Getting the sunglasses out meant I needed to get in the water, dive down and get them.   That part was going to be fun, because who doesn't like swimming with dolphins?  I had these great ideas about how to make it a fun session.  Someone would have Lily at station while I got the glasses, but then once that was done, I could work on her footpush! I could dive underwater with her! I could work on her mimic sequence!

And then the reality of the situation struck me.

That day was pretty cold for this time of the year, so I was wearing a rash guard and wind pants.  I had a bathing suit on underneath, but that was it.  It's been fuh-reezing here, so I've been bundled up for the past several months.  What does that mean?  Ladies and gentlemen, that means my the only part of my legs that has seen sunlight is the top of my feet.  The rest of me is as white as the driven snow.  You can measure the brightness of my white legs in candlepower.  You could go cave-spelunking by the sun's reflection on my tanless gams.

This song was actually written about my skin color

And now I was in a position where I needed to take off my pants.  In front of a Spring Break-sized crowd.  And....

...the visiting trainers.

Oh, if this was a safety scenario (trust me, it wasn't), I wouldn't have given a hoot about my Edward Cullen legs.  I would've gone in with whatever I had to get whatever out.  But in this case, it was just making sure we got the glasses out in a timely fashion.  And so I had time to think about ruining 300 people's vacation by dropping trousers.

The other trainer and I briefly ended our session after the show ended while the A-B trainer stood and watched the fallen glasses to make sure they didn't get swept away in the current.   I had to get a mask to make sure I could quickly find the glasses and see the dolphins, but the mask wasn't far away.  As I made my way towards the mask, I saw the visiting trainers and was about to warn them to cover their eyes before I took my pants off.  But out of the corner of my eye, I see Delilah.  And she's pushing something through the water.

The sunglasses!  Good ol' Delilah, always ready to bring something over.  She'll find ANYTHING to swap out for a snack.  The tiniest leaf could fall in her habitat, and I swear she stores that stuff somewhere and pulls it out for a rainy day.  This time though, she had a legit item.   Maybe in her eternal dolphin wisdom, she figured the guest who lost the sunglasses was in a real bind.  If I had to bare my blinding white legs to the world, she'd be better off wearing sunglasses.  Unfortunately for her, the reason I'd have to get down to my bathing suit was because her sunglasses were, um, inaccessible.  I'd like to think Delilah put that all together, but I know it was more likely that she saw it as a business transaction.

Delilah, the business woman, is on top

The other trainer and I ran back down onto the docks to receive Delilah.  We briefly discussed the exchange rate for a pair of sunglasses and decided it was a luxury item.  As Delilah swam at the surface towards us, the avian sunglasses perched carefully on her rostrum, Lily saddling up along side of her....with an item for barter.  As if she could not come to us empty-handed, Lily arrived at the docks at the same time Delilah did.  But instead of handing me a pair of sunglasses, Lily instead gave me a dried-out palm frond.  I laughed.  The second I took the leaf out of her mouth, she popped up to a perfect station, as if to say, "It's no sunglasses, but I did good, right??" 

Lily's contribution to the debacle

After the session was over, I talked about it with the visiting trainers.  They laughed along side of me, reminding me that no matter what facility you work at, everyone understands situations like this.  We all share in the funny and unplanned moments; we don't need to worry about being judged by others.  We should take comfort in knowing that other people out there know exactly what you're experiencing.  So we laughed and opined on what might've been going through Lily's head.  One of the trainers mentioned she thought she'd seen Lily go down and touch the sunglasses as if she was going to retrieve them, but then freaked herself out.  

I admired Lily's tenacity in that situation.  While she apparently was too skeeved to touch the glasses (perhaps another Triple T in Lily's world), she couldn't let her mother show her up when she saved the day (or at least, people's vision).  Seeing both mother and daughter cruise into station with their own little item, perfect fits for their personalities, made me so happy.  And we all laughed a lot, too.

Good job, Lil.  Way to not give up, and at least try to do something similar to what you couldn't quite bring yourself to do.  Your mom has thirty more years of experience than you do at these kinds of things, but one day I'm sure you'll be as fearless and steady as she.  But in the meantime, keep your spark and sass.  And have a great 11th birthday!

