Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cat's at a Hurricane Party--I'm Taking Over (For This Week)

Your favorite Middle Flipper author is stuck in the Bahamas this weekend with the rest of IMATA. Thanks to hurricane Joaquin showing up late to the conference then throwing a big fit when they wouldn’t let him in, you get me, Russ, as your guest writer.

In the epic vacancy left here by Cat, I’m humbly shuffling onto the stage like Seymour filling in for Clyde.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Cat's husband, a former marine mammal trainer, and currently Cat's biggest fan.

Hurricanes are no laughing matter--they can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods, and I’ll start this post by saying that my heart goes out to those on the out islands of the Bahamas who’ve been slammed by Joaquin. 

But as a marine mammal trainer, you’d better be prepared to deal with a hurricane or two throughout your career. Oh, you’ll deal with plenty of scares thanks to 24-hour weather coverage, but taking a direct hit is a different animal altogether.

This would be a good time to prepare.

Being in the cone and in the eye are two very different things, and if you wear a whistle long enough, you’ll probably get to experience both.

For me, my first real hurricane experience came in my second year of zoo work. Until then, hurricanes generally meant: buy a bunch of batteries, wax up the board and strategize my way out of school. But life was different once I took my first grown-up job.

After working my way into a job with the animals at Sea World, I eventually scored a position at Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in 2004.

Yes, that’s the DRC where folks in the MarMam field always say they want to land a job at some point. And yes, that’s the 2004 that kicked off three years of relentless hurricane beatings in the state of Florida.

I ran from Jeanne, but I couldn't hide. So I surfed.

We were hit from the west, south and east that year and I logged over 1,000 miles on Florida Interstates chasing waves and running from storms with names--it was a busy year to be a guy living in a matchbox on a dock in the keys and a surfer on the weekends with a job during the week.

What follows is sort of a survival guide for young trainers bound to experience the oddities of a hurricane landfall at some point in their careers--well, at least my version of a guide.

Get Some Jerry Cans

I’m a second generation Florida native, and that comes in handy because my parents have already experienced the weirdness of Florida long before I had to deal with it myself. 

A unique thing about living here is that I’ve seen what it will look like when the oil finally runs out. We don’t have refineries in Florida, so our oil comes in by truck. But when the southbound lanes are closed, whatever’s in the ground is all there is. That means that during an evacuation gas stations get f****** crazy. Throw in the fact that south Florida is home to approximately a China-load of people, and you have a mass exodus and limited fuel combination that can lead to a Walking Dead scenario.

These are jerry cans. Buy them. Fill them. Transport them safely--Avoid Walkers.

So buy some damned jerry cans. This tip was passed to me by my dad who said before I set out on a 350-mile evacuation, “Fill some jerry cans and put them in the back of your truck--and cover them up so you don’t get shot.” 

It was good advice because I stopped for a coke at a gas station in Martin County on my way north to Daytona Beach. They had one pump running at a trickle and about twenty cars in line. Everybody was out of fuel and the gas stations all had highway patrolman stationed limiting each car’s fuel purchase. While a rear-end collision could have rained fire on my parade, I did get to sip a cool soft drink while cruising right past every almost-out-of-fuel gas station thanks to good advice from dear ol’ dad.

Buy Beer and Dry Ice Early

As the bottled water stocks dwindle, beer prices will go up. Count on that. As a dolphin trainer, you’re into a bargain, and that means you’ll need to stock up on your favorite canned cocktail before it hits champagne prices. This means hit the stores before a hurricane warning is issued. Dry ice is a good choice because when the power goes out, it will keep your beer and pot pies cool for several days. 

Get to the store before this happens.

Oh, and buy some food, too.

Get Your Swim Test Practice

Start surfing now. It’s a great alternative to boring exercise, and when a hurricane threatens it can be the best swim test practice you’ve ever had--but you’ll need several year’s experience to take advantage. 

Note to beginners: that's not a surfboard.

I mentioned that chasing waves was a big part of the miles I drove in 2004, and that’s because there are no legitimate surf spots in the keys. However, with storms bouncing all around the Atlantic basin, Florida received some epic waves. This meant heading north nearly every weekend during that season either chasing a swell or running from a storm.

