Sunday, October 2, 2016

Zookeeper Fashion: SOS

So the other day, one of our researchers introduced us to two new people joining their team.  Here are the conclusions I've drawn about them:

1. They are really smart
2. They are really nice

Fashion at home, fashion on the job

In fact, I mentioned this to them after we worked together for one of their projects.  I said, "Can I just say that you all dress fabulously?"  They smiled politely, like....I totally realize how creepy I was being.  But this feeling just welled within me and I had to acknowledge something that I've silently noticed for many years.

Unlike most of my Middle Flipper entries, this is not one that I feel encompasses all of us.  In fact, I think in this case, we fall into two separate categories.  There are people who just KNOW how to dress great (like....all of my coworkers), and people who (like me) look like a garbage can even on our best days.


But while at work, we are all the same.  No matter what makeup or hair product we use, we still smell bad and look like a hot mess at the end of the day.  How many times have you sat keeled over a wheel barrow, wondering how horrible your armpit sweat stains are?  How many times have you put on a wetsuit that's just a few weeks old, realizing that the decomposing-body smell is not only coming from your suit, but it has permanently infiltrated your skin?

And then, someone from HR walks by.  And oh my god.  They look fantastic.  They have a knack for bizcaz you just can't fathom.  What is it LIKE to dress nice for work?

All of the non-keeper staff at our zoo/aquarium

I remember when I was a little kid, I'd watch my parents' routine as they got ready for work.  They'd get up really early, take showers, and then dress in their nice work clothes.  They looked great.  And when they came home, they looked tired, but still pretty darn good.  All they had to do was slip into some PJs, have a beer, and enjoy the evening.

Here is an example of my routine:

Wake up really early, change a diaper (hint: not my own), brush my teeth, put on shoes.  Brushing my air/putting on deodorant can happen at work.  

Then I get to work, get my 809 pounds of hair out of my face in something that can only be described as Hair Tumor, put on my uniform, and proceed to get fish blood, fish muscle tissue, salt water, and lunch all over myself.  There are scales in my hair, there is dried blood under my fingernails.  And by the time I need to go home,  my Hair Tumor has metastasized to every location of my skull, where only the finest power tools can put it back in a manageable shape. 

Hair tumor exploding out of my hat

Even when I try to dress nice, like for a wedding or something, I still can't pull it off.  First, I have no idea what to buy.  Every time I go to a store, my zookeeper brain refuses to shut off. 

"Ooooo, can't have those shoes, they have no treads!"

"Dry clean only? HA HA HA"

I also blame my profession for lowering my expectations of how I dress myself.  You know, if it's not khaki pants with a cotton shirt tucked in, then it's probably "fashionable".  I've bought some really stupid looking outfits because at the time, I thought, "WOW THIS IS SO CHIC I AM GOING TO FINALLY LOOK LIKE ONE OF THOSE COOL GIRLS."  And then I realize whoops, these are actually pajamas.

I can dig it

Now some of you, the zookeepers who fall into the "I can look hot in an instant" category, WHAT IS YOUR SECRET?  Can you please share?  How do you do your hair?  What do you do with all the flyaways?  Do you just like, staple them to your head or something?  Mine are always at full mast, ready to defy laws of physics in spite of any chemical product made for such a problem.

What about knowing like, what looks nice?  Something that doesn't require dry-cleaning?  Right now, I can basically handle the jeans+graphic tee combination.  Everything usually gets buried under an enormous sweater.  My nice clothes are usually, "Oh GOD I have to have something nice for this event that starts in seven hours, WHAT DOES MARSHALL'S HAVE THAT IS CHEAP?"

Yes, as a matter of fact I did.

For the love of god, can you fashion-savvy zookeepers please help the rest of us out?  We want to feel clean and normal.  We want to be comfortable, but feel confident in our look.  We want clothes with less than 5 stains on them. 


Check out that really sweet holiday outfit

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Don't Rob A Zookeeper

Ugh.  I've had one hell of a week.

I don't want to go into too much detail, but basically, this incident that happened to me on Sunday involved the following components:

Hint: It did not involve Halloween donuts

a) a random dude
b) super early in the morning (like, before 6am) on a Sunday in the parking garage at work
c) a gun
d) I no longer have a phone

I was really freaked out by this whole thing and luckily, it only resulted in a stolen phone.  But as my extremely thoughtful and awesome coworkers pointed out, even in this incident there is some very Middle Flipper-worthy inspiration.

So let's talk about why animal caretakers are probably the worst people to rob or threaten.

1) We Have No Money


Cash? What cash?  Ha ha ha, is this some kind of joke?

How about a credit card? Are you sure you want this?  Because actually, if you take it right now, I might have some leverage to get some of the charges on there taken off.  Even though they're mine.  