Delilah and Lily, the dynamic duo!

* This does not include my dog

** Our term for when an animal has left station, not when they're in a Porsche driving down the highway listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the wind blowing through their hair (or barren hair follicles, for dolphins).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From Experienced to Newbie: Learning a New Animal Species Later In Your Career

I've touted the benefits of learning different training methodologies and/or working at other facilities.  I've briefly touched on the differences between working with dolphins and sea lions.   But what I haven't really covered is about what it's like learning to work with new species of animals, especially when you're an experienced trainer with a different type of animal.   

Some of us marine mammal trainers get a little picky.  Don't hang your head in shame, it's okay.  So many of us start our our heads, at the age of like, six.  And at six, we think one of the following three things will happen to us one day:

1) We will speak with dolphins (this of course includes orcas)

Blah blah blah, I actually do talk to dolphins 

2) We will have nice show hair and do dolphin shows, too

No image found of me with nice show hair

3) We will have a shiny whistle we wear around our neck 88% of our waking lives, but we're not really sure what they do except for maybe it's magic

The stuff of dreams, until you actually get one and realize it's another thing to keep track of in life, like sunglasses or taxes

Unfortunately, many of tend to get stuck on the dolphin thing.  We forget there are exactly a gadrillion other species of animals out there who can captivate us just as much as our favorites.  Or maybe, we never gave another set of animals the chance to be our favorite.  Maybe we'd have a lot of favorites if we weren't so darn picky!

Nonetheless, one of the most challenging (and ultimately rewarding) things I've experienced in my job is learning to work with new species of animals.  Not only that, I had to learn it in my first management position which I felt made it a little more difficult to adjust.  I spent most of my career working with bottlenose dolphins, mostly the Atlantic coastal type.  I'd had some experience working with nurse sharks, North American river otters, one cute cow-nosed ray, and briefly with Pacific white-sided dolphins.  But I had zero pinniped experience.  Zero.  I mean, I think I fed a sea lion one time at my first job.  So if I were to put that on my resume, it'd look like this:

Miami Seaquarium, 2006-2007
Assistant Marine Mammal Trainer
* Ascertained the properly placement of one (1) capelin in one (1) California sea lion near the anterior region

It wasn't that I was picky.  If I got started in the sea lion department at Miami Seaquarium, I would've discovered how awesome seals and sea lions are long before I eventually did.   But I didn't know nearly as much about pinnipeds as I did dolphins, because I was one of the kids obsessed with the sleeker, snarkier creatures of the sea.  The ones with the blowholes, I mean.

I do love dolphins!

My first paid job was exclusively with dolphins.  I felt curious about the prospect of working with pinnipeds, but I felt happy that I got started with my "choice" animal.  I'd always wanted to work with dolphins, and here I was, working with dolphins.  

Then, I moved to a facility with a bunch of bottlenose dolphins in an interactive setting.  We had a couple of sharks and the stingray, but my day was mostly dolphins dolphins dolphins.  But I had only a couple of years of experience, so learning to work with the elasmobranchs was definitely challenging, but it felt "right" because I was still new to the field.  

But then, I stuck with my group of animals.  Even when I went to my next job, it was still with dolphins, and otters, and two sharks.  Then I went back to the place with just the dolphins. So I kept recycling animals I'd already learned about, and continued to gain experience in training with and caring for those guys.

Sharks are awesome!  

While animal training is the same across the board*, the way you ARE with your animal makes a big difference in your relationship, your sessions, and how you accomplish your training goals.  Body posture and body language are critical, and I'm not just talking about reading the animal.  I'm talking about how YOU physically move around and with the animal.   You need to know the animal's natural history and individual behavior, and they need to understand what you're all about too.  How you walk with a heeling sea lion is different than how you walk along a dockside with a dolphin following you.

You can also know a lot about them as a species, but still not really have a clue on how to be another conspecific in their lives.  It is critical to understand the natural behavior and physiology of the animals under your care,  but when you first have that animal right in front of you, that stuff doesn't carry you through a session; experience does.  If you're rolling your eyes at that statement, here's some other examples of this concept in other jobs if we take out the critical experiential education part:

1) Doctors who receive their MD after only having their first year of medical school.  If they can know about it on paper, they should be able to apply that to actual patients, right?