Paddling out takes it’s toll on the arms in a big hurricane swell, but the best swim test practice I’ve ever had is losing my board on a big day and having to swim in after it. 

Once this happened as a result of a broken leash on one of the biggest days I’ve ever seen in Florida. The barrier islands were closed, and getting to the beach required sneaking across three blocks of a locked-down neighborhood with cops patrolling. And I was wearing yellow flowered shorts and carrying a ten-foot red board.

I’m not going to say you should defy a mandatory evacuation, sneak past patrolling police, and paddle out from a closed beach. In fact you shouldn’t. Don’t do it. 

But it is one heck of a way to build the confidence that makes a 110-foot underwater swim feel like a day at, well, the beach.

Just don’t do it.

Be On Call

In the days leading up to a hurricane’s arrival, especially those last 72 hours when it becomes more and more imminent, prepare to work like you’ve never worked before. Depending on the facility where you work, the animals could be in serious danger, and that’s going to require some major prep. 

You’ll be working like a construction worker one minute and then spending hours in the freezer the next. Everything has to be ready for intense storm conditions and the possibility of days without power following it.

Be there when your supervisors ask for your help. Trust me--your help is needed.

Until it’s time to evacuate, you’re working to save the lives of your animals, and that means safeguarding their habitats and securing their food.

Preparing for a storm is hard work, but you’ll do it because, when it comes down to it, those animals are the reason you do what you do. 

We'll just hang out while you get everything ready.

You may or may not become a millionaire, but you’ll have a relationship and love for those animals that only a handful of humans have ever experienced.

When it comes time for your first hurricane experience as a marine mammal trainer, enjoy it. Take it seriously. And give your all. I’ll tell you that when it gets bad, you’ll be amazed at the way everyone comes together.

You’ll get your Cat back next week, but until then send her some photos and comments about your craziest natural-disaster-at-work experience!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mentionitis: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

I had this interesting email exchange with a trainer a couple of weeks ago.  She told me she felt she had a case of "Mentionitis."  I instantly fell in love with that term and asked her if I could use it in one of my blogs.

So what is Mentionitis?  


I did a little research on it and found that WebMD does not consider it an actual illness.  So I've taken the liberty of creating a page for it and hope all the goodly folks at WebMD feel free to use it whenever they feel ready.

Topic Overview

It's a disease!

Mentionitis' etiology usually starts in more benign territory.  We as animal care professionals love our animals, love our job, and want to be the best at it.  We also want to hear what other people in the field are doing, because most of us have an insatiable drive to better ourselves.  We worked tooth-and-nail to break into the field, too.  We have learned how to make ourselves stand apart from a crowd.  In fact, this last point is the likeliest vector for this particular ailment.

Mentionitis can happen to zookeepers at any level (intern to whatever-the-highest-position-in-your-facility-is) but is more frequently seen in less-experienced animal care professionals.

Common Causes


* Often, the desire to prove oneself to a new employer combined with the already-mentioned inherent internal drive to prove one's worthiness in the field is the main cause. 

* Lack of personal confidence

* Being in a position of leadership, especially at a new facility


Oh no, kitty! Don't get Mentionitis!!!

* Five or more times per week, many sentences preceded with, "At such-and-such facility, we used to..." or some variation of said phrase.  This symptom is difficult to detect initially; it is often suddenly obvious in later stages of the illness.

* A sudden inability to listen to what's being said by other parties, followed quickly by an uncontrollable urge to speak

* Patients may experience inner feelings of criticism or judgment, but this is not a necessary symptom for diagnosis

* May have a tone of superiority

What Happens

Perception is reality.  Also, where can I find such a perfectly crafted tiny kitty mirror?

People suffering from Mentionitis often find themselves talking about previous experiences in situations where their current experience differs from their old one(s).  They often "mention" what they used to do or observed at another facility at a consistently high rate for longer than a few weeks. This is likely a reaction to a feeling of under confidence on a topic or situation that used to feel comfortable to them, but no longer does due to unfamiliar people, animals, and methods.  

In many cases, Mentionitis is a defense mechanism in which the victim feels he or she "looks stupid" because they mistake being new at something for being ill-equipped for the job.  The more the patient feels this way, the more acute Mentionitis tends to be.