True story: one of my coworkers said her credit card number was stolen online somehow, but all of the charges this criminal attempted to put on there all got declined, we are poor.

2) We Are Eerily Calm In HOLY SH&% Situations

Are we meditating? Or is our thumb being hacked off by a macaw?

Lookit, that's our job.  Is a sea lion chewing on my arm?  Yes.  But I....must....not...reinforce.................with...........................bloodcurdling scream...........

If you're a criminal looking for an armed robbery and get a cheap thrill out of seeing people freak out, DEFINITELY do not go after a zookeeper.   Personally, I've had a penguin bite me directly in the face, resulting in blood pouring out of my mouth.  In front of guests.  And had to pretend like nothing happened.  Try having a gigantic animal not let you get out of the water.  Zookeepers have endless stories that put them in the I Have No More Adrenaline To Give category.

3) Our Phones Are Broken

Things happen

Let me tell you about my (former) cell phone.

The screen was cracked from not one, but two woeful falls in my work locker room.  Then, I put it in a case (because you know, crack the screen once, shame on you, crack it twice, time to get a case and ponder if it was such a good idea to NOT get insurance).  I decide to get the screen fixed because it looks like a honey badger got a hold of it.

And that friend is me.

Here's where it gets good. To replace the screen, Apple needs to turn off some settings on the phone. Somehow, and I DO NOT KNOW HOW SO DO NOT ASK, I had three apple IDs on that thing.  My real Apple ID, then another one that was mysteriously half of my ID username, and then one belonging to my husband Russ.  And for some reason, the half ID and Russ' were the gatekeepers to settings that needed to be accessed in order for my screen to be replaced.  Nothing I did allowed me to get the right passwords for these IDs.  I tried everything.  I went to the Apple store, where they told me I'd have to call customer service for help.  I called them, explained this bizarre situation, to which they basically said I was effed.

So for months now, I've been walking around with a shattered screen with randomly-appearing notices asking me to input passwords to one of three Apple IDs.  But I've made do.

It'll be different this time

So when it got stolen, I looked into the eyes of my assailant as he held a gun at my head and actually had a small, tiny, tiny piece of me that was like, "Oh...honey" as I handed over my phone. 

May the odds be ever in your favor to hack into my phone

Even if our phones are destroyed, if criminals knew what our phones:

a) had on them (photos piles of otter poop, anyone? How about a nice dolphin penis pic?)

b) had on them (actual animal poop, traces of whatever food they eat, and any other small amounts of sacred fluids from our daily routine)....I don't think our phones would ever get stolen.  

In fact, we could probably use them as repellent, but only if the thieves really understand WTF was on there.

4) We Might Have A Crazy Animal Ready For Self Defense


You, pointing a gun at my.  Me, reaching into my glove compartment and......




Your screams are stifled by the blood pouring from your eyes as the penguin does what it has evolved over millions of years to do: destroy human faces. 

Or maybe..............

PARROT.  RIGHT AT YOUR NECK.  Justifiable homocide.


GIANT TARANTULA, Home-Alone style.

Works every time

See the thing is, you criminals have no idea what us zookeepers might have in our car.  Maybe we took someone home for extra special medical care.  Maybe we are going to an outreach event.  Maybe we like to travel with penguins in our car because the smell*.


So obviously, number 4 may not be entirely honest.  But what do those thugs know?  And hey, maybe we zookeepers can come up with a self-defense method that's not as controversial as guns, easier than pepper spray, and is cheap cheap cheap:

Cups of poo.  We all work with animals with the most disgusting poo.  Just carry around a Big Gulp of your smelliest, most mucosal poop and get ready to slosh it right after you hand over your empty wallet.  Or, if you're like me and only work with dolphins (whose poop is hard to collect in large enough quantities for this), there is nothing like a nice capelin sludge that's a few days ripe. 

Sigh.  Stay safe out there friends. 

* Okay, maybe not

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dream A Little Dream

It's time we shed light on something that those of us in the zoo field have kept secret from the public for too long.   This topic is sensitive, but it perfectly illustrates how much we care about our animals.  Most of us don't make a lot of money, all of us work long hours and are not really "off" even when we're at home.  Some of us may work in an environment where we encounter animal rights extremists routinely, or in a place where we are considered "replaceable assets" (and you all know how I feel about that). 

We put up with a lot of uncomfortable situations in order to put the welfare of the animals in our care FIRST.  And why are we hiding the most obvious example of this from the world?  What am I talking about?

It's official.  This is my favorite photo on the internet.

Anxiety dreams. 

No wait, anxiety WORK dreams.

