Sunday, May 21, 2017

An Open Letter to Vancouver Park Board Members

Dear Park Board Members,

I know you've gotten a lot of feedback over your recent decision about Vancouver Aquarium. As someone who lives on the opposite end of the continent, who am I to pitch in another voice? Well, I had a very successful career as a marine mammal trainer for the past 12 years, and just recently left to pursue another passion.  However, I am still very connected to the marine mammal community. 

There is something really, really special about that place.  I've only been once, but it is - in my opinion - one of the best aquariums in all aspects: research, animal wellness, habitat design, conservation messaging, insanely advanced and open-minded veterinary care, rescue/rehabilitation...and it doesn't hurt that it's in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  Please believe me when I tell you that Vancouver Aquarium lives its conservation message.


I wanted to better understand who all of you are, because there is no way you'd be on a commission without a pretty impressive background.

You all seem to have huge hearts.  John, you seem like a huge supporter of green and sustainable living.   Casey, you have dedicated your time to helping people in need, like your time volunteering for the Canadian Diabetes Association and promoting an active lifestyle.   Catherine, wow.  A lawyer, an entrepreneur, a warrior for equal rights for all human beings.  Sarah, your work in creating and maintaining green spaces is as impressive as the hotel company you work for, who has a really impressive track record for being environmentally friendly.  Stuart, I love that you not only work with kids with special needs, but that you volunteer your time at (among other places) a hospice.  Michael, your restaurant (wish I could try it...maybe if I ever am lucky enough to live in Vancouver!) sets the bar high for all others in the industry, with an unwavering dedication to sustainable food choices and zero waste.  And Erin, your work in conservation with your eco-friendly spa and special education combined with your academic background in forest genetics is really impressive.

With all that you do to improve not just the city of Vancouver for itself and its residents, but giving so much to human beings who are often over-looked or avoided, I am so surprised at your decision regarding the Vancouver Aquarium.  You decision has effectively signed a death warrant for any cetaceans that need care.  Now they will seek help and receive nothing but an injection of barbiturates, even if they are not critically or terminally ill.
An eight week old Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin who was separated from her mom in Perth, Australia.  She was euthanized after a couple of days because they could not find her mom, and there was nowhere to rehabilitate her long-term.  Here is the news story
Imagine a white-sided dolphin, entangled in fishing gear in such a way that she hasn't been able to eat in weeks.  She is emaciated, she has infections from the wounds resulting from the fishing lines wrapped around her face, dorsal fin, and in her mouth.  She washes ashore, terrified to be away from her family but has no strength to keep up. 

Her care requires more than a quick tune-up and shove back out to sea (seriously, if only it were that easy...).  Her condition is very poor, but not hopeless.  With several weeks or months of rehabilitative care, she can go back out to her family.  She can continue to raise calves...not just her own, but she will add to the survival success of other young dolphins as well.   A few weeks ago, she would have a chance at living her life before becoming hopelessly entangled in gear left by our own species.  The Vancouver Aquarium was the only facility capable of housing rescued cetaceans long-term.  It is not some "let's catch just get more dolphins but say we are rescuing them" scheme.  The Canadian government decides not only if wild dolphins can go back to the wild, and if so, where they go.

An Atlantic white-sided dolphin calf being euthanized in Connecticut.  Story here

What you guys have done is taken away the only beacon of hope for the amazing variety of cetacea that swim your waters.  Is that what you guys want?  With your combined interest and activity in eco-friendly ventures, how do you rationalize killing dolphins?  Stuart, you wrote,

"
Together, we focussed on one incredible action. We seized the opportunity to do some positive work for Qila and Aurora also in the name of a long, sorrowful stream of other Cetaceans who didn't want to die." 
Do you know what it is like to hold down an animal struggling, terrified, and watch the life drain from his eyes as euthanasia solution is pushed through his veins?  It is a horrible experience when a companion animal is "put down"; any animal lover (I am assuming you guys are in this group) knows the dread of making the decision to have a vet end your loved one's life.  This is usually decided based on criteria establishing quality of life, which has deteriorated due to terminal illness or injury.  It is offering a dignified, peaceful death to an aging or ill non-human family member.

That is not the case with euthanizing cetaceans on the beach solely because there is no place to rehabilitate them. 


If you wanted Chester to have a chance at life, but not live at Vancouver Aquarium...where then would you want the DFO to send him?  Which facility?


