Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's So Special About IMATA and AZA Conferences?!

Is there like, something special going on today in the zoo and aquarium world or something?

Oh, yeah! IMATA!

The professional organization of fish chuckers everywhere!

This year's IMATA is really special, because it's paired with AZA's annual conference.  That. Is. Awesome.

So what on earth could the Middle Flipper possibly write about when it comes to a double conference?  Well, as I was thinking about what to write a few days ago, I started remembering all of the questions I've gotten about attending a conference (or if you can't attend one...or if you SHOULD attend one...) over the past several years.  I've gotten a lot of the same questions and comments and figured hey, maybe a few other people out there would be interested to know an answer.

An answer.  This blog is, after all, my opinion.  So take whatever you'd like from this, and know it's all coming from a good place!

Okay, here we go: the FAQ* for IMATA Conferences.

1.  "Should I go to a conference?"

Look, even she knows the right answer!

This is a commonly asked question from aspiring trainers, or trainers who are still trying to land a full-time position.

While I obviously can't comment on your personal situation, all I can say is if you can manage to go to a  conference, you should.

Some of the reasons go without saying: you're surrounded by people who can help you get your foot in the door.  You never know what Big Name you'll run into at lunch time or at the pool, whose sagely advice may help you get a job (maybe even with him or her).  You learn about what this field is like through the presentations, which gives you a great glimpse into what each facility does.  That information is not only great to have for your own knowledge and growth, but it's a great way to make yourself stand out in an interview if you remember their IMATA poster presentation six months later.

But another invaluable reason to go to a conference? And now this spills into trainers of all levels, but it's a Shot In The Arm.  Oh, not literally.  No, that would be awful.  "Hey welcome to IMATA! Have an IM injection on us!"

No, thanks.

Look, I remember very clearly when I was trying to get a job how frustrated and discouraged I got.  Not just because of the rejections, but because of the unsupportive people in my life telling me I should just get a Real Job.  When I went to my first conference in 2005, I was surrounded by people who loved animals, who went through the same job hunt process, who'd persevered and landed their dream jobs.  Even though I knew about two other people, and yes, was intimidated by that fact, it was still incredible to be immersed in a culture I'd loved since I was a kid.  It was enough to bolster my drive and keep me focused.

Many trainers of all levels have this same experience of being inspired and their batteries charged.  But more on that later.

2.  "Aren't all the presentations the same?"

No nuh-uh!

Here's the thing about presentations: you can learn something from each one.  Now someone who's been in the field for 20 years and is actively involved in IMATA may not go to each presentation, and that's not out of disrespect to the presenters.  It's that they've got other priorities at these conferences, and they've seen a majillion presentations.  They may choose to go to the ones that are unique in their OWN experience, or are relevant to their facility goals.

But if you're not a director or curator of a facility and you already have the "ugh, presentations" bug, let's find a way to motivate you.

All presentations are not the same.  The topics they cover may be the same from year to year, but unless a facility does the exact same presentation they did in a previous conference, there are always valuable differences and therefore lessons to learn.

You might have worked with dolphins for eight years in an interactive setting and think, "What could I possibly learn from a formal on dolphin interactions?"  Let me tell you, by having that attitude you risk shutting yourself to acquiring information (even if it's a little nugget!) that could help your own job and the program over all.  I mean, for argument's sake let's say you listen to the presentation on Dolphin Interactive Programs and you literally hear nothing you've never heard before.  What does that mean?  Was it a waste of time?  No.  Look at all you can take away from a situation like that:

1) Your training style is similar to that of another facility's.  That means should you run into problems, you know you can probably reach out to this place and have a meaningful conversation that may provide solutions since you guys are on the same page.

2) This facility may be a place you'd like to work someday down the road, if you like how they train and want to stick with similar methodologies as the one you're at currently.  Or, if you're looking for a change eventually, maybe that facility isn't a place you apply.  And that's one less option to unfocus you.

3) One day, you may want to do a presentation.  What did you learn about the public speaking and audio-visual aspects of creating a formal presentation?

Those are some big things to take away from a presentation we've decided is something you already know.   And like I said, there are very, very few of those that you'll encounter if you really listen.  And that brings me to my next point...


You can do it!

I know this day in age we have these awesome Smart Phones and Tablets.  We can use those to save trees and take notes down, or record the presentations.  Maybe we swap a text message with someone we know at the conference to say something like, "What do you think about doing this at our place?" I know that nowadays, a public speaker looking into the audience and seeing their heads buried in their phones and iPads doesn't mean active listening isn't happening.

But with that all said, I do know (because a handful of people have bragged to me about this) that some people show up to presentations and not listen.  They play games on their phones, check their Facebook status...or worse....send messages to judge other people's presentations.

Don't let this freak you out if you're presenting or plan on doing so at some point.  If someone makes fun of you, don't take it personally; just don't do it yourself.  If you're compelled to make fun of someone or a topic, remind yourself that you're the one sitting in the chair listening.  You didn't spend hours and hours and hours putting together a presentation.  You didn't spend the time freaking out about speaking in front of hundreds of people.  If you think you can do better, good for you.  Then show us.  Or don't.  But don't make fun of other people, no matter what your level.

"Whoops," you might think.  "I've made fun of people before."