2) Firefighters receive PhDs in physics and chemistry as it pertains to all things fire, from creation to extinguishing, but they never actually practice how to deal with fires and all of the other important factors to consider and deal with.

This guy doesn't know *%)!

3) One time I tried to cook, because I thought it'd be easy to just follow a recipe (that's what everyone told me), but I basically set my frying pan on fire because I had never learned about even heat.   I read all about cooking, but never actually did it.

No, no, not this kind of cooking!

Learning how to be with an animal on a species level is one of the first things you learn.  Eventually, you start to feel really comfortable and forget that it was ever challenging.  So when you're faced with a new species of animal, especially if it's one that's not even in the same biological order, it's really jarring.

When I did a working interview at a zoo with African elephants who was developing a 100% positive reinforcement style training program with their animals, my biggest concern was learning HOW to work with the elephants.  The training concepts were identical and totally familiar to me, but understanding the elephants' body mechanics, social behavior, and natural history were critical to me being an effective animal trainer for them.  I'd spend five years of my career up until that point working with animals in the water, and now I was faced with the possibility of working with an animal equally impressive but in an element totally foreign to my in my professional career.

So when I was offered my current job, I knew I was in for major learning curves.  Yes, I'd be working with dolphins, but I'd also have to learn to work with penguins, seals, and sea lions.  The Asian small-clawed otters were at least kind of familiar to me, because I'd work with North Americans before.  But as I learned, there was more to them than I realized initially.

What's it like to be an experienced trainer learning a brand new animal species? 

Eternally Rewarding

Having an otter check out your ink is pretty rewarding (because the dolphins have never inspected it!)

When I got accepted to my current job, I was psyched to work with animals I had no previous experience with.  Yes, I love dolphins, but I'm no dolphin snob.  As I've gotten older I don't put any one species on a pedestal, because they are all uniquely wonderful and have the capacity for amazing things.  

But I was still terrified.  What if I was dolphin-wired that I had a really hard time adjusting or learning what it was like to work with sea lions?   On top of that, it was a management position, so I was obviously going to be expected to teach other people how to work with these animals at some point.  What if I became the Dolphin Trainer Stereotype all pinniped trainers have about us and the sea lions pick it up and talk about me behind their back? Would I forever be pigeon-holded like Molly Ringwald or Macaulay Culkin?

Wahhhhh what happened????

I followed great advice: be open-minded, and don't ever stop being open-minded.  So I showed up for work on my first day, fully admitting that while I knew a thing or two about animal training, I was a baby when it came to many of the taxa I'd be getting to know.  And luckily for me, there were several people there with a lot of experience with penguins and pinnipeds, and had especially long histories with those animals.  They took me under their wing and told me everything they knew, and I drank it all up, grateful for every nugget of information they gave me.   I acted like I was a brand new trainer, setting aside my management hat for a while.  I couldn't be an effective leader or teacher if I acted like I knew everything when I so very clearly did NOT (by the way, I still don't know everything, just don't tell my boss).

I can't pick a favorite animal! They are all so amazing!

So I just tried to get to know the animals as a whole and as individuals. I spent a lot of my free time reading as much as I could about their natural history and talking to other pinniped trainers.  I watched a lot of sessions.  I had many different people watch and critique me.  It didn't matter if they were "above" me or "below" me in job title, they all knew more than I did about the animals I was working with.  If I was going to ever learn a new species of animals, I'd have to make sure I kept an open mind and learned as much as I could.

But I had a lot of insecure moments.  The first time I fed a sea lion, my hand was shaking.  The sea lion I was feeding was 31 years old and the sweetest girl ever.  But as she sat on her seat, looking at me and waiting for me to feed her, this thought looped endlessly in my head:


I'm sure the sea lion's thought was something more like, "What is WRONG with this person?"

I had to get used to the animals being super close to me, even when walking.  I had to be aware of where my bucket was at all times, which was something I'd never really had to worry about with dolphins.  Okay wait, that's a lie.  There were a few dolphins who would help themselves to my bucket if I left it close enough to the edge of their habitat for them to reach it.   But it's different having a dolphin knock your bucket away from you into the water, versus a sea lion plunging their head into your bucket that is still attached to your hand.