Please consider traveling with first responder teams to a 6 month old dolphin, who is terrified and whistling for her mother, her eyes wide and frantic. She seems healthy and could be brought to a long-term care such as Vancouver Aquarium, but that option has been removed.  There are no long-term care facilities she can go to within a reasonable distance.  So, because she cannot immediately be put back to sea, her life must be ended. Please consider having to restrain this baby (the equivalent to a one year old human toddler) as a vet tries to find a blood vessel in order to sedate her and eventually stop her heart.  You guys should have the experience at least once of looking at an animal who can be saved with long-term care, or an animal who is healthy but dependent on mom (who has died), and struggle as the animal fights for her life.  You are the ones pinning her down.  You are the last souls she sees as her life is ended.  Ended by the Vancouver Park Board.

Or, you can give these animals hope and a chance at living their lives.


So many of you have advanced degrees.  So many of you do so much for other humans and the environment as a whole.  But it doesn't seem any of you have experience or knowledge in marine mammal natural history, wild or otherwise.  It doesn't appear as though any of you have volunteering in a marine mammal stranding center (you really should do it, it's totally insane and heartbreaking but rewarding....and they need all the help they can get.  You would make a really big difference).  It appears as though you've chosen to ignore the 13,000 letters sent to you against the ban.  Why?

How can such a group of educated, accomplished, passionate people decide to ignore so many voices with experience and knowledge that they lack?  I just don't understand. 

Many of you pride yourselves on your leadership skills in your LinkedIn profiles (Casey, Catherine).  Your roles as leaders in a park board means you need to consider evidence that is in contrast with your personal opinions.  You don't agree with holding cetaceans in captivity.  Okay.  Now you don't agree with bringing ANY cetaceans to Stanley Park...which means you disagree with rehabilitating cetaceans in British Columbia.  Which means you are okay with killing any stranded dolphin, porpoise, or whale. 

Levi, a harbor porpoise who was rehabbed for several months at Vancouver Aquarium, was successfully released back to his home.  Is his life not worth this?


John, you were quoted saying you'd prefer that distressed cetaceans were just hauled up on a boat, treated, and set free.  Seriously John, if it were that easy, we wouldn't need marine mammal rescue centers.   But that is the problem.  In both Canada and the U.S., the federal governments have a long list of criteria that need to be met in order to deem an animal releasable.  There are a number of illnesses, injuries, and conditions (e.g. Dependent calves) that cannot be treated on a boat, or in a small hospital pool.  The DFO requires that to rehabilitate a cetacean, they need to have habitats that currently, only Vancouver Aquarium has.   It seems surprising to me that someone with your background would make such a naive comment in light of the scientific evidence you have been given by true marine mammal advocates.  

John, I swear I am not picking on you, but what about your heavy involvement with the Bloedel Conservatory? That place looks INCREDIBLE.  And it has lots of free-flighted parrots.  Parrot species which are extremely endangered in their native lands.  Is it okay to keep these extremely intelligent animals - ones who are consistently and illegally exploited for the pet trade - in captivity?  Is it because each animal at the conservatory was born in a zoological-type facility?  Are any of those birds caught from the wild?  Are parrots a large draw to the conservatory?  Do they contribute meaningfully to the revenue brought in?



Stuart, I know that you are firmly planted in the "anti" captivity camp.  I read several of your most recent blogs, including one in which you posted a letter from Steve Huxter.  You're clearly very concerned about the well-being of cetaceans.  You're disgusted by the drive hunts and thoughtless collection (capture) of whales and dolphins from the wild, as am I.  As are most of us who work or have worked with captive marine mammals.  We have some common ground.

But let me tell you something I have learned in my 12 year career: the general public does not care about animals.  Not like you, not like me.  They literally need it slapped in their apathetic (or, occasionally, well-meaning) faces.  Is that my argument for you to suddenly switch positions on this topic of the educational value of cetaceans in human care? No, I'm not trying to insult your intelligence or your passion.  But hear me out:

When I worked at Clearwater Marine Aquarium -a rescue and rehabilitation facility in Florida - I worked with this amazing dolphin named Panama (here is a blog all about her, if you're interested). Long story short, she was an older dolphin found near death as a direct result of humans feeding her from their boats and piers.  She received completely inappropriate food and very poor quality fish and fell very, very ill.  The older calf she had did not hunt; he/she had learned to beg for food and that was it. 