This ailment can also present itself in power-play.  While the underlying cause (lack of confidence) remains the same, it is not necessarily always used as defense in these cases.  Previous experience may be used more as a lording-over, versus thoughtful data input.  

In all cases, discussing previous experiences is only Mentionitis if it occurs:

1) More than five times a week for several weeks or months
2) There is little to no active listening occurring
3) There is a general tone of superiority

In almost all cases of Mentionitis, the victim experiences the opposite of the desired effect.  Where they sought to prove themselves as worthy animal care professionals, they are now viewed as know-it-alls.  

A long-term case of Mentionitis decreases trust and gives the appearance that you don't really want to be at your current zoo or aquarium.  It gives the impression that you are constantly criticizing the decisions made by your new team members.  This is often not the intention of the victims of this disease, but is the unfortunate and undebatable perception.  This causes understandable frustration with both parties. 

What Increases Your Risk

If you're a human, you're going to get Mentionitis at least once in your life

* Being human

* Being new to the field (less than three years of experience)

* Working (including interning) at a new facility 

* Being a leader in a new facility or with a new team

* Working in a highly competitive environment where one is afraid to fail

When To Seek Help

It is best to seek treatment at the first sign of Mentionitis.  

Treatment Overview


If you feel you have Mentionitis, meet with a mentor or trusted coworker.  Diagnosing and treating this illness requires you to: be open to criticism, be comfortable with not knowing something, and develop good listening skills.  Treatment can only begin when you are ready to hear that you have Mentionitis.  Be honest about your own intentions, and be willing to follow a course of treatment as outlined by your mentor or boss.

Especially if you are new to the field (less than three years of experience), remind yourself that it's okay to be new at something.  It's okay that you had a fantastic handle on how your previous facility did things, or that you had a lot of responsibility and now at this new place have less.  

Hey thanks!

Realizing that you prove your awesome-ness by learning how things are done at your new facility without succumbing to feelings of insecurity or frustration is the best treatment for this disease.  This is especially true for leaders just starting out at a new facility.  At all levels, showing that you are learning a new way of doing things without obviously comparing it to previous experiences builds trust in your new team members.  They see you undoubtedly dedicating yourself to the team. 

In practice, treatment often requires the patient to force themselves to completely stop mentioning their other experiences for a certain period of time.  This acts as a show of good faith; to prove they were not actually criticizing, but were trying to show their good qualities.  This treatment course not only gains the trust of other coworkers, but allows the patient to learn more open-mindedly, as it is medically impossible to to be open-minded while talking about how other places do things.


A donut a day keeps Mentionitis at bay.  Or gives you diabetes.  I can't remember.

It is very common to have a desire to share a story or idea from previous experience.  In general, good prevention requires new employees (from intern to manager) to spend a period of several weeks or months listening, watching, and learning as open-mindedly as possible.  Internal comparisons are not considered Mentionitis. 

Waiting to mention previous experiences when asked, or if it is socially relevant (e.g. a funny or interesting story) is perfectly acceptable at appropriate intervals.

If one has a question about one's performance, or the perception of oneself, it is best to approach a mentor, peer, or boss for feedback first.  

Clear, consistent coaching based in positive reinforcement from mentors can often prevent Mentionitis.

A Note To Those Who Deal With Patients

I take all my advice from Pixar

Most of us have suffered from Mentionitis.  It is an illness that can be cured, but can also return.  There is no immunity, only prevention and treatment at the earliest possible detection.  Recovering victims are often the best course of treatment for those who are currently suffering from this prevalent ailment.  

Remember, Mentionitis often comes from very good intentions.  If you are experiencing a coworker who constantly talks about "Well at my old aquarium...", you can pull that person aside and have an honest, not-scary discussion with them about how they are perceived when they bring up their previous experience.  Unless this is a recurring problem, it is generally advisable to be clear but compassionate in your feedback.  

Final Thoughts

The master of the final thought

The danger in treating Mentionitis is that sometimes, we try to prevent any mention of previous experiences.  This is the opposite disease called Stuck-upitis, in which we feel our own facility has all the answers and we don't need or want outside input.   It's about balance: we always need fresh ideas, but we also need to feel comfortable learning new ways of doing things, even if we think we should give the appearance of knowing "more".   