And Don't even get me started on the penguins!  I have had experience working with and caring for birds for the past 8 years, both in my own home and as an animal trainer.  I've always loved birds and know a fair bit about them.  But these flightless seabirds were completely new to me.  

My first day, one of the senior trainers took me to learn how to feed the penguins.  

How hard could that be? I thought.  Uh, hard.  I had to obviously first learn how to tell the difference between the birds, which at first was about as easy as telling two cashews apart.  They (the penguins, not the cashews) had an order they ate in, too.  And they were terrified of me.  They loved the trainers who had worked with them for years, but something about me sent them into an anorexic tizzy.  I'd hand them a fish, and they'd look at me with this like, "Whooooooaaaaaaaa blond giant, ain't no way I'm eating from you" look, and then they ran to the trainers they actually had a rapport with and eat like 10 fish in a two second period.  

One penguin, who was hand-raised by people, showed an initial interest in me.  

"Ohhh look!" I'd say.  "She likes me, I think!"  She arched her head and partially dropped her third eyelid over her eyes.  "Is that a good thing?" I'd ask.  And then she'd stab me with her beak.

I had a lot to learn about penguins.

Deep in pontification with an African penguin.

Every time I felt overwhelmed, I reminded myself that it would get better.  But it'd only get better if I kept showing up to each session, and learned something.  I had to build relationships with the animals, but the only way I could do that was to learn how to work with them....which meant making some mistakes and feeling insecure until one day, I could tell all the penguins apart, they ate from me, I knew how to walk around with a sea lion by my side, and I didn't laugh uncontrollably every time a seal drooled on himself.**  I tried to find appropriate places to use my experience, but also find the times when I admitted I didn't know what I was doing or what exactly was going on.

Now, a year and a half later, I feel really confident with those animals. I still have a lot to learn, too.  Not just with the pinnipeds and penguins,  but the otters and dolphins as well.  Yes, I have more years of experience under my belt with the latter group of animals, but there's never a point where I feel like I know it all.  And never will there be a point where I think that.  I guess if I'm wrong about that, it'll be time for me to leave the field and open a donut shop or win the lottery or something.  But I really don't want to ever leave this field.   There is so much to learn, so many animals to get to know and love!

Tee hee!

If any of you are in a similar situation, ENJOY it.  EMBRACE it.  It is such a wonderful experience to feel like a newbie again, it is.  Don't let your ego worry you.  It's okay, even if you're in a position of power, to act like a baby if you are a baby.   It might feel ironic to be a senior trainer or supervisor or manager or whatever, and say, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing with this particular task."  But believe it or not, you're being a stronger leader than you think.  You're not only opening yourself up to deepening your knowledge base, you're also setting a tremendous example for the people working with you.  

If you've never had the opportunity to work with another species of animal, try it out.  If you're already looking to move on from your current job, get out of your comfort zone.  If you love where you're at, then consider a trainer/keeper exchange at another facility and really get immersed in another world.  I mean, go crazy.  If you work with marine mammals, go shadow someone who works with great apes.  Your mind will be blown.  If you work with big cats, check out what it's like to work with elephants.  If you train alligators, might as well check out some marine mammal peeps.  Shake it up, share information, broaden your horizons.  The deeper your experience, the better your perspective...and ultimately, the better you can care for and understand your animals. 

* Except with this one sea lion I know who is like, an enigma that cannot yet be explained by science

** I'm still pretty bad at the last thing

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fish House Confessional: The Water Cooler of Marine Mammal Trainers

We've all heard the phrase "water cooler gossip".  We've seen the TV shows or movies where office workers gather around the water cooler and exchange clandestine information.  

What are they talking about?  Are they gossiping about where their shadows went? Or the fact that they are floating in endless, ethereal white space? 

For marine mammal trainers, there is no water cooler.  Well, perhaps your training office has one, but even still it's not nearly as secret a place to chat as....


Camaraderie at the Marine Mammal Center's fish house! 

