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

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Only Awful Reality About The Marine Mammal Training Controversy

There's a blog floating around the internet some of you might have heard of: "6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld."   Or maybe you've seen some "documentary" about the topic.

Haven't read it? Take a peek

Let me first say that I do not, nor have I ever worked at any SeaWorld park or any of its affiliates.  I've spent my career working at smaller facilities, most of which are owned privately or are a non for profit business.  

So why am I addressing a blog about a facility I've never worked at? Well, there were a few reasons I initially wanted to dedicate this week's Middle Flipper to it.  But when it came down to it, my fundamental issue deals with a myth many anti-zoo people out there believe.  What is that myth?  Well, here it is:

Marine mammal trainers are "in it" for their ego.

I know which side I want to be on. (P.S. Who made this graphic? I want to know so I can credit them!)

I can't tell you how many people, ranging from close friends to complete strangers have, since the release of Blackfish, told me in some fashion that I am selfish. While on the surface I may love the animals and think I'm doing good in the world, the "real" reason I'm doing what I'm doing is because I'm so deluded by my selfishness to be a marine mammal trainer.  And furthermore, that selfish ego prevents me from seeing the "truth" about what I'm supporting or doing.  Sigh.

I've sat back and heard people's asinine assumptions about my and my colleagues' alleged egomaniacal reasons for wearing a whistle around our necks.  I've stayed quiet about it, because I figured everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  But after I read yet another ridiculous internet contribution to this idea that marine mammal trainers are essentially selfish people trapped in childish notions of self worth, I had to say something.

I could never cut it as a good marine mammal caregiver if I was in it for selfish reasons.

Who's the greatest? This guyyyyy

Luckily for me, the author of "6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld" beautifully portrays what happens to someone who tries to get into the field with selfish notions.  By selfish notions I mean the Look At Me, I'm A Dolphin Trainer! mentality.  You don't last very long in the animal care field if that's your primary motivation. 

First of all, this job requires a TON of grunt work.  This means you're cleaning habitats, getting good and intimate with poop.  As a marine mammal trainer, you're handling tens to hundreds of pounds of fish a day.  Raw fish.  And you're covered in fish slime, skin, scales, and guts for several hours.  You spend hours a day hunched over a sink looking at each individual fish, making sure it meets legal requirements for your animals, not because you don't want to get in trouble with APHIS, but because you want to make sure your animals get the best quality food as possible, because they are relying on you to be on your A-game with their food every single day without fail.

Capelin, the trainer's fragrance of choice

And then you spend an hour or two cleaning up after yourself, which means using a detergent and a disinfectant to sanitize every object that touched fish.  The entire fish kitchen, from floor to ceiling, is cleaned, scale-checked, disinfected, and scale-checked again.  The refrigerator is restocked, because you gotta do it all again tomorrow, with the same level of thoroughness, passion, and dedication.  Oh, are you too tired from your second job?  Did you only get three hours of sleep because you needed to afford your car payment?  Too bad, you can't let that affect how you sort fish at 6am.  Because the animals depend on you; suck it up.

So when I read the part about how being a trainer "ruins" your body, and that we use "harsh compounds" in fish kitchen, I laughed out loud.  What kind of chemicals does this person think humans use in restaurants?  How about a lot of Dawn soap?  How about a diluted bleach or vinegar spray to disinfect buckets, sinks, walls, floors, etc?  Does that seem like a harsh compound?  

Oh no, look at the otter whose life is being saved by a harsh cleaning compound!

Does cleaning all day take its toll on you?  Sure.  Some people's skin dries out (that's what detergent does, no matter how natural the compound is).  We don't use cleaning agents that are so harsh that they a) can't be used on food supplies and b) would hurt our skin or eyes because…why would we use them around the animals? 

Second, there are a lot of sacrifices when it comes to caring for these animals.  Aside from the actual physical labor it takes to keep habitats clean and food properly prepared, there is a massive time commitment.  If an animal falls ill, or is pregnant, or is just born, guess what?  Your weekend and vacation plans are out the window.  You want to be home for Christmas and Thanksgiving?  Too bad.  The animals still need to eat, they still need your full attention.  If I came in on Christmas day and decided that I just had to cut corners with cleaning, food prep, or enrichment because I wanted to be with my family who I never see, guess who pays the price? The animals.  And who exactly am I trying to care for in this job?  The animals.  Not my ego.  So I give up the family time, because that's what I signed up for.

Me at Christmas with some awesome penguins.  Did I miss being with my relatives? Yes.  But my other family lives here.