Panama was rescued, rehabilitated, and deemed unreleasable by the U.S. government.  She was placed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  At some point during her illness or stranding, she completely lost her hearing. 

Panama in 2010


Let me tell you something, Stuart.  After I gave my public presentation on the dolphins, it wasn't unheard of for people to come up to me and actually APOLOGIZE for the times they fed wild dolphins.  It was like this bizarre confessional situation, where I was basically answering the standard "how long do they live" and "how smart are they" questions and boom, someone would approach me with a terrified and/or sheepish look on their face and say, "....I fed dolphins from my boat. I had no idea it could do something like this."

Your concern regarding the "cycle" of lonely cetaceans at Vancouver Aquarium shows that you're concerned about their mental well-being from a social standpoint.  Trust me when I say that any caretaker worthy of their position and responsibility shares your concern.  I'm offering a different perspective on what Chester and Daisy, and others like them provide.  They give a rare and powerful wake-up call to people who would otherwise literally not think twice about doing something really harmful to a dolphin or porpoise...or generally, the ocean itself.

I lived in the mecca of illegal wild dolphin interaction when I worked in the Florida panhandle.  I saw dolphins begging for fish from boats, and even worse, I saw essentially flotillas of jetskiers chase down dolphins on shallow sandbars....including a mother with a very young calf.  The jetskiers were totally happy just to be near dolphins, but had no idea what damage they were causing (or could've caused).  When I approached them, they blew me off, saying if the dolphins wanted to swim away, they could.  I reported them to NOAA, and nothing ever happened.  The same thing kept happening with different groups of people.  I wonder, if they'd seen a calf who was orphaned because his mother was killed by a boat strike, if they would reconsider their actions in a similar situation.

One of the shots I took (from an idled boat) to try to report these people.  The mom and calf are just under the surface

The calf....very, very young.  Probably around a month or two.  Too young to be able to out-maneuver watercraft, which means mom won't leave his side.  They both had to avoid as best as possible these obnoxious people. 


So many of the reasons why marine mammals strand nowadays is because of human-related activity.  Don't you think it's worth exploring an alternative concept of a "conservation-themed" exhibit? Where people can see animals like Chester and Daisy, understand their unique situations, see how well cared for they are, and understand how animals like them wind up in situations where the Canadian government decides they cannot be released back to the sea? 

Too all of you, please reconsider your decision.  Please talk to the DFO (why haven't you already done this? This is so disappointing and scary). Please consider being involved in actual marine mammal rescue before you make a decision like this.  Remain consistent with the ways you guys have ALL chosen to live your lives: to make the city of Vancouver a better place for all of its residents...especially the ones who need help the most.  Why limit your compassion to humans?

Sincerely,
Cat Rust

_________________

A huge thanks to Malgosia Kaczmarska for helping me sort through fact and fiction in this messy situation.  A resonating shout-out to Friends of the Vancouver Aquarium for their INCREDIBLY rallying cry and fierce dedication (who else would stand in the pouring rain for four hours just trying to be heard in order to spare the lives of animals we care so much about)?  Vancouver Aquarium yet again sets the bar. 



Sunday, May 14, 2017

The OLD Dolphins

There are definitely many reasons why I consider myself lucky.  One of those reasons is that I've had the pleasure of knowing more than my fair share of Old Lady Dolphins.  Considering today is Mother's Day in the U.S., I think today's topic is pretty fitting.  In fact, I'd like to go even further and talk about a very special lady I got to know at my last job.

Happy mother's day!


There are probably many of you dolphin trainers (extant and extinct) who will know exactly who I'm talking about....and you probably have a lot of stories of your own to share.  So PLEASE do.  

#goals
First, let's just talk about Old Lady Dolphins (herein referred to as OLDs*).  I have written about a few of these gals before (Nellie, Pebbles, Panama, Delilah) but I feel like it's worth revisiting the classification of this very special personality type.

Second, some of you work with social animals who are matriarchal in nature (I'm really looking at you, elephant keepers).  What I write today may ring true for some of the golden girls in your life, so correct me if I make this too specific to dolphins, but....