There, there.

Well, hey, this week is the perfect time to take a fresh start.  Don't focus on the past, just tell yourself that this year, you'll actively listen to the presentations you choose to attend.  And if one isn't in your taste, you'll keep that to yourself because it does nothing but show tremendous disrespect to another human being.  And especially if you're not someone who's a Big Name in the field, you don't want to risk coming off like an A-hole because that could affect your future job prospects.

3.  "I'm scared to introduce myself to people."


Welcome to the club!  We are 7 billion members and going strong.

Seriously, even if you love meeting new people, it's not necessarily an easy thing to do especially in a competitive career setting.  Know that being scared is part of the growth process, and that many many many of us had to deal with this.  Truth be told, while I'm definitely better at it now than I was, I still get nervous thinking about meeting people who inspire me.

Everyone has their own method of figuring out how to be their genuine but professional selves when networking at an IMATA conference.  But all I can tell you is to not let that insecurity or nervousness cripple you, no matter how hard it is.  You just have to take a deep breath and go for it.  Pick a socially appropriate time (and that window may be seconds long if you're going for a Big Name) and DO IT.  Doooo itttttt.  The fear won't go away if you sit there and think about it forever.  Just use good common sense.

Common sense does not equal common core.

Now, I do realize that it's a little more nerve-wracking when you're trying to network with someone High Up.  You almost feel like you're meeting a celebrity, and you want to make the best impression. First, these people are just human beings like you.  They worked hard to get to where they are, and they probably started off in a similar situation as you.   So it's not that you have to treat them differently than another person you respect, but at an IMATA conference they are really slammed with stuff, including doing their own networking.   So how do you try to get face time with those people?

There are better times than others to meet new people.  Here are some examples of good moments to approach your Marine Mammal Hero:

1) At the Icebreaker event when they are not actively engaged in conversation
2) Any down time, especially after presentation blocks.  It's a good time to introduce yourself, chat for a few seconds, then get back to your spot for the next round of talks.
3) Any mixers, meals, after-hours gatherings (like at the hotel bar or pool), or site visits.  But again, use your social sense on when to introduce yourself to someone new, especially if you're trying to work for that person one day.

Here are some examples of not-so-good times to approach someone:

1) Right after their presentation (I've made this mistake!!!) when they are bombarded by people and questions

2) Almost any time they are actively engaged in conversation with someone else, unless you're leaving the conference that minute and it's the last time you'll have to meet them.  If that's the case, prepare what you're going to say, keep it simple: "Hey I'm so sorry to interrupt, but I had to introduce myself before I left today.  My name is Blah Blah Blahberstein and I really liked your talk on Blahblahblahing in the workplace.  Anyways, I'll let you be but it was very nice to meet you."


"Hi! My name is Yada Yaderson.  I think you're great.  Um, sorry, I'm so nervous!! I don't know what to say.  What are you eating there?  Is that lunch?  Wow, that looks really good.  I love lunch.  I try to eat it as often as I can.  So how did you get your start in the field?"

He's cuter when he's awkward.

3) Finding out where their hotel room is and trying to meet them that way (unless you were invited there).

These things are not to make you feel like your time isn't valuable, or that you shouldn't feel welcomed to introduce yourself to someone you feel is important.  You just want to make sure you come off as being the socially intelligent, professional, and sincere person you are.

4.  "What's the best way to stand out at the job fair?"


Be yourself, with a professional twinge.  And focus on yourself.  It's not about competing with the other people via throwing-under-the-bus or measuring experience up against each other.  Yes, duh, it's competitive.  But I'd never consider hiring someone who makes a point of showing how they're better than another candidate.  Never.  Why would I want someone on my team who focuses on their own growth via the destruction of another?

But the person who is themselves, who lets their experience and personality do the work, that's the type of person who stands out.

And take some advice from the "meet new people" section above this one.  It's nerve-wracking to walk from table to table introducing yourself to the management/senior team of each facility.   But just do it.  If you have a tendency to ramble on (like yours truly, good god), keep it brief.  If you are someone who is terminally shy, make it a point to make eye contact and say a few sentences.

No matter what your situation is, do not interrogate anyone.  I've seen this happen before a few times, and it's an unfortunate obstacle the people have added to their journey of becoming a full time trainer.  Like if they weren't hired for a position at a facility, they approach that table and start to ask, "What did I do wrong?  Can you look at my resume again?  What do I have to do????"

That looks desperate.  And that's not really you, that's just your (understandable) insecurity.  What's a better way of dealing with a situation like that?

"Hi, I'm Such and Suchmenton.  I'd like to submit my resume for review again.  I like the work your facility does (mentioning an example here wouldn't be a bad idea).  It's really nice to meet you guys in person.  Have a great night!"

That doesn't guarantee you'll get a job.  But acting the OTHER way guarantees you WON'T get a job.  Be confident, be yourself, and again remember, insecurity is not a personality trait.  It's a gremlin who takes over your personality and makes you do weird things.

5.  "What's the best way to stand out at the conference?"


Take all the stuff of #3 and #4 and smash it together.  What's the theme?  No matter what your experience level....