Sharing experiences is fun! Especially since we've got the IMATA conference starting today, we've got a perfect forum to swap stories and ideas as long as we make sure we're listening to others and not coming off as judgmental.  New ideas should be shared, but some ways of sharing are better than others.

Don't despair if you are in the throes of this common illness. I've suffered from it a few times and have had successful treatment in all cases.  I've assisted in the treatment of others, as well.  You will be just fine, as long as you follow the treatment plan outlined for you.  And remember to do the same for someone else!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Here's How To Shut Down A Zoo Or Aquarium

I feel really sad about how politicized the topic of animal care has become.  

But it just feels so satisfying in the moment!

You're either in one "camp" or the other, it seems.  Some people in the cyber universe have christened these camps as "pro-cap" and "anti-cap", which are ridiculous titles regardless of your opinion about the topic because they do not represent what anyone really stands for.  

This is the only camp I want to be in.

Or this camp
Nomenclature aside, most people can appreciate that very few of us fall firmly to the extreme end of this spectrum.  To be clear, there is no way I would ever willingly call myself pro or anti-cap.  Yes, I am a marine mammal trainer and zookeeper.  Yes, I absolutely support high standards of care in accredited zoos and aquariums.  It's clear which end of the continuum I land.  I use my own brain to support one point or another. Like most of us animal lovers, my main goal is helping animals.  I won't ever automatically write off someone who tells me they don't like the idea of certain animals in human care if they are respectful people who make actual beneficial contributions to animals.  I think we could all work together and have a huge impact on animal welfare where it is really needed, even if our opinions about zoos differ.

But of course, there are extremeists and that's just a fact.  And because I just said I think we should all work together, I'd like to set our differences aside and provide a clearly much-needed helping hand.

Okay, I could deal with being in this camp, too.

As some of you may know, an anonymous* "animal rights" group decided to shut down the websites of several marine mammal facilities in a few different countries.  This same group hacked into IMATA's website several months ago, too.  In the latest series of web shenanigans, they just flooded the servers of the websites so no one could access them.

I heard this and didn't know if I should be annoyed or if I should laugh.  I decided to just feel sorry for these people, because they probably think they're doing something to invoke positive change.  But really, all they did was waste effort and resources to flood website servers.  Not a single animal benefitted from their actions.  There are still animal abusers, habitat loss is still occurring at an alarming rate, whales are getting entangled in fishing gear...despite a few marine mammal facility's websites not operating.

This is the only hacker I'll tolerate

Okay okay, I realize that the intention probably had to do with hitting "us" where "it matters most": our bottom line.  If you shut the site down, that's gotta affect revenue somehow, right?  I'm kind of scratching my head over this one, too, because:

1) The money that's potentially lost is money we use for animal care, want us to have less of that?

Who's gonna buy her a new frisbee if we don't have money in the budget for enrichment because we had to purchase more security for our website?

2) No intelligent person would use this tactic and not understand that the websites would be up and running relatively soon after it was shut down.  Certainly not long enough to really cause a financial problem for the facility.

I mean...

I don't know, I have no idea what the end goal was for this particular situation.  But what I realize is that this group is obviously struggling to find a way to prevent marine mammal facilities from operating in such a way that they can continue to care for the animals they believe shouldn't be there in the first place.

Don't get mad at me, but I'm going to tell them exactly how to do that.  I think it's only fair that the playing field is level, since we are clearly no longer focused on actually helping animals.  This is now about one side WINNING (and as much as I love to win, I'd rather the competition be equal so the victory is more glorious).

Ways To Prevent Animal Trainers From Doing Their Job So The Whole Place Shuts Down And Allows Detractors To Go In And Rescue All The Animals And Put Them In The Same Exact Scenario But Call It A Sanctuary Instead

1) Instead of sending us cyber attacks, send all zoos and aquarium animal care staff free food.  Lots, and lots, and lots of food.  Mostly junk food.  Food that no one can resist, no matter how disciplined they are in their eating habits.  Send the most delicious-looking cakes, colorfully-iced donuts, seasoned french fries.  Gourmet pizza.  Every day, make sure we are all fed like the gluttons we are.  With just a six month commitment of daily food delivery, you can count on all of the trainers weighing well over 700lbs and basically unable to do their daily duties.

This.  Every. Day.