Oh, the glorious Fish House.  The Fish House has all of the glorious benefits of a fort with some major added bonuses.  Remember the forts you envisioned as a kid?  In my experience, the fort I had imagined and designed with painstaking details (such as bay windows, plush couches, a donut nook, and air-lock doors that went whoosh) never really turned out the way I wanted.  The last fort I remember well involved some big sticks, black garbage bags taped together, and a pot I stole from my house to make the fort seem more livable.  My sister and I built the Garbage Bag Fort in our backyard when the snow was melting, so the entire inside was wet and disgusting, but we lied to ourselves that "the garbage bags really kept out the cold."   

A slightly better version of my childhood forts

I learned quickly that constructing habitable forts was definitely not my childhood forte.  So I decided to move into another, already established location.  The attic.  All I had to to was pop out a door and there I was, in a crawlspace over the garage.  After adding few blankets, a radio, and of course the cooking pot (Oh, I was so domestic), my sister and I would spend hours in that attic.  No one could hear what we talked about in there, it was cozy enough to feel really secret.   The only downside was it wasn't climate controlled, so we had to share our secrets in 785 degree weather in the summer, and Antarctic temperatures in the winter.  

Apologies to those of who you did successfully build your dream fort, but for most of us, that never happened.  But our need to have a private place to hang out, whether by yourself or surrounded with close friends, is still there.  Most of us realized that taking OVER a potential fort was much better than creating one from the ground up.

So how does a Fish House measure up to a Childhood Fort?  Refer to this official Venn diagram:

* Maybe not all of them are enclosed.  But if yours is outside, it probably means you live in a lush, gorgeous tropical location, so you already win.

Now looking upon my first attempt at making a Venn diagram on my Mac, I realize that maybe Childhood Forts are slightly more fun, mostly because of the snack thing.   But Fish Houses are sturdily built.  Here in Florida, they can essentially withstand weaker hurricanes.  The same cannot be said for most** of my forts, which could not withstand exasperated sighs from small animals such as slugs.

But why is it we all really love secret places we can convene, alone or with a select few?  Because it is therapy.  Major therapy.  Fish Houses provide some of the best methods for therapeutic catharsis.  In fact, most of the time you're doing repetitive labor, such as sorting fish, cleaning, or cleaning.  While sorting fish requires concentration, cleaning buckets and the Fish House itself are tasks that can easily be done while talking, PLUS it has the added benefit of being laborious; it's a great way to burn off any frustration or excessive energy.

But it's not all negative.  In fact, most of the time it's quite positive, or just gossipy (but not the  mean gossip).  The Fish House represents some serious bonding time for trainers, because we spend so much time in there.  It's not like we can talk about how hot Chris Hemsworth is (with the amount of time and reverence this topic deserves) while we are in a training session.  Why? Because we focus most of our energy on the animal in front of us, so it's no place for it.  

Yeah, I'm gonna need a LOT of time to talk about him.  Mostly his arms.

On top of our regular trips to the Fish House, some of us get stuck in there.  Where I work now, it's the best place to go during a storm.   Many enclosed fish houses in the U.S. are temperature regulated, so when it's freezing out you can warm up in the Fish House, and when it's hot you can cool off in there.  Side note:  If the Fish House isn't temperature regulated and it's a zillion degrees outside, there's always the sub-zero freezer to use for emergency thermoregulation, but it's not very much fun to chat in there. 

So what kinds of things do trainers use the Fish House for?

Here are examples of some of the conversations I've had with others:

1) Recanting dates 
2) Talking about childhood stories
3) Frustrations with bosses
4) Frustrations with coworkers
5) Getting caught doing numbers 3 and 4
6) Apologizing to the victim of numbers 3 and/or 4
7) Talking about book ideas
8) Discussing animals and their various accomplishments or challenges in training
9) Religious idea exchange
10) Catching up on gossip on other people in the field (e.g. "DID YOU HEAR SO AND SO PUT IN HIS/HER TWO WEEKS AT SUCH AND SUCH PLACE?")

At one of my jobs, the Fish House is where we met on a regular basis to talk to a particular trainer with a penchant for juicy drama, let's call this person Pat.  The group of us at the same experience level often had a lot to share in terms of mistakes and accomplishments, but when Pat was promoted, the rest of us were asked individually to meet him/her in the Fish House.  When it was my turn, Pat corralled me against the refrigerator, eyes intensely focused on mine.

"I called you to the Fish House today to tell you that I got promoted."