Those are traits everyone respects.  You don't have to grovel at the feet of the Big Names, you don't have to make fun of people's presentations, you don't have to make sure everyone knows your experience level and how great you are.  Share information, which means you're getting some back from other people.  Learn from each person at the conference.  Just because I'm a supervisor doesn't mean I'm not going to talk to apprentice trainers about their experience at a facility I've never visited. Because what the heck do I know about their job?  Other than the basics, not a whole lot.

Enjoy yourself, and have a good time.  The only other thing I'll mention here is what you do at a conference can stay with you for a while.  That can be really good or really uh, bad.  If you enjoy imbibing in adult beverages, go for it!  Just know your limit, especially if you are representing your facility there.  

And remember, introduce yourself to people you don't know!

6.  "What should I wear?"

Probably not this.

For the Job Fair, dress like you would for an interview.  Smart casual/business casual...these terms are as unfamiliar to me as Bulgarian, but wear something that suits your personality and is appropriate for a job interview.  That doesn't mean wear your nicest clothes per se; the job you're interviewing for involves about zero (0) nice items of clothing because you will get fish blood and sea lion poop all over it.

Avoid this too.

I've heard some people tell others, "WEAR HEELS!"  "WEAR BLACK SLACKS!" Uh, wear something YOU would wear to an interview.  If you love heels, then wear them.  If you're like me and think heels were sent here from a masochistic demon sent solely to make you fall over and/or look like a newborn giraffe, don't wear heels because you'll look ridiculous ( me).

7.  "I just want to hang out with my friends."

I love that wetsuit, where did you get it?

Great, hang out with your friends.  Especially if they're from other facilities.  It's a great way to catch up with people you haven't seen in a while.  But don't stop there.

Meet. New. People.  Make new friends.  It's FUN to make new friends (even if the initial process is frightening), and it's SMART to network in this career.  Why?  Because opening your circle of colleagues allows exponential opportunities for information exchange.  That information helps your animals, it helps your career growth and potentially your future.  It can also help someone indirectly; if you have a great seasonal trainer but no full time jobs, you can help that person out by making a few phone calls and drumming up a job opportunity they were unaware of (and maybe giving them a good friendly reference).  

You will waste your conference if you don't meet some new people.  Don't let that happen to you.

8.  "I don't care about the AZA stuff.  I'm just there for IMATA." (or vice versa)


Oh man, this really gets under my skin.  The separation between zookeepers and marine mammal trainers is closing, but it's still a chasm.  There is no need for this crowbar separation; we are all animal keepers.  Some of us train, some of us don't, but we all fiercely love the animals and the job we do.

Okay, okay, I know I'm getting all flowery and Let's-All-Huggish. I admit it, I would love to see zero difference between "zoo keeping" and "marine mammal training" between all facilities.  I think it can happen, but I also know it's not going to occur at this conference.

But what I will say is that you, as an individual, can make that chasm disappear in your own mind.  If you think marine mammal training is all you care about, or that you really think you'll never want to work with any other taxa than hoofstock,  you're shutting yourself off to some amazing opportunities for growth (and therefore better animal care).

By the way IMATA people, on top of the awesome stuff IMATA has planned for the conference, have you SEEN the AZA schedule yet?  There are so many awesome things they're doing, including leadership seminars, so much conservation stuff, PR/Marketing.....don't let this opportunity pass you by because you're being, well, a marine mammal snob.   Don't be part of the stereotype.

That's an order!

And if you're an AZA person, check out some of the stuff IMATA has to offer.  The presentations are interesting, even if you think you hate training.  Just check it out, if only to solidify your opinion, because you never know what you'll take away from it.

So when you're meeting new people, don't just stick in your own clan.  Branch out.  Lots of zookeepers know about training and do ground-breaking things.  Lots of marine mammal trainers are open-minded and excited to learn about new species.  Just put the stereotypes down for five days (and have a beer or two, if you really need some help with that) and start talking to each other!

Enjoy yourselves this week!

*  FACs? You know, for comments? What about FMC, for frequently mentioned comments?  Or SIHA (stuff I hear a lot).  Oh wow, acronym creation is fun.  ACIF! OMG INAL (I need a life).  ICS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!**  Totally OOC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

** I can't stop.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Animal Myths I Believed: Marine Mammal Hearing Range Edition

There are a few things that I've heard during my time as a marine mammals trainer that have turned out to be well, not so correct.   To be honest, this piece of information has almost reached Myth Status in my mind.

Animal myths are where it's at!

Now before anyone gets a little irked, let's remember something important here: the study of the natural world is progressive.  What we take for granted as fact today may very well not be fact tomorrow.  In some cases, this seems really unlikely (the theory of gravity*, for example).  In others, we can expect to see some big changes, like in the medical field.

The better our technology gets, the better our scientific understanding becomes.  For example, I learned from a helpful commenter on one of my blogs that skunks are no longer considered mustelids.  When did this distinction change?  In 2006, thanks to our ability nowadays to do observe cool stuff at a molecular level.  Turns out, skunks are currently the sole member of Mephitidae.  

Mephitidae, mustelidae....I say we have a Cuteidae family and we can lump lots of critters into it.

So when I say there are things I learned as a marine mammal trainer that turn out not to be true, that's not a knock on anyone.  It may be information that was simply not updated, because the scientific world changes rapidly at times.  ESPECIALLY when it comes to animals.