....dolphins are "special".   Like, they are the High Maintenance Animal of the universe.  I haven't talked to any extinct species, but I would be utterly shocked if we found out that deinonychus or wooly mammoths were as ridiculously dramatic as dolphins.  I mean, dolphins as a family are pretty successful evolutionarily speaking.  So the whole diva thing must really be working for them.

THAT'S what she was trying to tell me?!

This is not just a personality trait, people.  While I will admit there are laid back dolphins, most of them are basically insane.  Bottlenose dolphins are top predators.  They are so good at what they do in the wild that they have tons of free time on their hands to terrify sharks who are just trying to do shark things, like breathe, eat, and avoid human beings.   Dolphins also have a lot of sex, like to the point where I feel like it must offend other ocean creatures who struggle every day just to put food in their bellies and/or not die.  

We all know that the ocean is not a quiet place, and not just because Chatty Cathy dolphins live in it.  We know that the other vertebrates and invertebrates who populate the seas make noise a lot.  Why?  Oh, I'll tell you why, and I don't need a PhD in marine blah blah blah to know that 96% of oceanic animal sounds are essentially just a bunch of critters pointing out how annoying dolphins are.

Parrot fish:  Oh great, there go the dolphins again
Sailfish:  If I see one more dolphin penis I'm gonna gag
Menhaden: How DO they find the time?


All day all night


But life is balance, right?  You may have dolphins acting like the confident, world rulers that they are....but they also poop their figurative pants because a bubble appeared 78 feet away from their left eye (little known fact: this is unacceptable to many dolphins). Oh yes, there is another side to this coin.  If there wasn't, how could dolphins survive more than a few months without having major stress-related strokes and/or psychotic breaks?

OLDs.

"HEY. HEY YOU"

OLDs are around to calm the waters, literally and figuratively.  They are the emotional bomb squad of the dolphin world.  If things have gotten entirely out of hand (you know, Flippy can't possibly sit next to Dolly, because she once moved her head too suddenly and plus she totally stole Flippy's football four years ago), you can almost always count on an OLD to settle the score.  

Flippy: Oh my god seriously, if I have to station next to Dolly I am seriously going to flip out
Dolly: OMG OMG OMG OMG OKAY I WILL NEVER STATION NEAR YOU OR AROUND YOU OR IN THE SAME POOL IN FACT I WILL JUST NEVER STATION AGAIN I WILL JUST SIT IN THE CORNER AND BARF
Flippy: GOOD! But I'm still going to chase you just because I CAN
OLD:  Listen.  Both of you better grow the eff up, because I will use all 600 pounds of my beautiful self to set you straight

Oh, did I mention that most OLDs are huge?  Like, huge.  Maybe 100 pounds heavier than the other animals.  Nellie had rock hard abs, not even kidding. 


How DOES she find the time?

They command respect, but not usually through aggression (although it may come to that in extreme cases).  OLDs use leadership skills that many animal trainers could stand to follow once they get a senior or supervisor title next to their names (sorry not sorry, it's true).  Most of the time, they are the dolphin everyone wants to be with.  They are the dolphin that swims past and everyone just stares in admiration.  And when someone steps out of line, they do the least amount of nastiness possible, returning quickly to their calm, wonderful selves.

Got the picture?  Good.  Now let's talk about Nani.

Squeeeeeee


Nani was the oldest dolphin at National Aquarium, who unfortunately passed away a couple of months ago. I was privileged to get to know her, and work with her.  Um. Work FOR her.  

Nani was the queen of the clan.  She had a way about her that made all mammals near her - humans and dolphins alike- instantly fall in love.  Maybe it was her gorgeous, dark skin.  Maybe it was her little teddy bear eyes.  Or maybe it was because she was smarter than everyone she knew.

"Did you get my snacks yet?"


While I only worked with her for eight short months, I racked up a good amount of Nani stories in which I was further made aware of my puny standing as a naked ape.  For example, like many OLDs, she had figured out that hanging on to her toys at the end of the day meant she would get an extra snack.  However, she was one of the only OLDs I knew who would approach you, let go of her toy and place it JUST out of reach, and try to house the extra fish you were feeding the other dolphins for stationing.  And you know what?

Not a single dolphin dared taking that toy.  Every other place I have worked, if anyone (OLD or otherwise) let go of a contraband toy, someone else snatched it up.  But not with Nani.  Those rare times another dolphin attempted to steal the leverage, Nani pulled her Boss Lady card and the mistake was not repeated.