"I know, Pat."

"I just needed to have a private meeting with all of you to tell you that even though I'm a level above you, I'm still your friend.  But sometimes I'll have to act like your boss."

And so the Fish House meeting concluded with me murmuring "ok", and signaling to the next person to enter Pat's temporary office.

Frequent visitor of Fish Houses everywhere!

When you first get started in this field, you might be shocked at the fishy smell of the Fish House (not just a clever name, I suppose).  And you'll initially associate the Fish House with lots of cleaning.  Unfortunately, it may become a place for you to cry, too.  Some first internships and jobs are harder for some than others.  I've walked in a few people weeping by a sink, scrubbing a bucket.  I've done it myself, when a very old but beloved dolphin passed away and I needed a moment to myself.

But eventually, you realize therapeutic potential of the Fish House.  You forge friendships (maybe even find the love of your life), navigate difficult work/social issues, have clandestine meetings, come up with the next training approximation step, ponder the reasons behind other people leaving the field, or maybe share a secret with another trainer that you aren't ready to tell anyone else.  

Sometimes, LOTS of fun is to be had in the Fish House.  Full on water and soap fights happen, which is really great because it's safe, it's clean, and your wetsuit can always use an extra washing.  Dance parties break out.  Jokes are swapped.  I've also been known to throw fish at people, and not necessarily always at people who are in the training department.  And the best part about this is that it applies to all levels of trainers.  One day, my boss soaked me with a hose, while the general manager cheered him on.   God I love the Fish House fun times!


Any office worker can tell me they've heard some great gossip or had a cathartic sounding-off session over hushed whispers at the water cooler, but I don't think they have the same freedom us marine mammal trainers have.  Like, I don't mortgage brokers having a Dawn soap fight in the middle of their office happens as regularly as it does with dolphin trainers.  

But I want to hear about YOUR Fish House experiences.  Leave them in the comments so the rest of the readers can enjoy them, too.  What's the best experience you had?  The worst?  The weirdest?  Share, share, share! 

* For most facilities....sorry to those of you who have it outside, unless you live in the tropics, then I have zero empathy

** All

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Treating Interns Right, Even If You Have To Dumpster Dive

If there were a few adjectives people would use to describe me, here's a short list of what I think they'd be:

1) Talkative
2) Weird
3) Scatter-brained
4) Sugar obsessed

Blah blah blah, I'm even always talking to the animals.

Hopefully, another word people'd use about me is "compassionate".  I'm no saint, but I really do believe in empathy.  There's a sanskrit word ahimsa, which means "non-violent".  I really like the concept of ahimsa, because it essentially means that you should do nothing to cause harm to yourself or others.  This word is clearly open for major interpretation.  Some people assume it means you shouldn't actually hurt anything, which must make their lives extremely complicated because how do they eat?


But the point of ahimsa is that you should never do anything to someone (including yourself) with the intention of hurting them.  You might discipline a child, but you do it from a place of love and well-intention, not because you enjoy watching them cry.  Another example: I may not want to hurt the donut, but I have to eat.  If I don't eat, I die (which we could say is relatively harmful to myself).  Therefore, it is with great reverence that I eat donuts.  

In any job, it's common to watch people become a little crankier as they move up the ranks.  They find themselves in a positional leadership style, AKA the "DO AS I SAY BECAUSE I AM SUPREME RULER" style.  Unfortunately,  we all know who gets the worst of this leadership type....



It's always confused me, the mentality that some people have that interns are at their place of employment (in any field!) to be used and abused.  This is especially true with people who themselves have a history of being hazed during their beginning stages, who then think "Hey, I went through it, now it's my turn to be the bully."  

I'm just not wired like that, I guess (and luckily, most of my mentors and bosses haven't been either!).  Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't have a ton of character flaws, or that I've never been mean to someone.  I'm not saying I'm perfect or above anyone else, I'm just pointing out that I have never felt that interns or junior staff and their goals are less important than me or anyone else.  That belief was something I felt was really important I exuded when I got my first paid position.  And of course, because this is how my life goes, hilarity ensued.