I've already addressed some of these Myths of sorts (like this blog about anthropomorphism and  animals having emotions, and the fact there are literally hundreds of empirical studies supporting that non-human animals have emotional responses).  But the one I'm talking about...well, you've probably heard some version of this one:

"Dolphins can't hear human voices clearly."

I'm a tad deaf in this ear, speak with a little higher frequency.

Some people have gone as far to say, "Our voices sound like Charlie Brown's teacher."

You know, Charlie Brown's teacher with the "wah womp wahhh womp wah wah" voice, ala muted trumpet sound.

Trumpet mutes?  Or technological advancement in interspecies communication between  H. sapiens and T. truncatus?

When I first heard this, about the fact that dolphins could not hear human voices very well, I believed it.  For those of you readers who are not in the zoological industry and/or who enjoy being hyper critical of people in my profession, let's just get something straight.  I don't just blindly accept what people tell me as truth. I spent a good number of years studying animal (especially cetacean) behavior and physiology.  I could tell you about the structure of a cetacean eye (including translating a paper on dolphin retinas  from Russian to English), the differences between social structures in different species of dolphins, or every Latin name for every dolphin species found on this planet.  My understanding of their hearing range was limited to knowing their upper hearing threshold was around 150kHz.  

I just had no clue what the human vocal range was.

So when someone said, "Hey, dolphins can't really hear you talking.  Or at least not that well," that made sense to me.  They have an insane range of hearing, well above what humans can hear.  They also seem to super compress acoustic information; what sounds like one whistle to us may in fact be many whistles happening simultaneously or in quick succession, but our brains cannot process this information the way a dolphin brain can.

The only thing I didn't understand is how anyone knew that we sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher with the unfortunate voice.  Did we ask the dolphins?  Like Carl Sagan's Voyager, drifting into space with a Golden Record to play sounds of mankind to life in other galaxies, did Jacques Cousteau send down a submarine filled with pop culture references so that the alien world of the ocean could know A Charlie Brown Christmas?  

Surely the dolphin hearing range encompasses a low enough frequency to enjoy  the incredible piano compositions of the Vince Guaraldi trio.

In all seriousness though, are we assuming something about dolphins that maybe isn't true?

Going further, how many pinniped trainers out there have heard that the reason we use verbal SDs with them is because they can hear us well, like a dog?  I heard that, and it also made logical sense to me.  So many facilities use verbal SDs with their sea lions, seals, fur seals, and walruses.  And let's be honest, there are a few of us who have been a little sassy when we've heard of some facilities using verbal SDs with their dolphins.  I remember hearing a former trainer tell me that they "didn't believe" that it was possible to really train a dolphin on audible SDs; that a sort of Clever Hans thing** was happening.  

You so clever.

Well guess what.  It's time to clear the air.  Get ready because here's the answer:

Dolphins can hear our voices. Yep.  And dolphins can absolutely be trained using verbal SDs.  In fact, the first trained bottlenose dolphin in the 1950s was conditioned on verbal cues, because that was the traditional method of animal training back then.  And it's successfully done currently at other facilities.

I can hearrrrr youuuuuuuuuu

Let's look at some science though, just in case you think I'm crazy.

The hearing range of a bottlenose dolphin is:

75 Hz to 150kHz

It's one of the largest hearing ranges in the animal kingdom.  

What does 75 Hz sound like?  Here you go:

Low, huh?

What's a normal vocal range for a human being's voice?  Unless you're some kind of sexy dude like Kevin Richardson from the Backstreet Boys (oh godddd his voice), the average tone for an adult male is 125 Hz, and for females it's around 200 Hz.  That range falls well into the hearing range of a bottlenose dolphin.  Fact fact fact.

Baby, you know I'm hurting'.  But looking at you right now I feel like I could love again

Does that mean we sound muddled or unclear?  Who knows?  I mean, unless someone's asked them that question.

As an aside, one of my fears is talking to a dolphin and having a conversation like this:

Me: Wow, Alvin, this is a real honor to get to talk to you.  This conversation will be the absolute best day of my life.  

Alvin:  I'm sorry, what? I can't understand you, you sound like a muted trumpet.

Where does that leave our friends the California sea lions?  What's their hearing range, considering many of us are told as trainers that the sea lions can hear us "better" than the dolphins?

As of right now, the most acute underwater hearing range is:

0.4 kHz to 32 kHz.   And there is evidence in one study animal that she could hear down to 0.1 kHz.  That's 100 Hz.  ***

With more auditory research, we could find out that in fact sea lions DO hear lower tones than dolphins, but as of right now, they still do not seem to hear frequencies as low as bottlenose dolphins.  And that's just how well they hear underwater.   The general consensus is that hearing ability becomes lesser in air for seals and sea lions, but that tends to deal with the higher frequencies versus the lower ones.  

Marine mammals of the world unite in your ability to hear the naked apes of the Earth!

Does that mean to sea lions, we sound like we have socks stuffed in our mouths?  I don't know, but we've collectively decided that sea lions can hear us better than dolphins, so we train them with our voices.  And we assume for some reason that dolphins cannot hear us, so we train them using SDs that are not out voices.  And some of us mistakenly criticize other facilities who do use verbal cues.  Hmmm.