Yes, Miss Nani.


She also completely controlled husbandry training of her kids.  Her adult kids.  Now, that might not surprise some of you when you think about how female bottlenose dolphins stay with their moms their entire lives in most cases.  So yeah, when her daughter Spirit was in a blood layout, Nani would sometimes come over and yell at both human and dolphin, causing Spirit to kick out of the layout.  Pretty sure Nani knew this maneuver would result in lots of splashing that filled up our boots with water so we had gross, soggy whitefeet for the entire day.

Actual dolphin trainer foot


But she also did this with her adult son.  As is typical, Nani did not live with her adult son Beau.  And still, when he was in a blood layout, she would interfere in some way from entirely different habitats.  And he, the obedient momma's boy, would immediately stop what he was doing, as if he was just caught doing something wrong.

Nani: BEAU! BEAU BEAU.  ARE YOU IN A BLOOD LAYOUT IN THERE?
Beau: NO! No ma! I don't know what you're talking about, I would never do that! No!

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times.  You don't let those two-legged freaks touch your precious flukes."


There were many attempts to smooth this issue with training, with some success.  According to trainers who had been there a while, Nani had gotten much better and most times, you could work your husbandry approximations without interference.  Correction: whatever we did made Nani comfortable ALLOWING us to continue.  But every once in a while, she had to remind all of us who was really in charge.

Like all OLDs I knew, she was extremely maternal.  Not just towards dolphins, either.  She stared at human babies like they belonged to her. Maybe that creeps some of you put, but I thought it was pretty adorable.

Nani (left) and her daughter Spirit staring at me and my daughter!



Nani filled a lot of hearts over a long period of time. She was an extremely bright, confident animal who knew how to keep a family together. Her loss was and still is profoundly felt.  She is definitely one of the most memorable OLDs I have ever met. And if you never had the honor of knowing her, I hope you feel like you knew her after reading this. 

Thank you, sweet Nani.

:)








______________

  • OMG...I so did NOT even intend for that acronym to work out so perfectly.  I'd love to have you all believe I'm some sort of English wordsmith genius but too many of you know me for who I really am: a former dolphin trainer who really wishes she was R2D2. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Another Embarrassing Work Story

Okay, last week got heavy.  But thanks to all of you who responded! I got a lot of great, supportive feedback :)

This week though, I think I owe you guys not JUST a light-hearted entry, but one where I make myself look like a complete and utter moron.

 
Cat "The Moron" Rust has a nice ring to it.


Now before I get into the gory details, this is a disclaimer that um, I'm kind of immature in a joking way with people who share the same type of humor.  Most of you who know me personally are probably saying some version of the phrase, "....and what else is new?", but some of you who either a) don't know me or b) think highly of me (I realize this is likely a scant few) may be shocked or possibly even offended by this story.  That's your warning, and I hope you still want to be my friend.


Think this is tasteless? Read on.


Ahhhh.  Here goes.

So I put in my notice at National Aquarium towards the end of September.  It was sad, because I really enjoyed working there and it also signaled the end of my marine mammal career.  Lots to process, to say the least.  But everyone was super supportive of my new path.

My final weeks were filled with tying up loose ends, playing with lots of dolphins, and causing trouble with my coworkers.  One of these coworkers is a fantastically sarcastic, hilarious person (who is herein referred to as Snarky McSnarkerson).  Let me just give you a quick breakdown of this wonderful human being and the relationship I have with her.

On my first day on the job as lead trainer, I was sitting in the marine mammal office in the usual This Is My First Day On The Job Oh My God I Have Forgotten Everyone's Name Already And Also Where Are The Bathrooms whirlwind, when this tornado of a human being blasts through the door and says:

"THIS MOTHERF***** JUST THREW CHICKEN INTO THE HABITAT."

A small voice from an unseen place replies, "Um, Snarky McSnarkerson?  This is Cat, our new lead."

Oopsy poopsy


Ms. McSnarkerson looks at me, color drained from her face and says something like, "Oh.  Oh my god.  I'm so sorry.  BUT THIS KID JUST THREW CHICKEN INTO THE POOL."

I was already LOLing at this point, reassuring Snarky that it was seriously fine (no guests could hear her) as we all assembled to gate the dolphins out of the main habitat to retrieve the chicken.  And so, the stage was set for my rapport with this sassy trainer.