2) Just before the main group of trainers/keepers pull into work, flood the parking lot with puppies.  And kittens.  Make sure there are a lot, because you'll want to count on the trainers running after each and every animal.  No zookeeper is impervious to the power of baby animals wandering in the open.  With enough puppies and kittens, you can shut down a major zoo.**

I'll never make it into the building if these faces distract me in the parking lot

3)  This requires a steel gut, but it may be the most effective method of preventing trainers from entering their work place.  Create a massive, and I mean massive, wall of wet, human hair.  Like, a drain-hair clump wall.  It needs to be long enough to cover the entire main perimeter of the facility, and it has to be tall enough so no one can get over it.  In fact, to really be sure you make the aquarium impenetrable, you'll probably want to make several layers of this slimy hair fence in order to weed out the really brave trainers who are willing to go through one or two walls.  This will leave you plenty of time to break into the facility and realize that you have no actual plan with the animals.

Zookeeper kryptonite.  I'm actually barfing as I type this.

That's it.  Those are the only three things I think that could actually impact our work day in such a way that the trainers can't do their job.  You can try baiting them with money, but we receive so little of that we barely recognize it.  Plus, most of us will do anything for the animals even if we aren't paid for it (which happens more than you probably realize).  

I can't even come up with a clever caption for this because it depresses me so much in its accuracy

Of course, we could talk about all of us getting together and doing a beach clean-up or something.  Or maybe having a bake sale to raise funds for a reputable wildlife rehabber in the area.  But those things sound entirely too plain and simple.  It's more fun to get press for outrageous things that just annoy everyone, but meanwhile I'm watching morons on jetskis chase wild dolphins just 300 feet from my place of employment.  I guess they didn't get the memo about our website getting shut down and how that somehow means they're supposed to pay attention or care about dolphins.  Or any other animal, for that matter.

Feel free to use any of my ideas.  I am really looking forward to the free food.

* How noble! How brave!

** I can't take credit for this idea.  One of my amazing coworkers came up with this and deserves a high five or some kind of fancy cupcake.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

PSA: I Worked While I Was Pregnant and This Is What Happened

Something happened that I need to warn all you lady zookeepers about, especially those of you who want kids.  

Maybe you'll want to reconsider and just get another dog.

It took me a while to realize the extent to which this occurred, and even longer to put two-and-two together. But my daughter was irrevocably altered largely due to the fact that I worked through the vast majority of my pregnancy.  

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to post this, because I feel it's critical that every female who incubates their own children know just what they're doing when they continue to work at a zoo or aquarium while pregnant.  But the delay had a lot to do with the Infant Red Zone (or herein referred to has IRZ).  You know what I'm talking about.  It's that period of time when your baby explodes into your life and is all like, "HELLO, I'D LIKE TO PLAY A GAME" in which you spend weeks on end discerning which cries mean hunger or that your kid has just messed his/her pants.  The IRZ is physical proof that time is relative, which makes me wonder why Einstein got so popular because um, it's pretty obviously that human babies are actual Time Lords.

I weep, for it's true.

Anyways, the IRZ means it's virtually impossible to do anything other than baby husbandry.  It's also tough to see your little guy's personality shine through in this moment, because cognitively they are about in line with a tomato plant.

But as my daughter's consciousness started to evolve, so did the revelation I'm about to share with all of you.

My kid absorbed in-utero traits from the animals with whom I work.  Like some kind of personality zoonosis.

Read that again.  Because it's important.  While you, a glowing* pregnant animal trainer woman, painstakingly choose food, exercise-levels, and environments to nurture your growing progeny, you don't realize you're exposing your unborn child to an entire slough of factors that will shape the person your kid becomes.

Let the record show that I do realize my genes had a lot to do with this.

I'm sure it's different for everyone.  I'm going to show you what traits my daughter absorbed so you don't think I'm crazy.


Beware; your baby COULD become a dolphin

My kid spent a lot of time around dolphins, and now this is how she acts like one:

*    She makes ultrasonic whistle-like noises.  They follow a similar sound pattern as a dolphin whistle, with a pleasant lilting quality.  This might sound really cute to you, but it's not.  Like, does she speak dolphin?  Will she teach me, so that I'll know WTF they're saying?  Or is this going to turn into a situation where everybody's speaking Dolphin but me, and I'm just awkwardly standing there hoping someone isn't talking about how bad my hair looks.