I started my apprentice trainer job at the Seaquarium right in the middle of an internship term.  Even though I was technically a level "higher" than the interns, they knew what they were doing and I didn't.  It was a fast-paced environment, too, especially because my department was in charge of fish delivery to all other departments in the park.  My internship previously had involved sorting fish for three dolphins and four otters.  My new job meant I had to not only sort and weigh out fish for three times as many dolphins, but I had to pull all the fish for all the other marine mammal departments.  I had no idea where anything was, or how to do it.  Luckily, the interns really helped me, and since I spent just as much time as them scrubbing buckets, I never felt any kind of separation between me and them.

So when the next batch of interns started, I knew I'd be the one helping them learn the ropes.  I remember thinking the night before I knew they started that I would have to make sure I was patient, clear, and kind to them.  I knew how hard a first day was at an internship, and I wanted to make sure they saw me as someone they could learn from, but also feel comfortable around.  

Was this amazing intern crying because we were saying goodbye? Or because I carried a random banana with me everywhere I went?

The next day, one of the interns started in my department, which meant she had to learn how to deliver fish.  She was a very nice girl who had done an internship at another facility, so she knew the basics.  Nonetheless, I talked her ear off.  Blah blah blah, I told her every little tidbit.  In my mind, I thought I was being helpful, but I'm sure she wanted to blow her brains out.  

We delivered all the fish, me yapping away in the truck we drove around the park to make fish delivery easier.  I talked about everything:

"Don't worry about this seat, it slides to and fro with wild abandon."

"Backing up into the sea lion department requires depth perception only seen in supernatural creatures, so don't worry if you knock something over once in a while."

"Isn't it cool how smooth mackerel feel blahblahblahblahblah?"


She politely listened and helped me where she could.  I showed her how to check on all the animals to make sure everyone was okay.  I told her what the other interns' jobs were as we were driving the truck around.

"I know it's overwhelming," I said.  "But it'll get easier.  Just don't hesitate to ask questions, that's what I'm here for. Blahblahblahblahblah"

"Thanks," she said. 

I felt good, like I was really conveying the message that I didn't see her as lower than pond scum or something.  I thought about this as we drove the truck to one of its final stops: the dumpster.  All the fish boxes from all the fish deliveries were in the truck bed.  And when I say boxes, I don't mean nice and clean cardboard boxes.  No, that's what they once looked like.  But we had opened them up, exposing the plastic bag covering all of the fish.  To dump the fish into their respective sinks, we had to open the plastic bag, dump the fish, and then place the bloody, fish-juicey bags into the boxes, at which point the blood, juice, and oil soaked the cardboard and made our trash pile really disgusting.  

Corrugated calamity

So I drove the truck to the gate house, where the sleepy guards hung out.  

"I'm going inside to ask for the gate key," I told the new intern.  "All you have to do is tell them that's what you want, and they'll give it to you.  Then we go through and dump the trash. Blahblahblahblah."

I hopped out and got the key, a small key on a key chain.  I unlocked the gate, slid it open, then got back into the truck.  I drove the truck out, closed and locked the gate behind me, then drove a few feet over to the  dumpster area.

The dumpster area was a fenced-off section in the back of the parking lot, far away from any animal habitat or guest area.  It contained several dumpsters, all smelling really delicious.  They contained fish boxes, leftover food from the various concession stands/restaurants, and all other janitorial delight from the park.   The dumpsters were all open-faced, so all we had to do was back the truck up to the closed double door gate, stand on the truck bed, withstand the pungent odor, battle flies the size of cannon balls and hurl the boxes/bags into the nearest dumpster.  

Blow flies.  Blow flies everywhere, such as in your soul.

Me and the new intern hopped up onto the truck bed.  

"So you take the boxes and bags and throw them over the gate and into the dumpster.  You have to make sure that all of this goes INTO the dumpster, and that it doesn't fall onto the ground.  Otherwise, you have to get the dumpster key and go in there."

"Going in there" may not sound bad, but even being a few feet closer to these ripe trash piles of horror could bring Thor to his knees*.   And of course, you didn't want any trash on the ground, because raccoons, opossums, and other dirty scavengers such as pelicans would get to it, rip it apart, and spread it all around the parking lot.