What's the point of this blog then?  It's not to make us feel sheepish or bad.  It's simply to be like hey trainers (myself included!!!!!!), let's remember that it's a good idea to continuously read up on our field, and not just about training.  We are so good about this when it comes to providing great quality of life for our animals.  If using verbal SDs was a critical quality of life topic, I have no doubt this myth would not have gained ground.  Plus, most of us (even those of us who say they can't hear us) talk to the dolphins incessantly.  There is no lack of social interaction and lots of gooshy love going around.  But when it comes to stuff that is just interesting, I think many of us (again...can you see me raising my hand and saying, "ME TOO!") get stuck in this "well this is how it is" instead of thinking more scientifically: Is this how it is?  What about this? What about that?  What's the latest information on this topic?  How often do I read new published articles on the animals in my care?  Or talk to people who like to read that stuff?

Hey look, if Al said it, we should probably take it seriously.

Also, embrace learning something new, even if it meant you were mistaken before.  Being right all the time is impossible.  And in a scientific field, you can't afford to be set in your ways.   Plus, it may mean that you can really expand your training program's variability.  And let's be honest, for us Animal Lovers, isn't it nice to know that all of those lovely compliments you give your dolphins every day aren't falling on deaf ears? :)

* Yup, it's a theory.  If you thought it was a law, technically that is the Law of Gravitation, which is the computational element of gravity (e.g. you can calculate the gravitational pull of the Earth).  The theory of gravity describes WHY objects are attracted to each other.  Semantics, really.  But boy do I love words.

** Clever Hans was a horse who was trained to tap out answers to math problems with his hoof.  Upon further investigation, it turned out Clever Hans was watching the person asking him the questions carefully; if the questioner knew the correct answer, Clever Hans picked up on some very subtle cue that told him when to STOP tapping his hoof, "correctly" answering the question 89% of the time.  If the questioner didn't know the answer to the problem, Clever Hans only got the answers right 6% of the time.

*** I research lots of these things, but this is a laid back blog that I don't feel requires me to cite references in order to prove a point (although I want to give credit!).  But!  This is a really great article:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

When Two Worlds Collide: Animal Lovers versus The Rest of the Planet

Us animal lovers are a different brand of people, aren't we?  I mean, no matter how we specifically define ourselves as an Animal Lover, we are definitely cut from the same cloth.  And we tend to stick together.  In fact, we become so wrapped up in our Animal Lover World that we often forget there are a lot of people out there who think we are crazy.

Are we really THAT crazy? 

Animal caretakers, especially ones in a setting where they are caring for the same individual animals on a daily basis, really become immersed in the Animal Lover Lifestyle.  Speaking for myself, I am surrounded with people who dedicate their lives to caring for, understanding, and sharing information about our non-human friends.  When I step out of that sphere, it's always at least a little disorienting.

Now, I realize there are far more Animal Lovers than animal trainers/caretakers.  As I've said, I feel there are many sub-categories (and you can belong to more than one of them): 

  • Veterinarians
  • Vet techs/assistants
  • Animal rescue staff and volunteers
  • Animal trainers of all taxa
  • Zookeepers
  • Pet owners
  • Wildlife rehabbers
  • Biologists/ethologists/ecologists
  • Conservationalists
  • Wildlife lovers
  • Etc. etc. etc.!
You said it best, Yule Brenner!

While all of those people are True Animal Lovers, they all experience this world in a slightly different way (although the main points are the same).  So this blog is from the perspective of my branch of this greater concept, which is of course the marine mammal training field.

When you first realize that you want to work with marine mammals, there is an initial acceptance of this idea, even from people who do not define themselves as Animal Lovers.  I think this is because marine mammals are pretty popular critters.  Also, most of us are like 7 years old when we decide we want to be trainers.  At this age, you can basically say you want to be anything and receive full support from adult influence because you Showed Early Career Initiative So You Are Probably A Child Genius.

Me, a clear example of prodigy.

At some point though, once your adult influences realize that you're actually serious about working for $8.00 an hour after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, the naysaying commences.  And that is when you really feel the difference between You and Them.  I won't go into this struggle too much (since that's another blog topic for another time), but I'm sure many of you zoo animal trainers can relate.  You've known since you were a little kid that you wanted to do something to help animals.  Many of you see something beyond just an organism who poops, breeds, and eats; you see an individual.  You see a reason to conserve and care.  And I'm willing to bet that for many of you, your opinion was not the prevailing one among your social circles when you were growing up*.

The moment you start your internship, it's like you've entered another universe.  Yeah yeah, internships are scary and intimidating.  But the fact that you're completely surrounded by Like Minded People, people who regularly dedicate their lives to animals, who (seemingly) effortlessly live this lifestyle you've wanted since you were a little's intoxicating.  You don't have to defend something that is so core to who you are as a person.  You see and experience firsthand the type of job that makes a positive difference in animals' lives.  It's validating and overwhelmingly wonderful.

So fast forward to being a marine mammal trainer for several years.  You know a number of animals very well.  You've established strong relationships with them; some of them know you better than others.  You've seen some really wonderful moments, and you've probably experienced some hard ones.  The nature of the job (including its low pay) basically guarantees that you spend more time with your human and non-human coworkers than it does with family members and outside-of-work friends.  It isn't easy to go out, or take trips back home.  You are now fully engaged in your Animal Lover lifestyle.