 But really, if they talk about my hair I'll just remind them that they don't have any.

*    She has absolutely zero problem with getting water in her face.  I discovered this on countless occasions during bathtime, in which my motor skills degrade to a level unexplained by current medical science.  Aiming water at the hairline becomes as complicated to me as operating state-of-the-art bombers in the Air Force.  Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the awkward way in which I was kneeling, or maybe I just suck at bathing human pups.  Regardless, it meant that my poor infant got a lot of water in her face (this also includes wide-open eyes).  But all she does is smile, like it's fun, like it's totally fine that her horrible mother just Made Another Parental Mistake.  Shouldn't this baby be crying, to punish me for this transgression?  No, no.  Because she's absorbed a dolphin's ability to keep their eyes open all the time in water, obviously.

Fact: to "hurr durr" is synonymous with "when Cat bathes infants"

Sea Lions

Yes, Tina, you go ahead and smile at your influence on my kid.

*   She sleeps all. the. time.  And anywhere.  Okay I realize human babies sleep a lot in general.  But this kid is sleeping 10 hours at night right now.  Right now, she's "supposed" to have 3-4 naps a day. But she has twice that amount.  She sleeps and sleeps and sleeps, sometimes in very weird positions. And she can doze off in basically any environment.  My parrots scream, I run into something and say a Very Bad Word, bombs are dropped a few miles from my house (yes,  I'm serious) and she can just sleep through it.

I guess I owe you guys a lot of thanks, sea lions.

At first I thought I was very lucky.  So much time is devoted to getting a human baby to sleep because of the whole IRZ thing.  I thought, "Wow, I have a really easy baby."  But then, as I watched her contort her body into bizarre positions to sleep, as I logged the hours she snoozed, it reminded me of something I've seen countless times before.  It reminded me of watching a sea lion doing what they do best.  Like the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, they gave mini-Cat a gift: sleep.


Seals are great, but they should not influence how human babies move.

*   Okay, I'll say it and deal with whatever flak I get for saying this, but my kid's current locomotive abilities are equivalent to a seal-on-land.  This is most concerning for me, because I feel that this child's exposure to galumphing has potentially messed up any future abilities to move normally.  Only time will tell, but currently, while many babies her age prop themselves up on their elbows and lift their heads, leaving their legs behind them, my kid does not use her front flippers for any meaningful movement.  She can lift her head alright, but her arms do not work.   She only uses her legs.

So there she lies, belly-down, her arms draped at her sides as she kicks furiously with her legs.  Just like a $@#^@ seal.  This isn't just limited to lying down, though.  As I write this, she's asleep in her swing and she's stuffed her arms completely under her body, like they were in the way and don't really matter.  And, as always, when she wakes up, she'll kick her legs incessantly, she'll try to grab things with her toes.  My kid is never going to walk.  She's going to bounce bounce bounce everywhere she goes.

*  The drool.  Oh god, the drool.  I know babies drool, but not like mine.  Not like a baby who has magically received a seal's drooling capabilities.  I don't think it would be responsible of me at this point to have a seal and my kid in the same enclosed space unless it had a drain and highly-effective plumbing.

I mean, is this a seal-kid or what?


It's only a matter of time before they teach her to pull tiles off of walls with her bare hands.

* All gastrointestinal goings-on have been completely downloaded from the Asian small-clawed otters to my baby.  Otters eat all the time, as does the child in question.  And I'll do you a solid by not going into detail about poop, but suffice it to say I was well-prepared for my daughter's leavings both in consistency and in frequency.  Let's also just say while I don't appreciate that she absorbed these qualities from the ASCOs, I do feel grateful that we can keep a diaper on her.



Choose your influence carefully, my little African friend.

* I've still yet to see what penguin qualities my progeny has, because she spends approximately 0% of her time walking.  This is where I expect to see some influence, what with the waddling and all.  But here's what I hope she DOESN'T get from penguins:

1. Biting until bleeding occurs
2. The tendency to swallow food the size of her head completely whole
3. Projectile poop
4. The ability to molt, because that would be weird (and very messy)

Chasing lights, bubbles, or snuggling are all penguin qualities I'd welcome.