OMG I have had some insane work dreams and....I know all of you do too.  You think you're able to turn off your zookeeper mindset as soon as you walk through the door into your home, but you know you'll answer work emails and think about the animals.  So the moment you crawl into bed, close your eyes, and drift into that delicious state we know as sleep, you may believe that for the next several hours IN A ROW, you're going to be free from work.  Your brain can finally rest.

Fact: I lived in Florida for 11 years and I had so many bathroom dreams.

But then, when you least expect it, BAM.  Your brain turns on you.  It gathers all of your animal-related memories, your hopes, your fears, and a few random items that make absolutely no sense and mixes them together to form a volatile dream that will drain you of energy and force you to endure a resting heart rate of 200bpm, so you are basically ready to die when you wake up.


Let me give you a recent (personal) example.  Usually, National Aquarium offers dolphin encounters on Saturdays.  As some of you know, I've done dolphin encounters for basically my entire career, so there's really nothing I should feel anxiety about right?  WRONG.

For some reason on Friday night, my brain decided that it was Time To Freak Out.  I dreamed that I was at work (it looked nothing like our facility...sort of like a mashup of our place and Clearwater Marine Aquarium's indoor dolphin pools) and that one of the encounter guests showed up a day early to do the program.  I kept telling him we'd see him tomorrow, and he kept insisting he had to get in the water.

Then, boom.  During a training session, he just jumps in the water.  Immediately, my dream self tries to run through our SOP for water rescue with animals present, and I'm yelling and directing people and freaking out.  And then I jump in and scoop out this guest, and yell at him, and banish him from the aquarium.  But a guest services person was all like NO YOU CAN'T DO THAT IT'S BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE.  So I was all like FINE IF HE DOES IT ONE MORE TIME THEN HE'S GONE.


Well, then he jumps in again.  And if that wasn't terrible enough, he turned into a dolphin.

Yes, that's right.  He became that which he sought to encounter.  And pair swam with another dolphin. 

But I wasn't having it.  No, this was a massive safety concern.  So I waited until guest-turned-dolphin swam by the side of the pool and snatched his hairless body right out of the pool.  I held on to him, yelling victoriously as he kicked and kicked.  And then I woke up, in a giant puddle of sweat.

I shared this story with my coworkers, which sparked an entire conversation about anxiety zoo dreams.  Here are some of the highlights from that conversation, as well as others I've experienced or heard from some of you:

1) Nani (our oldest dolphin) got stuck on top of a giant waterfall that was in her habitat, which happened to be located at Hersey Park.

brb, just going to the waterfall for a sec

2) A marine park going out of business and draining all of its pools with the dolphins still in it.

3) Getting fired and/or being extremely late for a bizarre reason (this is a popular one).  Some of  my favorite reasons I've had include: I was in the wrong state, I kept driving around trying to find lunch and Red Bull but all of the stores were out...and once I went to Marineland even though I didn't work there anymore and found out that I actually was supposed to be working there, and had been on the schedule for weeks but was no-call, no-show, so I had to call Gulfarium and tell them I had to quit because I was oops, accidentally employed by another place.

Well I mean, Marineland has some great holiday parties.

4) A dolphin kept changing from human form to person form.

5) Doing waterwork for an interview at a show in a pool that is in front of thousands of people in the middle of a city with traffic rushing by

What's makes these dreams worse is that usually, your surroundings are nightmarishly unfamiliar.  It's very rare to have a dream where your environment is a perfect copy of what it is in real life.  Somehow, you know where you are, but it's completely wrong.  In one of my dreams, Brookfield Zoo's marine mammal area looked like a gigantic metal tube with portholes looking into the exhibits, and you had to feed the animals (and put all of their toys in) via these portholes. 

Where the hell am I?

I've dreamed that Clearwater Marine Aquarium was basically in the same building a pool at this place I visit in northern Wisconsin was, except much larger than the swimming pool (obviously) and all of the sea turtles were kept in a bizarre maze in the basement.

I don't know why these dreams happen, but they definitely show how much we think about the lives we've dedicated our own to.  There is no clock-in, clock-out lifestyle in our field.  We embrace the fun stuff, we embrace the sad stuff, we embrace the hard stuff, and then we sleep and embrace the freakish neural firings that remind us of our commitment to the animals we love so much.

Now! I want YOU to share your work anxiety dreams.  I'll bet there are some really good ones.  Share away!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Friday Factor in Animal Training

Aren't Fridays just the best?

Every. Time.

We animal care professionals know that the word “Friday” generally means The Day That Immediately Precedes Our Weekend Which Is Usually Not Really A Weekend.  That is to say, most of us work through the weekends (or at least one weekend day).  

Even though we love our jobs, we get the same Monday Blues anyone else does.  Because weekends are awesome.  Sleeping in is awesome*.  Doing whatever you want is awesome.  Eating junk food for 18 straight hours because everyone knows weekend food has no calories in it is awesome.