I don't mind living alongside this amazing dolphin, that's for sure!

When an animal you know and love passes away, it's a horrible time.  No true Animal Lover, no matter how you define it, can deny that.  In fact, for Animal Lovers, death is death: it doesn't necessarily feel "less" or "more" painful depending on the species.  True Animal Lovers know that each life is sacred and unique.  The loss is always profound.

But Animal Lovers, you know what I'm about to say next don't you?  How many people in your life who are NOT into animals understand how you deal with loss when it isn't a human being?  Not a whole lot.  That's a challenge, isn't it?  Because not only do you grieve for the animal's death, you have to defend WHY you're grieving.

"Oh.  Sorry to hear about that. Was the rest of your day good?"

"Why are you so upset?  It was just a cat/penguin/marmoset."

"You can always get another dog."

"It's not like your [insert relative here] died.  Get over it!"

Exactly, Kevin.

Those are things people have actually said to me or my friends and coworkers who have lost an animal (including pets).   I understand that some people just don't understand that non-human animals are not mindless machines, but they do care about how their friends and family members feel and may be sympathetic to them when a pet or an animal they care for passes away.  So this is not a criticism of people who are not Animal Lovers; it's just illustrating the point that well, there are a lot of people out there who don't care all that much or at all about animal welfare.

Animal trainers get so wrapped up in their Animal Lover world that it typically goes beyond that of someone who is a mom or dad to a companion animal.  Your best friends, coworkers, your bosses, subordinates, and in many cases your significant other are all just as passionate about animal welfare as you are.   It's such an amazing feeling to have network of people who understand and live your ethical principles and deep interests....especially considering the amount of flak we all took for wanting to get into this field.  It's like, "Finally!!! People who understand!"

One question: Why can't striped pants be part of my uniform?

And that is why it is extremely jarring once you enter the non-animal lover realm.  And let me tell you, there are a lot of people out there who don't care about (or...don't even LIKE) animals**!!!

Sometimes I find it hard to relate to people who aren't into animals.  I get along better with people who are totally against having animals in human care than I do with people who just don't really like animals.   Does anyone else have this issue?  I mean, I'm not a total jerk or anything to the Non Animal Lovers, I just sometimes don't know what to talk about sometimes because my whole life is animals.  At some point, I want to talk about something Animaly. 

Like, I don't even know socially how to handle myself in some of the more Intensely Non Animal conversations.  I can talk about world events, music, funny stories.  But I'm talking about those times when it's inevitable that something about your job or your life with animals comes up and it's met with a: blank stare, a confused question, or even a hostile and/or passive aggressive remark.

Here are a couple of examples of my ineptitude:

Example 1

Person A: So, want to hang out tomorrow night?
Me: I'd love to, but I'm busy tomorrow.
Person A: Oh yeah? What are you doing?
Me: Uh, a penguin transport.
Person A: Why would you transport a penguin?
Me: *Goes into explanation*
Person A: So...
Me: Yeah.
Person A: Have you seen Blackfish?


Example 2

Person B: You're so lucky you don't have a real job.
Me: Oh, ha ha! Yeah, it's a great job. 
Person B: No seriously, you don't actually impact anyone in a positive way.
Me: Uh, should we change the topic?
Person B: Sure, I mean, no offense or whatever, but it's not a real job.


Example 3

Person C: I think animals are here for our use.
Me: Um.  I think I have diarrhea. Bye.

Bring up poop, conversation OVER.  (This is sea lion poop by the way, not mine)

Most of the time, and maybe this is just one of my character flaws, I have a hard time being rude to people even though I think sometimes that's the correct response.  If I'm standing up for someone, or speaking up for an animal in need, that's different.  But to have someone tell me about why they think animals are "here" for "our" use, and what I want to say (involves lots of these kinds of symbols: *#%&(*#&%Q@) is not what I end up saying (usually something diplomatic and/or change-the-subjectish).

Non Animal Lovers abound, and it's not like they are bad people, they just don't understand.  It's weird interfacing with them at this point in my life, especially because so many of them seem to have a weird and dissenting opinion about animals in general.  I'm not talking about people who aren't for animals in zoos, because those people are Animal Lovers too.  I'm talking about people who think zoos are about as exciting as lima beans, or who are disgusted by animals.   I'm a complete social moron around those people!  

Surely I'm not alone in my problem, right?  What about you guys, do you have trouble dealing with the Non Animal Lovers?  Is it harder now than it was before you became a zookeeper/animal trainer/veterinarian?  

* If it was, lucky you! Go high-five and THANK your family and friends

** I know, right?!?!?!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Professional Failures: Aspiring Trainer Edition

Failure failure failure.

The saddest of endings is when a ghost with googly eyes eats you. 

This blog is a lot about failure and how to not let yourself get down by it.  I’ve said a lot about this, attenuated with semi-brief* anecdotes from yours truly.  But over the past several weeks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people both in this field and aspiring trainers who compliment my blog and then address me like I’m some kind of Big Name.  As an aside: I’m no Big Name, just some moron who writes and does whacky google image searches while showing my clumsy, Dolphin Huggery personality. But nonetheless, I’m still flattered and humbled by the positive feedback.