There are a lot of financial sacrifices, too.  Of the places I worked, I've only been in an corporate environment for a couple of years.  And guess what? Each job I've had paid me barely enough for me to afford electric and water bills, and rent.  Until I moved in with my boyfriend, I was living paycheck to paycheck.  Could I have gotten a job that paid better somewhere else?  Yes.  But I love the animals, and believe in what I help contribute to, so I stayed with it.   This is a common sacrifice with marine mammal trainers.  I've seen trainers driven into debt over things that my other friends with higher paying careers wouldn't bat an eyelash at.  The people who are in it to brag about being a dolphin trainer don't have the necessary drive to stick out the times of extreme financial stress. 

Third, you deal with guests/customers from all walks of life.  I've spent a lot of my career in an interactive or educational setting.  Even though right now I work at a facility where I do dolphin and sea lion shows, there is a heavy emphasis placed on interaction and education.   We get a lot of face time with our park guests, even just walking through the facility to start a session with another group of animals.  

Sometimes, it is the most refreshing thing in the entire world to talk to guests about the animals.  There are always people who care very much about the living world.  Even the people who show up and are clearly not in favor of zoos or aquariums, but have a deep love and passion for the animals, give us all a breath of fresh air when we see that we are not alone in trying to make a difference for the interface between humans and the rest of the natural world.  We also have interactions with people who maybe didn't care or know very much about animals, but who become inspired because they have someone to answer their questions, or give them a cool random biofact about one of the animals.  People light up when we tell them that yes, stingrays are trainable and have individual personalities.  They wow over the fact that alligators aren't mindless machines, that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, that a sea lion can create her own series of behaviors without batting an eye.  That is amazing.

If I help people see how incredible the animals as a species AND as individuals are, then I've earned my paycheck.

But then there are the really infuriating, trying interactions with people.  The people who tell trainers they think their dolphin show was awful, because there weren't enough jumps.  The people who can't understand why you have to cancel an interaction, because the animals are not participating.  "I paid for this," they scream.  "What kind of animal trainers are you?"

We deal with a lot of people who really don't care about animals.  So why do they show up to a zoo or aquarium?  Sometimes there is no answer! We ask ourselves the same question.  But other times they are there with children, grandchildren, or friends.  Sometimes, the animals can break through to those people, at which point they come to the trainers with questions. And sometimes, the relationship the guests see between the animals and the trainers is what breaks through.  It's NOT just us, the humans.  Our show hair, our wetsuits, our whistles, our narrator voice doesn't inspire people to care about animals.  But I'll tell you what does: 

1) Seeing that the animals are not just mindless creatures: the relationships the animals have with the trainers shows people who don't CARE that wait a second, maybe there is something going on inside that dolphin/sea lion/stingray's head

2) Seeing the animals up close and personal in a safe (and legal) manner

3) Having access to animal care professionals who can answer their questions!

So anyone who gets into this field solely to show off their waterwork skills and has no understanding or interest in the benefit of education will not last long in this job.  

Does that mean marine mammal trainers at show facilities don't care about education?  No way!  Show trainers do a great job with waterwork, but they will answer questions.  They will talk to the general public about what they do and why they do it.  They create a venue in which the animals can show off their incredible power.  And while I am more of a public presentation-type gal myself (just a personal preference, not a judgment call), I will be the first to say that many of the people who don't really care about animals in general will often be reached by the shows you'll see at show facilities. 

So, in reference to the Awful Reality #2 ("The Guests Are Drunken Lunatics"), that's what's going to scare the author away from a career in this field?  Did they think everyone who showed up at SeaWorld was going to understand animals the way they thought they did?  Or care about them the way they do?  No!  That's the problem, of course.  But a major part of the author's job as an animal care professional is to educate, and try to reach the people who seem unreachable. 

No comment.

Fourth, and I'll only touch briefly on this because I've addressed it in this blog (and will continue to in future posts): this job is extremely emotional.  You experience the highest highs and lowest lows.  You cannot be in this field for a long time and not experience the death of an animal, because many facilities have at least a few old residents.  Or, you work at a rehab facility where you see a lot of pain and death.  You can't get through that on any level if you are only in it to pat yourself on the back for playing with dolphins.  You. Can't.

Last, if you are really in this for the animals, then you are always looking for ways to improve the system.  What does this mean?  Well, it's different depending on what level you're at in the field.  As an intern or entry-level trainer, your job is to learn as much as possible about working with animals.  It's to cultivate a strong work ethic, to see as much as possible, and to talk to as many people as possible to give yourself a strong foundation.  Why?  Not so that you become the Best Trainer Ever (because uh, that doesn't exist).  But so every day you can become a better trainer, so you can improve the quality of life for each animal you care for, no matter how big their brain is. 

When you get a little more experience and clout, then you can start implementing changes you think are important.  Also, when you get experience, you can more easily move around in the field.  While it's very difficult to get your foot in the door, it's much easier to pick and choose your next job if you've gained enough experience and a good reputation at your first one.  