Every. Time.

What’s even tougher is that it feels like the rest of the world is on a Normal Schedule.  When you turn on the radio, there is usually reference to how close we all are to Normal Weekends.  Like, “Hey everybody, it’s HUMP DAY!” but really, it’s my Monday, so I’m all like bummed because everyone else listening to the radio knows their weekend is just around the corner, and mine is eons away.

Or when you’re in the store, and the cashier wishes you a happy weekend, but to you Saturday and Sunday means working 16 to 20 hours with Insane Summer Crowds, and you sort of want to cry until all of your water leaves your body and you are left a shriveled, desiccated shell.  

Again, our jobs are super awesome.  Once we are there, we love it.  

But when it’s that time, that glorious time, when you realize it’s Your Friday, some really profound things start to happen.  You get really happy.  It’s an impenetrable-sort of happy that is only destroyed if something absolutely terrible happens, but pretty much everything else is  meaningless.  Have a coworker driving you nuts? Have a grueling eight hours ahead of you?  No biggee, Friday Glow will protect you.

This feeling that your weekend is just on the horizon means you Can Do Anything.  You have so many Weekend Plans every Friday, don’t you?  The possibilities are endless, your soul is filled with hope.  You’re going to see that movie, go to the gym twice, catch up with an old friend and then feed all of the world’s starving children.  

And then.

The weekend comes.  And you spend it doing something profound such as: avoiding laundry. 

Before you know it, you’ve eaten 6 metric tons of Cheetos and watched every season of Walking Dead and it’s now Monday morning.  You accomplished literally none of the fun and/or productive things you’d planned just a couple of days earlier.


We need to carpe diem!  We need to follow through on our Weekend Dreams.  And you know what’s more insane? Those of us who train animals do the SAME thing with our animals as we do to our weekends.

What do I mean?

Okay, since I’m a marine mammal trainer, I’m going to use marine mammal training as an example.

When you start a session, you’ve got a full: bucket, basket of toys, brain of ideas.

Um, I choose you, little bread Picachu? 

Everything seems possible.  You’ve Got Plans for this session, oh boy, oh boy!  Your training session is like every Friday you’ve ever had. 

And then, your session starts.  The dolphin’s mood is sort of meh.  Or you realize your boot has a hole in the bottom, and now your socks are soaking wet.  Or another trainer is doing a really complicated medical behavior and has asked everyone else to keep their dolphins quiet.  Whatever the case may be, all of your Session Hopes have been dashed.  The thrill is gone.

So there you sit, haphazardly feeding boring behaviors with boring amounts of food, half-heartedly tossing toys out just because you realize you’re running out of food.  The session is a dud. The session is your wasted weekend.

To all of you I say, let us take back our weekends, figuratively and literally!  We work so hard.  We are physically and emotionally labored and exhausted.  We give up time with our families, we miss holidays, many of us live paycheck to paycheck.  We DESERVE a good weekend.  We and our animals DESERVE a fun training session as often as possible (how about like, every time?).

They deserve it!

No matter what it is that removes that hopeful, creative and energetic zest from your mind, find ways to rediscover it.  So often, what we hope will happen only happens when we WORK to get it.  It rarely just happens, especially in animal training.  Going through the motions is not enough. 

When I get like that, I try to come up with a game to play with the animal.  I’ll hide toys, teach them to wait while I toss them out, or mix up my reinforcement intervals.  Those are super easy to do, and make a big difference in your session because both of you have to pay attention to do it right.  I’ll give myself challenges in sessions where I’m feeling really uninspired, like not asking for certain behaviors I always ask for….because even that tiny change makes a big, happy difference to the animals.  I experiment with what games or toys the animals are into.  Even if it’s a big fail, it’s fun to try.  

So go see that movie.  Take a long bike ride.  Get a tattoo.  Play with your animals and leave each session so you and the animals are thinking, “THAT WAS SO FUN YESSSSSSSS.”

What about you guys?  What are some ways you inspire yourself during sessions and weekends?

* What is “sleeping in” again?

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Quick quiz:

Are you a marine mammal specialist?
Do you feed your animals frozen fish?
Are you a masochist?


If you answered "Yes" to any of those questions, then you'll relate to today's Middle Flipper.
You don't have to answer "yes" to all of them, just one will suffice.

You guys all probably have dealt with at least one fish truck delivery in your career lifetime. And, let's face it, it probably wasn't the most awesome thing ever.