Anyways, when these kind people tell me they like my blog and that it helps them out, that means a lot to me.  But I hope everyone knows that I started out just like anyone else, I struggle with insecurity in my own job performance sometimes, and sometimes I get a little down.  I mean, all of that is normal.  In fact, if I didn’t go through that stuff, I’d never grow as a trainer, a supervisor, or a person.  You guys all know that is true about yourselves, too.

But let me remind you all that it took me almost a year to get a job as a trainer.  I know that isn’t going to win me any prizes of “Longest Time It Took To Get a Friggin’ Job”, but it wasn’t an easy ride for me either.  So I figured I’d write a blog about all of my failures (and yeah, some of the embarrassing ones) in trying to get a job as a marine mammal trainer.

Even though I mess up, I still have a job I LOVE!

When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to work with dolphins.  I knew a lot about the ethology and natural history of most of the species of dolphins known at that time. I just devoured information on dolphin species, and focused a lot of my efforts on my favorites: orcas, rough-toothed, bottlenose, and Pacific white-sided.  I spent so much time on the biology of the animals that by the time I met people like me on the great Internet, I thought I had it made.  Who wouldn’t want to hire someone with such an encyclopedic knowledge of delphinidae?

See? I STILL love rough-toothed dolphins

The group of people I’d met online who belonged to a forum dedicated to cetaceans and basically how to get a job as a trainer knew a lot of stuff I didn’t.  They knew all the individual bottlenose dolphins and orcas at a variety of facilities.  Some of them even knew trainers.  They knew behavioral terminology and how different facilities did things (how accurate this was, I have no idea, but it sure impressed me at the time).  They talked about internships, which hadn’t even crossed my mind.  It was obvious I knew nothing about the field I wanted to get into...and that freaked me out.

My 17 year old brain figured that the only way to start getting in front of the 8-ball was to go to my local aquariums (the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo) and start to identify the animals.  That’d really show how good of a trainer I’d be.  

The dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo wound up being pretty interactive at the underwater viewing window of the main habitat, so on weekends I’d drive down to the zoo and try to play with the dolphins.  This was great until eventually, one of the trainers told me to stop because it could disrupt training goals for their youngest dolphin.  Now that I’m a trainer, I understand where she was coming from, but at the time I thought it was career suicide.  

Especially when she asked my name, and I got all nervous and not only told her my name but added, “AND I’D LOVE TO DO AN INTERNSHIP HERE SOMEDAY!”



When it was time to apply for internships, I had a brilliant idea.  I’d apply for internships in the Chicago area, because that way I wouldn’t have to spend money to live away from home!  It’d be easy, and I mean, I heard how competitive these internships were, but surely they’d pick me, right?  I could identify their animals.  I knew a lot about dolphins.  And NO ONE on Earth or in any neighboring galaxies could possibly love dolphins more than I do.  I was a shoe-in.

I looked at the applications for Brookfield Zoo and Shedd Aquarium.  Both of them said I’d be working pretty hard, lifting stuff, standing on my feet, cleaning a lot.  I started going to the gym to work out, so I’d be ready for the physical requirements.  That was probably the only smart, prudent step I took in getting ready for an internship.  

My application to Brookfield Zoo was denied, because my letter of recommendation didn’t arrive on time from my university’s registrar’s office.  It wound up being a clerical error on my school’s part, but that didn’t change the outcome.  Having so many intern applications come - many of which represent equally qualified candidates - means that often, intern coordinators need to have ways of paring their selection pool down to a few.  Strict application deadlines are one of those methods; it’s completely unbiased.

So I didn’t make that one.  And when I interviewed for the Shedd internship, it’s safe to say I bombed that one.  Again, having not really prepared myself for what the marine mammal training field was like, I figured the internship was like any ol’ summer job.

“Do you have any schedule conflicts within the dates you’d be interning at the Shedd?” the interviewer asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said confidently.  “I need a week off in August, and another weekend for a family event.” 


Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get that internship either after the interviewer kindly explained that taking a weekend off was one thing, but an entire week was not possible.  He gave me advice on how to present myself the next time I interviewed for an internship.  And while I was embarrassed and disappointed at the time, I appreciated the unsolicited advice because hey, maybe I would’ve made the same mistake.

The more research I did on internships, the more I realized I really needed to broaden my search.  I applied to every marine mammal internship, made overly certain everything got to where it needed to go on time, and made sure I had no schedule conflicts with the internship periods.  Eventually, I landed an internship at Clearwater Marine Aquarium and was there for six months....

...and rearing to get a job.  I didn’t want to go back to school, because I had finally had a taste of my dream job.   And right after I got back from my internship, I was diagnosed with melanoma.  Talk about a &#%(-y time.

I wallowed a little bit, not gonna lie.  I was really scared of the melanoma diagnosis not only for my own health, but also because I didn’t know how it’d affect my future in marine mammal training.  I knew I had to cast my net wide in the job search; I couldn’t just limit myself to the indoor facilities because I’d heard so much about how difficult it was to land an entry-level job ANYWHERE, much less at a place you think you want.  I felt defeated and scared before I even sent my first job application.