So what I'm getting at here, is at some point, you need to figure out what you are about ethically speaking.  Does the facility you work at share the same values of animal care as you do?  While I realize this is a sticky subject, we can agree that not all zoos and aquariums are created equally*.  And there are a lot of different opinions about animal care and training.  Some people prefer to work in a rehabilitation setting, because that aligns more closely to their moral compass.  Some people prefer interactive settings, others like corporate environments , while others like mom-and-pop shops.  

Everyone is different!

But it's up to YOU to first, LEARN your trade at your first job.  Then, after a year or so, you can decide if it's the right culture for you.   For those of you reading this who believe that dolphin trainers are just in it for the ego, can  you try to appreciate what it's like to develop relationships with animals and then leave them, because you want to stick to your values?  Do you think someone who just wants to run around in a wetsuit and brag at a bar that they play with magical sea creatures has the inner strength to make a change?

The author of 6 Awful Realties says that he/she volunteered in zoos for five years, then was an intern at SeaWorld.  An intern.  Really? How much credibility can we assume this person has as an intern?

While I can't comment on all facets of the blog (since I haven't worked at SeaWorld and didn't see what was described in some of the "realities"), I can tell you that when I was an intern, there was a lot I saw that I thought I understood, only to find out that I was completely wrong.  

In fact, as an intern there was a particular situation where I naively thought there was a problem with the way a rehabilitated dolphin was being dealt with, because I got caught up with a rumor mill among the volunteers.  When word got around to my boss at the time (who remains one of the most selfless, incredible animal caregivers and trainers I have ever known), she sat me down and rightfully reamed me for my stupidity.  She gave me a perspective I couldn't POSSIBLY have had as an intern.  My four months versus her almost ten years of experience at the time could not have the perspective needed to understand what was going on.  After she explained it all to me, I felt really dumb, because I realized how wrong I was: there was no actual problem.  Not only that, the worst part was had I continued blabbing my opinions about the matter I so poorly understood, it could've resulted in the animals paying the price.  THAT was totally what did it for me; to think that even though I had the best of intentions, my ignorance might have affected the life of an animal made me promise myself that I'd always ask questions and take time to learn the situation before I reacted.

Wow, that dude is flexible.

So again, an intern writing an article about what they perceived at SeaWorld makes me skeptical.  But more importantly, I wonder why that person never asked about the things that horrified them?  Were they afraid of getting fired?  If they were, I want to know about their priorities.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the article:

"But I didn't care. Living that life was utterly intoxicating: People wanted to take pictures with me and asked for my autograph, and little kids acted like I was a superhero. I worked with the most incredible animals in the world." 

Read more:

Pairing the above quote with the fact that the author had to be around "gross" animals, that they had to clean all the time with "harsh compounds", that they had to "deal" with obnoxious guests appears to indicate that the author was really only in it for his or herself.  And if they had such a major issue with the way things were done, what did they do about it?  Again I ask, did they ask their supervisors what was going on to get another perspective, one that involved experience that they didn't have?  Can the author tell his/her readership how long the move for the sharks and rays had been planned?  Can the author perhaps share a photo of what actually happened at the park, instead of a stock image of a bloody cow-nosed stingray from an unknown source? 

If they asked all the questions and voiced your concerns, why didn't they leave and find a place that did things more the way they preferred?  Did they take all that negative energy and channel it into a way of inspiring people to work towards countless marine mammal conservation efforts?  No.  They just wrote a blog article to piss off a bunch of internet trolls.  Congratulations, author of 6 Awful Realities.  You've officially helped 0 animals.  But you've really given the ignorant, vocal minority something to get excited about while the rest of us try to actually do work.

I can speak for myself and many of my colleagues when I say that none of us look at ourselves like we are some kind of celebrity, or feel intoxicated by the attention we get from other people.  What is intoxicating is the feeling of an animal putting his/her trust in you, seeing a child light up when they see their favorite animal, hearing an adult learn something new about an animal that maybe now they'll care about.  

The other stuff is nice, but it isn't what drives us through the sacrifice, the hard work, and the challenges of working in this field.  The animals are truly what inspires us, what makes the sacrifices all worth it.  The idea that maybe just one person who entered our facility with no interest in animals could leave with the desire to help the environment is what gets a lot of us up in the morning.  

Am I proud of my profession? Yes.  I worked (and work) hard to do this.  But I'm prouder of the animals I know and love, and what they accomplish as individuals, in training scenarios, and the people they inspire everyday.  I am just their humble custodian, who is happy to be part of it all.

So what's the actual awful reality here?  Ignorance fueled by unbridled emotion, with a dash of internet sensationalism.  And while the humans fight over whose opinion is correct, the animals wait for us to finish.

* Now this is a blog worth reading:
Thanks for the Controversy: What Anti-Zoo People Have Taught Me