Aside from sarcasm and talking in a variety of obnoxious accents, we shared another slightly more edgy activity that involved using the iPhone's message drawing feature to send uh, cartoonish representations of male genitalia to each other.  Sometimes they wore hats.  They almost always had faces, although once we made one into a palm tree. I'm pretty sure she made one into a Christmas tree at some point.  But I digress.

YEAH

These phallic images were sent liberally to one another, almost to the point where it was expected that we would exchange at least one image on a weekly basis.  And so, this trend continued for the duration of my employment.

Precisely eight days before my last day, I was in the office taking care of some random stuff.  Snarky was on her lunch break, probably eating some version of pizza and/or pretzels (she is also like 9 pounds, which just isn't fair), watching The Bachelor on her phone.  You know, like you do.   I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to send her a well drawn cartoon of a giant, fluorescent wiener.  Like, huge.  With a really cute little smiley face.   I scribbled away, admired my work, and sent it into cyberspace where it was delivered to Snarky's phone.

I waited.  The reception in the office was wonky at times, so I didn't expect an immediate response.  But then seconds turned into a minute.  Then two.  Then three. 

Waiting waiting waiting


Confused, I asked Ms. McSnarkerson if she'd gotten my text.  She looked up from her phone and said, "I don't think so."  She scrolled through her messages.  "No."

"What?" I said.  I looked down at my phone.  The message had sent.  And then.... "OH. OH GOD"

At this point, a few of the other trainers (equally awesome as Snarky, might I add) started paying attention to my blossoming panic attack.  Because I hadn't sent the giant dick pic to Snarky.

I had sent it to my boss.

Actual footage from the event


There it was, in all its colorful, smiling glory.  A cartoon penis, just sitting in my boss's text message window, without any explanation whatsoever.  Just a friendly cartoon phallys from your quitter-employee, Cat.

I looked at my phone for what seemed like hours.  I think I might have yelled incoherently until I was better able to express what was happening in actual language.  My panic is reaching critical mass as I spew out every possibility that results in my boss NOT seeing the message:

"DO YOU THINK SHE SEES IT BECAUSE IT DOESN'T SAY SHE READ IT YET"

"DO YOU THINK MAYBE SHE EVEN HAS THIS FEATURE ON HER IPHONE BECAUSE MAYBE SHE CAN'T SEE IT BECAUSE MAYBE SHE DOESN'T HAVE THIS FEATURE ON HER PHONE"

"DO YOU THINK MAYBE THIS IS JUST A NIGHTMARE AND ALL OF YOU IN THIS OFFICE ARE JUST FIGMENTS OF MY IMAGINATION"

And then a little line of text popped up under the grinning appendage.  "[Your boss] kept Digital Touch Message from you."

I actually fell to the floor and curled up in the fetal position as my coworkers laughed at my insanely mortifying mistake.  I was doing something that hovered between sobbing, laughing, and pooping.  I waited.  And then I sent my boss a text to try to begin damage control.

And here is how the conversation went:





Luckily, she was super awesome about it.  And later I found out she thought the photo was some kind of message regarding the penis present behavior I was working on with another amazing trainer.  It just goes to show that in zookeeping, no body part is considered lewd (and you know what? It should be like that...right?). 

Sigh.  Please tell me some of you have similar stories.....

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hi! I'm Back!

Hiiiiiiii

Oh god, it's been so long.  So first: I AM SO SORRY.

I'm on my knees! Or sitting in a swivel chair.  


Second, there's a reason I took a hiatus....and then continued to write and rewrite the next blog....and then procrastinated.

So first let me thank two dear friends who have been actively involved in marine mammal training for helping me get this latest blog out to the universe.  It was seriously like a gigantic poop that needed to come out, but just wouldn't no matter how many trips to the ol' W.C. it took. (Look, you are all zookeepers so I feel like you can handle this analogy.)

God that feels good


For those of you who don't know, I left the field to pursue the equally amazing field of forensic science.  Yes, I voluntarily put myself in FAFSA debt so I could hopefully one day be gainfully employed dealing with delicious science.  Mostly, I just wanted a lab coat and to use pipettes every day. 

Anyways, I've been working hard at getting my M.S. in forensic science.  I LOVE it but it has completely taken over my life.  And I've been doing a lot of thinking about the marine mammal community....what it was like to leave it, what it's like to be on the outside, and what overlap there'll be in my new chosen field with the old one.  There are a few things I want to talk about.