Every reasonable person knows that we as animal caregivers do all parts of our job - fun or not - with 110% effort, because we know it's for the animals.  Receiving shipments of fish is one of those tasks whose fun-level falls somewhere between "Picking Up Wet Hair With Your Bare Hands" and "Being Electrocuted."  Alas, it is an essential part of our job and so we grin and bear it.
Just deal with it

What's so frustrating about fish delivery, you may ask? (I'm assuming you've never experienced it if you're asking).   Here's a short list:

1) Our fish has to stay below a certain (freezing) temperature 100% of the time

2) Our facilities are, for the most part, not designed for giant shipments of anything

3) Most fish deliveries have several stops in other states

4) The time/space continuum operate on a completely different dimension (did you say you'll be here at 11:30? Is that on Earth time or Alpha Centauri time?)

5) Truck drivers are otherworldly creatures sent by the gods to test us mortals


For those of us who live in hot places, or whose summers get super hot, fish deliveries are really tricky if ANYTHING goes wrong.  The longer the journey and the more stops the truck has, the more likely something is going to get messed up.

Here are just some of the experiences I've had with fish truck deliveries.  It's okay to laugh at them.  Laughter is better than pulling your own eyeballs out of your head.

The Time When We Got Someone Else's Fish
But it's a great color for you!

Picture this: you, waiting for a delivery that's been delayed several hours because it hit Atlanta traffic during its delivery to a facility there.  You eagerly await the final backing-in of the semi trailer that holds thousands of dollars worth of fish.  You've only got a couple of days' worth of food in your freezer, so this delivery came in the knick of time.

The truck driver opens the back of the trailer.  You hop in the back of the truck and


Oh no.

This fish isn't yours.  SOMEONE ELSE HAS YOUR BOXES OF FISH.

Surely this isn't so.  I mean, the boxes are wrapped in plastic shrink wrap.  There are 395802983058 million of them and they all look the same, because they are all from the same place.  But you notice you have sea animals you don't even feed to the animals in your care.  You've got way too many boxes of the stuff you DO feed to your animals.  Oh god.

Luckily, the problem was solved with several phone calls and some extra truck time.  All the fish stayed cool, and everyone wound up getting what they needed in time. 

The Time When The Truck Driver Proposed To A Trainer


He's from eastern Europe.  He speaks 29 words of English, two of those are "marry me".

She is wearing a bathing suit, a life jacket vest (chic, elegant), and gigantic steel-toed boots.   What more can I say?

The Time When The Truck Driver Didn't Know How To Back Up His Rig


One of the places I worked at is on a two-lane highway.  It's usually not super busy, and the speed limit in front of the aquarium is 35mph.  But....about two inches up the road it's 55mph and people are not very happy or inclined to slow down. 

This creates a really unique situation for, oh, let's say a semi who blocks the entire highway because he got his rig stuck in the sandy shoulder.

Don't worry though, us trainers in our bathing suits put out traffic cones and got to stare into the soulless eyes of the drivers forced to remain inert.

The Time When The Truck Just Didn't Show Up
Just take the day off.

Fish delivery? What fish delivery?

More importantly, what are we going to feed the dolphins tomorrow? Pizza?

The Time When We Had To Unstack Everything By Hand And The Driver Just Sat There And Got Pissed That He Was Going To Be Late For His Next Stop But He Never Offered To Help But I'm Not Bitter Or Anything

Nope. Not bitter at all.


Lookit, I know I'm not a truck driver.  I respect the profession.  Just as people criticize us in our jobs, it's unfair to lump a few bad experiences into a stereotype.  But if I were a statistician (which I am not, for obvious reasons such as: I am a mathematical idiot), I would find a strong statistically significant relationship between Times We Need Fish Delivered and Times Fish Delivery Goes Totally Wrong. 

Does anyone else have this problem outside of the marine mammal/aquatic world?  Do shipments of produce go missing?  If you ordered 78 bales of hay, do you get a marriage proposal?  Please tell me we are not alone in this....

Sunday, August 7, 2016

In Honor of Dr. Louis Herman (Special Guest Writer: Susie Walker)

Susie is not only an incredible coworker and tremendously kind person, she is basically like a celebrity in my eyes.  Why?  Because she got to work with the dolphins and researchers who first sparked my passion for understanding the minds of animals.   

Thank you, Dr. Herman.  You have inspired so many people to think about animals (humans included) in a way that unites us all.  You were a very, very special soul.

Just a few days ago, the marine mammal field lost an incredible man and accomplished scientist. Dr. Louis Herman, Professor Emeritus from the psychology department of the University of Hawaii, pioneered the scientific study of dolphin cognition and communication, as well as humpback whale biology and behavior in Hawaiian waters. His work changed the way we think about cetaceans, and he contributed volumes to what we know about the animals with whom many of us work so closely today.

Lou Herman meant so very much to many people, and certainly to me as I worked closely with him as a member of his team for eleven years. I wanted to share a little about him and honor him through my dear co-worker Cat Rust’s blog, and she graciously allowed me to be a guest author in order to do so.