So as you can clearly see, my decision to work as a marine mammal trainer while growing a little human had some serious repercussions. 

Sorry, Little C

But now that I think about it, maybe some of these qualities aren't so bad. In fact, many of them are awesome.   For example, it's pretty convenient that we have a baby who happens to sleep through the night (and that's not my doing, that's just how she's wired...we got really lucky).  Or doesn't mind getting a pint of water applied directly to her eyeballs.  These animal qualities she's integrated are clearly the answer to all parenting problems.  Instead of buying books and reading internet advice for hours on getting your kid to sleep through the night, consider working with sea lions for a few hours a day for a few months while pregnant.  Your baby will sleep like a sea lion in no time.

The other positive side of this situation is that all of the aforementioned traits (especially the not-so-pleasant ones) are familiar ones.  Getting pooped on by a baby isn't as gross as the time an otter toilet showered down upon me.   

Really, there's nothing to complain about.  There are lots of fantastic qualities our animals have that I think anyone would be better off having.  I've decided I'll continue to expose my daughter to the animals I care for both at home and at work, and see what else she learns from them (I'm really crossing my fingers for some echolocation).

What about you, fellow zookeepers?  Have you discovered animorphic tendencies in your own (or your coworkers') kids?

* Or is that sweat pouring down your face?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How To Be A Glamorous Dolphin Trainer...And That Moment You Realize It's Impossible (special guest writer Brigid Dodge)

Brigid brought this idea to me and I had two concurrent thoughts: YES and I AM NOT QUALIFIED TO WRITE THIS.  I am the least glamorous person ever and stare with mouth agape at trainers who are able to pull off the full makeup affect.  Or have no stains on their shirts.  Or avoid the Freshly Electrocuted look with their hair.  

Can't this go back in style? Because then I'd be set without even trying.

So when Brigid sent me this blog, I knew I had to feature it on The Middle Flipper.  And it's definitely better than Shasta quality.  


First off, I would like to profusely thank Cat for letting me guest blog. As I already told her, I’d thought about starting a blog when I first started training, but then discovered The Middle Flipper and quickly realized that anything I did would be the Shasta brand cola to her Coke. Or the Cheese-Nips to her Cheez-Its, if you prefer that analogy. Cheese Nips are so incredibly inferior that it almost makes me angry. 

But I digress.

In college, I used to consume women’s magazines as fast as I now consume a pint of Ben & Jerry’s strawberry cheesecake ice cream (graham cracker swirl!). I’d savor each makeup tip, each fashion suggestion. 

And then I got my dream job. Not the job they talked about, where you had to “dress for success” yet still be “fun, flirty, and girly.”  No, I became a dolphin trainer.

My job took that 10-day, chip-free nail polish and destroyed it in a matter of hours (Yes, even gel. I have chipped GEL polish).  My job laughs at the concept of anything waterproof. Mascara, band-aids, you name it, it’s gone in 30 minutes.  My job makes my hairstylist weep with pity when she looks at my split ends and ponytail-broken fly-aways and I tell her, “No more than an inch!! I need to be able to pull it back!” (Sorry, Pam.)

My job forces me to be unglamorous in more ways than one. 

So, is it even possible to be a Glamorous Animal Trainer, or GLAMinal trainer (See what I did there?)? Well, you can certainly try, but there are a few things you’re going to want to consider. 

I remember meeting a celebrity at work once and then going to the bathroom afterwards only to discover I had had an entire conversation with this person with a glob of fish guts on my cheek. I know that fish oil is good for you, but I doubt that’s the type of DIY treatment the editors of those beauty magazines I used to read had in mind.

There comes a point in a marine mammal trainer’s career where you have to make some tough choices regarding skincare. One of the most frustrating ones is choosing between: acne, cancer, or bankruptcy. 

Allow me to explain.

If I choose this career of being out in the sun all day, I obviously need to be smart and apply, reapply, and then re-reapply my sunscreen. But no matter how much one exfoliates, properly protecting your skin means you’re going to also have some clogged pores to deal with.

So, do I forgo the SPF and hope the wrinkles and freckles (curse you, Irish-ginger gene!) aren’t noticeable at age 28? No, not an option.