The pipe really drives it home


First, some of the reason why it took me so long to publish this blog is because - honestly- I was pretty angry.   Was it at animal rights activists?  Or did I turn anti-captivity?

Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.  ...but candy. 


No and no.  While there have been a few incidents that have really upset me that have had to do with animal rights extremists (Vancouver Aquarium, anyone?), the thing that really hurt me was the belief some of you had that I "went to the other side."  That sentiment started happening around the time I started at National Aquarium, and it seems like it kind of spiraled into a sad little story.

It doesn't have to be this way


So let's just make sure you all know, I am NOT anti-zoo.  You know what I am? I am pro-animal, like all of you.  I believe in the incredible work that many zoos and aquariums do.   Those are the places that put their animals first, and the ones who are willing to take feedback (no matter how critical) and use it to make themselves better.  That was something I thought I'd find at National Aquarium; they want to do something different for their animals.  And you know what? Their dolphins are AMAZING.  Their vet and training staff are some of the most dedicated I've ever seen, both towards the animals and towards the staff.  I thought it was a really cool idea to think about building a state of the art facility for the animals. 

Here's something really interesting I've come across since starting my new journey: the forensic science field -especially fingerprint and firearms comparison- has been pretty heavily scrutinized by not just the media, but institutions like the National Institute for Justice.  I mean, reading this stuff made me think, "Oh my god, the marine mammal community knows what this feels like."  It's the same song you guys know: a combination of smart people and people with strong opinions but with basically no real world experience make some pretty sweeping, damning statements about things they really don't seem to understand.

Because I has strongish feelings


But what's interested me the most in this parallel situation is not so much how the criticism (or its delivery...including documentaries, websites, official reports, etc.) is similar.  It's how drastically different the forensic science community handled (handles?) it as compared to the marine mammal community.

I love you guys, seriously.  But what we collectively are not doing very well is responding scientifically to our critics.  Yes, I know a handful of you have, which is awesome. But collectively, we still basically dig our heels in the sand and declare that we are the "experts"....without actually acting like experts in our response to our critics.

If you're super mad at that last paragraph, you're proving my point.  We have a really distracting emotional response to Blackfish, Ric O'Barry, or the disgruntled guest who thinks our dolphins should have bigger habitats.  We respond with buzz words, but not with empirical evidence.  Let's look at an example I encountered quite a bit at one of my former facilities.

When we were discussing building a larger habitat for the dolphins, who live in a 60 year old exhibit, these are actual replies we got from those who had the power to change the situation:

"There's no evidence supporting the notion that larger habitats are better for dolphins."

"Saying you want a bigger dolphin habitat is what an animal rights activist would say."

"Saying we need a better habitat means the one we have is not adequate, and it's plenty adequate.  It far exceeds the USDA requirements."

Look what we did to this poor pup


Sigh.  Okay.  Do you see the problem yet?  I know some of you do, because I've talked to you on the phone, via email, or in person about this issue.  And it seems to be pretty standard at most (not all!!) places.  And the problem seems to be a combination of the following:

1) Lots of newer generation trainers do not tend to agree with management in terms of ethics of habitats, treatment, and focus of their animal programs.

2) Saying there is no evidence supporting that larger habitats are better is....a circular argument.  There is no evidence because there is very little true research on this topic.  Guys, that doesn't count.  YES of course there are quantifiable facts we can share with the world; bottlenose dolphins tend to live well past their average life span in human care.  They reproduce very well.  That is a testament to great care, but it is not the same as saying we have "research" to prove our habitats are the best they can be.  

To be fair, we have cranked out a LOT of fantastic veterinary/physiological research.  We even have a good chunk of cognitive research out there, which is fantastic.  But we need more behavioral and "welfare" research.  We need to define how we scientifically define wellness, and then measure that within our various populations.  

Marry me.


You know what forensic science did when they got nailed on not having enough true research?  When a Obama's presidential committee said, "Uh, your science like, isn't valid and you don't have any research to prove it"?  They did research.   They said, "We really disagree with this statement, raaaahhh we are so mad!! WE ARE SO MAD WE ARE TOTALLY GONNA DO RESEARCH TO SHOW YOU!" and they did.  There was an EXPLOSION of research and publications.  And many of these institutions did not have a lot of funding.  They had to apply for grants, or do some magical things with their budgets.  They knew they had to make it happen not just for their critics, but for their field of discipline as well.