Writing this post was exceptionally difficult. How could I possibly find the right words to describe just how incredible Lou was? Or just how much he contributed to the world’s knowledge of dolphins and humpback whales? How could I put into words what he taught us, and how he inspired and continues to inspire so many?

Let me first give a brief history of Lou’s career. Lou founded the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory (KBMML) in 1970. He sought to create a learning environment for dolphins that allowed their intellect to blossom. With a unique long-term program of education, he believed the dolphins in his care could reveal their cognitive and communicative abilities.

Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory

When he began his work, Lou thought about whales and dolphins differently than many, believing them to be highly intelligent. Lou’s goals were certainly ambitious. For over three decades, Lou and his team worked to better understand the cognitive, behavioral, and sensory capabilities of the bottlenose dolphins living at KBMML. Groundbreaking discoveries with these dolphins included abilities for language comprehension, vocal and behavioral imitation, "imaging" of objects through echolocation, interpretation of television displays and scenes, understanding of human pointing and gaze cues, and evidence of self-awareness.

In 1975, Lou branched out and began studying the humpback whales found in Hawaiian waters in the winter. This became an annual project, and over a period of more than three decades, Lou and his KBMML colleagues discovered valuable information on humpback whale distribution, demographics, social behavior, reproductive strategies, habitat use, communication, and song. Knowledge in these areas helped in developing regulations for protecting endangered humpback whales in Hawaii.

Studying Hawaiian humpback whales

Over the years, Lou and his team at KBMML published over 160 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, theses, and dissertations on their findings. This firmly established KBMML as a world leader in the field of marine mammal science. KBMML was also featured in many television documentaries, IMAX films, magazine and newspaper articles, and books.

I first learned about Lou and KBMML in 1994 while participating in my first internship at the Dolphin Research Center. Vicki Beaver, one of many talented staff members there, did a presentation on dolphin intelligence, which naturally included information on Lou’s work. I was fortunately in attendance and was transfixed by what she had to say.

When I returned home, I rushed to my college library and read as much as I could about Dr. Louis Herman and KBMML. As I pored over journal articles, I learned about so many clever and interesting studies that resulted in fascinating insights into dolphin intelligence. Of these, one in particular really stood out to me. This was the work on language comprehension.

Some of you may be familiar with this work. For those of you who aren’t, I feel compelled to share the basics of this important research. I hope it fascinates you as it did me all those years ago.

The language work with the dolphins went through a few iterations, but ultimately resulted in teaching an artificial sign language to the dolphins. This was a language designed by the researchers and was not related to human sign language. Initially, two female dolphins, Akeakamai (“lover of wisdom” in Hawaiian) and Phoenix learned this language.

Phoenix and Akeakamai
In this artificial language, hand signals represented a variety of objects, actions, and modifiers. There was a particular grammar to the language. For example, two word sentences were in the form of OBJECT + ACTION. The sentence, SURFBOARD + OVER, asked the dolphin to swim to the surfboard and jump over it.

Modifiers could be added to these simpler sentences as well. Sentences of this nature took the form of MODIFIER + OBJECT + ACTION. The sentence, LEFT + PIPE + MOUTH, asked the dolphin to swim to the pipe on her left (of two pipes available) and open her mouth next to it.

The more complicated sentences asking the dolphins to follow instructions involving multiple objects had a reverse sentence structure. These were in the form, DESTINATION OBJECT + TRANSPORT OBJECT + ACTION. For example, BASKET + BALL + IN asked the dolphin to locate the ball and place it inside the basket. The grammar was designed this way so the dolphin had to watch the entire sentence before she could perform any of it. This was key so that the dolphins couldn’t simply learn to chain behaviors. It was important to Lou to strongly demonstrate the ability of the dolphins to comprehend the components of language.

The dolphins could also report on the presence or absence of named objects in their habitat. For this, there were two paddles on the edge of the pool, a YES paddle and a NO paddle. The researchers could ask the dolphin a question with the sentence, OBJECT + QUESTION. For example, WATER + QUESTION asked the dolphin, “Is there a stream of water in your pool?” The dolphin then responded by pressing either the YES paddle or the NO paddle.

Akeakamai pressing the NO paddle 

Akeakamai pressing the YES paddle

So what did this work demonstrate? First, it showed the dolphins capable of learning a grammar. This is a key component of human language. It also demonstrated that dolphins understood syntax, or the idea that if you change the order of words in a sentence, it affects the meaning. For example, HOOP + PERSON + FETCH (bring the person to the hoop) was different than PERSON + HOOP + FETCH (bring the hoop to the person).

It also demonstrated that the dolphins were capable of understanding the semantics of the language, or that the hand gestures served as symbols representing the actual objects. In the same way that I can type the word, “apple”, and you immediately know what that is, the dolphins saw the hand signs as symbolic representations of the objects.