I prefer to think all my freckles come from educating guests.

Well, then the obvious choice is to buy the expensive, natural, good-for-you sunscreen and get facials on the regular. Except this conflicts with the immediate need of having to pay rent, and my long-term goal of being able to afford cable by the time I’m 30. So, I stick to the sunscreen I can afford, and pray that my skin stays relatively clear.

When you want good skin care, and a salad for later.


You have one wardrobe option: the wetsuit.

I suppose I should preface this by stating outright that I’m extremely proud of my wetsuit. To a marine mammal trainer, it’s something that is, in a sense, earned. Just like being presented with your bridge (earning it means your supervisors trust you with the responsibility of knowing correct criteria for behaviors asked), picking up your wetsuit on your very first day of your very first training job is a Big. Deal. 

It’s only after years of wearing it that you learn to detest it to a certain extent. There are a few reasons why we trainers hate them:

1.) The chaffing: affectionately called chub-rub; I should really buy stock in Desitin.

2.) The moisture: and unpleasant, mostly female-related, medical problems that come with
      it. I mean, it’s a WETsuit after all; it isn’t known for it’s rapid-drying power.

3.) The cold: Cat has already covered this one brilliantly, but I will reiterate that even
     dolphin trainers in Hawaii constantly shiver in the winter months.

4.) The tan lines: brown neck, white sternum? Not attractive. Don’t even get me started on
      the fact that I look like I’m wearing brown gloves 24/7.

5.) The sheer amount of time and energy it takes to put it ON! And at my current facility,
     where we shower out for lunch, that means I’m putting on a wetsuit twice a day. Even
     more if, God forbid, you have to pee in between. It’s exhausting. 

The struggle is REAL

 6.) And finally, there’s that interesting slimming effect that has allowed me to lovingly
      dub my wetsuit my Body-Spanx. Because it doesn’t slim you in all the right places. It
      slims you EVERYWHERE. I don’t care how good you look in a San Lorenzo bikini, put
      on a wetsuit, and you, too, will experience the uniboob.


Not only do you burn a bajillion calories by simply getting into your wetsuit, you also stay active while actually working! Almost all facilities require that you be physically fit enough to pass a swim test. Sometimes it’s annually, sometimes more. No one I know ENJOYS taking a swim test. I have yet to see anyone on a dating site list “apnea” as a hobby. Breathing is fun. I quite enjoy it when I’m conscious I’m doing it (thanks for handling that, brain stem!). But it’s part of the job and you have the responsibility to be physically fit in order to do it.

I had gone my whole life being a fairly curvy girl. With grandmothers from Texas, it was virtually impossible for me not to grow up having a healthy, committed relationship with fried food. 


And, having gone through treatment for an eating disorder when I was 19, I was finally healthy, happy and comfortable in my own skin when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in animal care.

But once I got my first training position I dropped about twenty pounds. 

Since I personally don’t believe in weighing myself/living by numbers, I didn’t even really notice until I started getting pictures from the photo staff.  They constantly took funny photos of us in programs, and the more hideous I looked, the more I loved it. But the weight loss was definitely noticeable.


When bombarded by Facebook messages asking what diet/gym/cleanse/cult I was participating in, I responded honestly. I was on the Apprentice Trainer Program. A program where you do manual labor for eight hours a day, every day. A program where many times you must chose between restocking the fridge, or paying the electric bill to keep aforementioned fridge running. A program where you have this wonderful, sweaty, daily body-wrap treatment called a wetsuit. None of it easy, none of it glamorous, and every bit worth it.

The wonderful thing about my job successfully thwarting my every attempt to look good is that it helped me to realize that looking good really isn’t that important in the long run. I don’t need to wear makeup to work every day because those little grey faces I see don’t care if my eyes “pop.” I can go on a first date with a fish scale or seven stuck to my body (yes, even AFTER I shower) because it makes for a funny story. It all comes down to the fact that what I do is so much more rewarding than how I look. It’s quite liberating, going to work knowing that no co-worker, aquatic or otherwise, is going to judge you based on your appearance. I really wish more people could experience it.

...But, seriously, please tell me when I have fish guts on my face.

Expectation versus reality.


Brigid has a blog of her own called Just Flush Me covering a much more sobering topic.  It's well worth a visit.