Let me tack on here that one common argument against conducting research in marine mammal facilities I've encountered a lot is that we don't have time in between shows and interactions.  I understand we have to make money to spend it on the animals. But that cannot be the end of the conversation. If we want to make our animal care the best it can be, and we call ourselves experts in a scientific field, we HAVE to make time for research. That means we have to get creative with our daily programming.  Other places have done this successfully, and there are a lot of really smart, creative people in this field.  If you are not interested in finding time to do research, then let people on your team who are motivated to do so find a way.  It is absolutely possible in most cases. 

Everything I've ever learned, I've learned from Will Ferrel movies


3) Wanting something NEW and "better" does not automatically mean you suck right now.  Change is a good thing.  Change is not giving in to animal rights activists.  It's being the zoological scientists we are and saying, "Hmm, this aspect of our care is going well.  But this one isn't.  Or it could be better."

Be like Rafiki. 


Lastly, I think it's important to be careful how we handle trainers and zookeepers who have these different ideas.   It's not as simple as "if you're not with us, you're against us."  SO many of you guys have told me that's how you feel it is.  Many of you have left jobs hoping to find a place that shares your morals when it comes to marine mammal care.  Many of you say you're sticking around where you work so you can work your way up the ladder to get into a position to change things.  Many of you bite your tongue because you don't want to be labeled as an animal rights activist.  I totally get that, because I've been in that position too.

For example, one of the biggest criticisms I heard about National Aquarium's decision?  That the dolphins would be put in sea-pens.  Sea pens.  Like, the kind they have at Dolphin Quest.  DRC.  The Navy.  Okay, are we sure that we don't like sea pens?

Cool!


Wait, maybe we don't like animals going from a manmade environment to natural sea water.  How we will acclimatize the animals?  Um, why don't we ask those questions when we transport dolphins from similar conditions? From natural and/or outdoor habitats to indoor, manmade ones and vice versa? Guys, we do this ALL the time.   I've literally dumped a dolphin who made a transcontinental transport into a pool with two other male dolphins with zero acclimation.  He was fine.  The others were fine.  

What I'm saying is, we can't just freak out because a facility decides to try something different.  Our arguments become really emotional, and really hypocritical.  UNLESS.  Unless we say, "Hey, you know what, maybe if we're uncomfortable with transport protocol, we should collectively study this.  And you know what? Let's pair up with that place we're not totally in agreement with to work together to gather some information, swap some ideas." 

But not on Saturdays.


But we keep getting hung up on "letting the activists win" or "we have to stick together" and shut down new ideas.  Guys.  Stop.  The marine mammal community has got bigger goals to achieve.  We've got to look at our facilities and say, "Let's do some research" and "What's working really well here...and what's really NOT."  We have got to stop criticizing other facilities for stupid things like....maintaining natural social groups, phasing out shows, whatever.  Those facilities are not dolphin huggers or weaklings who caved to Blackfish.  Those facilities are managing their animals a) the way most zoos manage their animals....in natural situations and b) those facilities are cranking out some amazing research.  Let's not make fun of them.  What are they doing that is working?  It may not be exactly what you want to do, and that is okay.  What's even more okay is sharing info with each other without passing harsh, sophomoric judgment. 

Come on! Let's have some fun! Let's dream!!! What is YOUR dream facility? What kinds of things would you do there?  Start really asking yourself those questions, no matter what level you are.  And if you're in a managerial level, be open to new ideas.  Those are what make us BETTER.  They are not dangerous.  And let's do some RESEARCH guys!!! Get those training brains to work: if you love research, design some ideas.  If you hate the idea of research but love training, you've got endless opportunities to train some amazing behaviors.    Oh my god, there are so many incredible things you can do.  I know a lot of you....so I can only imagine what you guys can do with a little support from your institution.

With a gif like Bill Murray, you know I'm serious. 


I've got some cool content coming up, and some interesting forensic-y stuff, too.  So this isn't the end of the Middle Flipper, it just needed a breather.  Thanks for sticking with me! I heart you guys, no matter if you agree with this blog :). Feel free to reach out to me if you need to talk, whether you're supportive of my opinion or you want to have a mature discussion exploring our different perspectives!