All of these findings sparked significant worldwide attention when they were first published in 1984. At that time, language comprehension was something only demonstrated in humans and possibly some great apes. Lou and his team were certainly well on their way to changing the way people viewed cetaceans, and I was beyond inspired and wanted to find a way to get involved.

Elele and Hiapo

The following year, I applied for and was accepted into KBMML’s dolphin internship program. I traveled to the lab for my six-month internship in August of 1995.

Arriving at KBMML was a dream come true. And the facility was beautiful. KBMML was located oceanside, nestled between scenic Ala Moana Beach Park and the Kewalo Basin Small Boat Harbor. Inside was the dolphin habitat, which consisted of two large circular pools connected by a channel. Also onsite were two offices, a conference room, and two elevated decks (or lanai) that served as observation towers. The observation towers allowed for excellent views of the dolphin habitats as well as the beach park and the ocean. Diamond Head crater sat spectacularly in view to the East.

Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory

On my first day, I was led inside by intern coordinator Krista, and straight up to the observation deck to watch a session with the dolphins. I was in awe. Here were the accomplished dolphins I read about in so many scientific papers! Akeakamai, Phoenix, Hiapo, and Elele. I couldn’t wait to meet them and assist with the amazing research.

After the session, with happy tears in my eyes, I went to the offices and met Lou for the first time. He was welcoming and kind. He introduced me to graduate student Robert Uyeyama, who would be my mentor for the internship. Robert explained that he was working on language research with Elele. He was further breaking down her language into more specific actions, and explained that I would be helping him on this project. I was blown away.

Graduate student (now PhD) Robert Uyeyama

The next day, I had the chance to watch Akeakamai do the language research. This is a moment I will never forget as long as I live. Seeing it on paper was one thing. But seeing clever Ake (ah-Kay, as she was affectionately called) carrying out her sentences with confidence was breathtaking. Ake’s trainer for this session was Dr. Adam Pack, Lou’s Research Coordinator and KBMML’s Assistant Director. Watching him give the signs and seeing Ake carry out the instructions contained within the sentences was an incredible experience.

Dr. Adam Pack

Working with Lou, Adam, Robert, and the team was a life changing experience. Upon completion of my internship, I returned home to finish my junior year of college. The summer before my senior year, I returned to the amazing Dolphin Research Center, which also held a special place in my heart, for a second internship there.

I graduated with a B.A. in Psychology in June of 1997, and decided to return to KBMML to volunteer in hopes that I could find a way in there. Luckily, I did! Lou welcomed me as a member of his staff, where I remained for more than ten years, until the end of 2007. My responsibilities included training and caring for the four resident dolphins, creating interactive educational programs for Hawaii’s school children and community groups, and assisting with the research.

Ake meets Hawaii's keiki (children)

One of my favorite moments at the lab was the first day Lou allowed me to sign Ake’s sentences during her language research. I distinctly remember Lou coaching me in the specifics of each of the motions, and making corrections that would help make the words more clear for Ake. He was particular about this as Ake was his dear, star pupil. Standing in front of my beloved Ake and doing language research with her for the first time was a particularly emotional moment for me. Though I probably did it hundreds of times after that, each time was always very special.



Forming relationships with Lou’s highly educated dolphins was such an honor. Each of the dolphins holds a special place in my heart, though the one who taught me the most and touched me most profoundly was Akeakamai. She taught me so much about her kind, and about being the best trainer I could be. She influenced me and inspired me each day in countless ways.

My dear friend Akeakamai

Equally as important as the dolphins were the incredible team of people Lou attracted to KBMML throughout the years. KBMML was a special workplace for countless researchers, graduate students, staff members, interns, and volunteers. Under Lou’s tutelage, many of these talented people went on to illustrious careers of their own in marine mammal science, in veterinary medicine, or in animal care and training.

KBMML team, 1998

Sadly, KBMML and the dolphins are gone now, but the spirit of this special place lives on through the scientific papers, documentaries, and stories. What they taught us now guides generations of new researchers throughout the world to continue learning about dolphin cognition and communication.

Phoenix and Akeakamai

Almost four years ago, I returned to the marine mammal field. I now work as a Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at the National Aquarium. My experiences as a trainer at KBMML certainly shaped who I am as a dolphin trainer today. They also helped me find my voice in sharing these very special animals with others, whether guests at our aquarium, professionals or aspiring professionals within our industry, or people outside our field.

It was particularly special to discover Lou’s influence on many of the people with whom I now work. Last year, I went to Hawaii to give a talk at a career celebration in honor of Lou. I was one of many speakers at this event, attended by more than 40 people whose lives were positively impacted by their experiences with Lou and KBMML over the decades. It was set up as a surprise for Lou, and was he ever touched and surprised to see so many old friends.