Pelicans, did that surprise you?  Let it sink into your brains for a moment, the vision of many pelicans sitting ominously atop the sides of the dumpsters, with the occasional seagull thrown in for good measure.  Pelicans, shooting their projectile poo in massive quantities into the already putrid garbage pile, stood watch as we prepared to throw fish boxes into their smorgasbord. 

I captured this rare image of two brown pelicans flying and NOT pooping.

The intern looked extremely pained as she inhaled the thick, rotten smell and was pelted with blowflies.

"It is pretty disgusting on days leading up to pickup," I said.

"Yes, this is seriously gross," she said.

"That's why it's really important you have good aim," I said.  I stood on the back of the truck and grabbed a fish box.  "So you don't have to Go In There."

I flung the box with all my might.  It was met with either a cross-current or Murphy's deplorable and invisible hand, because it suddenly changed course and flew away from the dumpster, and landed on the ground.  NOOOOOOOO I thought to myself.

"Rats," I said to the intern.


"No, I mean, [insert swear word here]," I said.  "Okay, let's just toss the rest of these boxes more carefully, then I'll get the dumpster key and pick that up."

We both successfully unloaded all but one of the tens of juicy boxes into the dumpster.  The pelicans continued to defecate with delight as they tore into the trash, hoping to find a forgotten fish.

The last box sat lonesomely at my feet.  I reached into my pocket and grabbed the gate key.

"Once I throw this last box in, I'll go unlock the gate and get the dumpster key from the security guard. Wow, it's such a beautiful day outside, blah blah blah blah blah"  

I kept blabbing to this poor intern.  Talk talk talk.  I was talking so much, the only thing I clearly remember was feeling the weight of the key in my left hand, and the soggy box in my right.  I prepared to deposit the last box, cocked my hand back, and threw, still flapping my trap.

The gate key sailed through the air, forming a perfect parabolic arch, its metallic finish glistening in the Florida sun, as if winking at me as a gesture of farewell as it disappeared into the dumpster.  The pelicans jumped after it, curiously staring at it and pooling more poo.


I stood in place, the fish box still in my right hand.   I had to Go In There, in the worst way.  How. Could. This. *(&#%. HAPPEN?!  Well, I'll have you refer to the list at the beginning of this post: I distracted myself with nonstop babble.  This paired with my innate scatter-brainedness created a moment I'll never forget.

The intern stood at my side, frozen, her eyes wide and looking at me.

It was then I realized that she was not empathizing with my really dumb mistake.  Yes, of course throwing the key in meant someone had to go in and get it out of that rancid place.  But as I stared at her ashen face, I realized that she thought that she was going to be the one to retrieve the wayward key.

I looked back at the dumpster, wanting to puke just thinking about what it'd take for me to FIND the key, much less get it out.  

But there was no way I'd make the intern do that task for me.  I was the one that threw the key in, not her.  So I told her, "Hang out here, I need to get the dumpster key."

And she replied, "Are you sure? I can get it.

"Yes, I'm sure.  I'm the moron who threw it in there, it's my job to get it out."

"At my other internship," she said. "The trainers would make me do stuff like this all the time."

That made me more disgusted than the idea of crawling through pelican feces-iced, week-old fish garbage.  Me "making" her do that task would come from a place more rotten than any garbage.   


So I got the dumpster key and opened the gate.  I backed the truck as close as I could to the correct dumpster and peered in.  Maybe it was karma, but the key was just resting on top of a pile of pelican leavings, versus being deeply wedged in the abyss.  I collected the key, threw up in my mouth a little bit, then closed everything up.  When we went to clean and heavily disinfect the truck, I think I poured an entire bottle of Roccal on my hands and hoped for the best.

Effective against 10 viruses, 23 bacteria, 3 fungi, and 1 pelican poop

It's important to remember that no matter what level your team members are, they are human beings, too.  There is really no need for mean-spiritedness.  Yes, it might mean you end up doing something disgusting.  Yes, you may have to ask a junior staff member to do something gross, difficult, or unglamorous.  But if you're asking them to do it just because you don't want to, because you'll enjoy watching them be miserable, or because you think they are somehow "below" you, ask yourself if that's the kind of person you want to be.  I'll bet it isn't.    Hold yourself accountable for your own mistakes and responsibilities.  Just don't throw any keys into dumpsters.

* Yes, please