My own talk mentioned how Lou’s work influenced people far and wide, including several people working with me at the National Aquarium. I then shared quotes from these individuals, sharing how Lou influenced them. These are listed below.

Allison Ginsburg (curator of marine mammals at National Aquarium) meets Akeakamai, 1992
"My father knew how much I loved dolphins, so he helped me find an opportunity to work alongside them in the summer after I graduated high school. We found the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory Earthwatch program and I signed up. This experience changed the course of my life. Dr. Herman and his team instilled in me a deep appreciation for the cognitive capabilities of dolphins, and my time at his lab confirmed my desire to work in the marine mammal field. 
Over twenty years later, I am still extremely passionate about my career with marine mammals. At the National Aquarium, I dedicate myself to leading our marine mammal team and to supporting scientists interested in discovering more about the dolphins. Dr. Herman and his dolphins absolutely inspired me in a big way."

Sarah Carter, spring intern at National Aquarium 2015
"In my Sophomore year of college at Towson University, I took a seminar-type class called 'A Seminar in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.' The class was once a week, and every week one student got to pick a groundbreaking research article to present to the class and lead a discussion on the paper. I have loved marine mammals since I was very young, and so I knew early on I was going to choose a paper on marine mammals. When it was finally my turn, I started researching marine mammal cognition, and stumbled upon Lou Herman.  
I presented Herman's 1984 paper called 'Comprehension of sentences by bottlenose dolphins' and I was just completely blown away by his research. It was this research that inspired me to pursue my dream of animal behavior and cognition. Since then, I have kept up with Lou Herman's research and have read every paper I can get my hands on!

Dr. Mark and Cindy Turner, marine mammal researchers

"It is well recognized that Louis Herman’s research is of the highest scientific quality. But beyond this, his unique approach has delighted and surprised us. We have been influenced by its creativity, imagination and originality, inspiring us to explore ideas we otherwise would not have considered. This is the best kind of science. Thank you, Dr. Herman."

And one quote by a dear friend who isn’t affiliated with National Aquarium but who worked with me at KBMML for years and whose career resulted from her experiences with Lou at KBMML:

Dr. Daisy Kaplan, St. Mary's College of MD, KBMML/TDI volunteer 1999-2002, studying dolphins in the Bahamas

"Last year, I finished my Ph.D. in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience from Hunter College of CUNY – my thesis work centered on dolphin behavior.  
I’ve been running a long-term field study of wild bottlenose and spotted dolphins in the Bahamas since 2002.  I am published, and am also a reviewer for several peer-reviewed journals.  All of the steps that led me here were because of the experience I gained while at KBMML.  
After four years at KBMML, I applied for, got in to, and completed a Master’s program in Biology. I did not intend to get my Ph.D., but three people convinced me to go back.  One of these three people was Lou Herman.  Lou cornered me at a wedding and began the conversation with, “I have a tip for you.”  He convinced me to apply to the Ph.D. program at Hunter College of CUNY, working with Dr. Diana Reiss.   
I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis in May. My career goal is in education.  I have been teaching college courses for over eight years.  Some of these courses touch on comparative cognition and communication.  One of the topics is whether non-human animals have any components of language.  Nothing demonstrates this better than a video of Akeakamai’s language study.  When the topic is sensation and perception (or echolocation), I present Elele’s cross-modal studies.  I also do outreach at various schools. Through the videos and the stories, the KBMML dolphins and Lou’s research continue to amaze and educate."

I truly believe Lou is responsible for changing the way the world thinks about cetaceans. His research findings resulted in both a tremendous interest in cetacean conservation and a push for change in the laws that protect them. Without some of Lou's findings, I wholeheartedly believe whales and dolphins would not have the protection they enjoy today.

I feel so lucky to have worked with Lou for so many years. Lou taught me so much about being a voice for dolphins and whales. He allowed me to work with and learn from his beloved dolphins. He inspired me to make a difference, and he helped me discover my own unique path for doing so.

With Akeakamai

Lou was so much more than a scientist. He was also a gifted teacher, leader, mentor, and friend. He was open-minded and true. I feel so honored to have worked with him, been inspired by him, and to have known him. He always accepted me for who I was, and had a kind smile I cannot express enough just how much Lou’s leadership, mentoring, and friendship meant to me over the past 21 years.

With Lou in 1995, and 20 years later in 2015

My heart aches that I will never see and speak with Lou again, but I know his legacy lives on in all those whose lives he touched over the years. Mahalo nui loa (thank you very much), Lou, for everything. Me ke aloha pumehana (with lots of love).

KBMML as seen from Ala Moana Beach