But then, I started applying.  Everywhere.  No entry-levelish job on AZA and IMATA was safe.  I applied for every animal training job (not just marine mammals) I could find.  I scoured the internet for zoo and aquarium websites to see if they had any additional job postings that weren’t up on IMATA or AZA’s websites, and found a good amount.  I sent out resume after resume after resume.  Over 80.

C'mon Apple, let's get on this.

And I heard back (this includes rejections) from about 8. 

Before I go any further, let me make something clear: the places I list below are amazing facilities.  Their decision not to interview or hire me is 100% okay. I have absolutely no bitter feelings towards them whatsoever.  Why didn’t I get an interview or get hired at these places?  Simple.  I wasn’t a good fit.  Nothing more to it!

Most of the applications I sent out went into the void.  Even places I knew people, thinking that maybe they’d be like, “Oh that kid, let’s look at her resume” they didn’t.  I don’t know what was harder to adjust to, accepting a rejection or never hearing back.  I struggled with sending follow-up emails or phone calls, because What If It Got Lost In The Mail?  What if they couldn’t Open The Attachment?

I acted on an emotional impulse, and made a mistake by initially following up with the mysterious black-hole applications.  I didn’t hear back from them either, which I took as a message loud and clear as: don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Yet again, I felt embarrassed and frustrated, mostly with myself.  I worried that they’d remember my name, like in a conversation like this:

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Oh my god, this Cat girl emailed us again.

Zoo Hiring Person 2: Really?!?! She is SO annoying

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Let’s forever remember this name

Zoo Hiring Person 2: Yes, let’s remember this name and BLACK BALL HER FROM THE
                                         FIELD FOREVER


Of course, that’s not at all how that goes.  You know how that situation probably went?  Something more like this:

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Oh, there’s another follow up email from an interested candidate.      Obviously passionate, but young.  Next!

And speaking for myself, because I am terrible with names (and details in general), if someone makes a little mistake or whatever, I’m not going to hold it against them or even remember them whenever they apply again.**

Eventually, because perseverance and time pay off, I got a swim test at SeaWorld San Diego.  I practiced my butt off for that thing, figuring the hardest part was going to obviously be the test.  If I could pass the test, then I knew I could ace the interview.  Why? Because I’d interviewed, failed, and learned so much from my internship search experience.  Plus, I had six months of marine mammal training under my belt, and felt confident in my basic knowledge.  I knew I could convey that while I understood the lingo, I was not a know-it-all and was eager to learn learn learn.   They’d be crazy not to hire me!

With this confidence, I took the swim test.  I passed the swim test.  And before I interviewed, I got tossed into an improv-type situation that totally took my by surprise.  I did my best, as I’ve written in a previous blog.  And then, the interview.

Well first, I had all the wrong clothes.  For anyone who knows me personally, this is not surprising.  I am actually The Worst Female in the Western hemisphere when it comes to fashion sense.  I hate dressing up, I never know what’s appropriate to wear.   What I think looks Interview Good is what most people might wear to an establishment such as Wal Mart, but like, at reasonable hours like from say 5:00pm to 7:00pm.   So give me some credit.


So I show up in this weird outfit I thought would be a perfect Marine Mammal Trainer Interview get up, green jeans (.....) with a silk button down shirt.  I looked atrocious.  I have no idea why I thought those two things go together.  I wish I had a photo, but if I did I’d probably have destroyed it because I don’t think some of you could survive the laughing fit that would ensue upon seeing it.

When I walked into the room, I saw a bunch of very Important People sitting at a table waiting to do my interview.  All of these people where very kind and did a great job putting me at ease.  Then, they began the worst interview of my career.

They asked me questions like, “Tell us about a time you were put in charge of a project, and it failed.”  

“Tell us about a time you dealt with an aggressive incident.”

These were questions I had never encountered in my internship journey.  Had I done a little research about interviews, I would’ve been more prepared for that particular brand of questioning.  But because I thought I’d already gone through that learning process, I didn’t bother.  What a mistake.  

Uh oh

I’m not sure what the interviewers would tell you about the caliber of my answers, but from my perspective I definitely did not do well.  I tried to answer confidently, but I was so shaken and so frustrated with myself for being so complacent that it was hard to really focus.  What was the point of answering so many seemingly-negative questions? To see how you work under pressure.  To see how you are when you’re thrown off.  And maybe, to see how you deal with inevitable failure, because there is no one who avoids making mistakes.

At the end of the interview, they asked me if I had any questions.  This was yet another major fail on my part: I’d never thought about what questions I’d ask a prospective employer for a paid job.  The internship interview questions I asked where logistic, but would it look cocky if I asked those same kinds of questions for a job?  Would it look like I assumed I got the position?  I have no idea how SeaWorld runs their departments, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell them no, I had NO questions.   And so, in my wisest, proudest moments, the best Look At Me, I’m Hireable question was:

“Do you guys like, sometimes get animals from the navy?”

And it just came out of my mouth and was hanging in the air in front of all of those really  Important Sea World people and I wanted to die.  What a stupid question.   

They answered the question politely, and asked if I had any more.

Me: Uh, no, I'm going to go die now. 

The Monster At The End Of This Interview

Okay, I didn't really say that.  I tried to save face as best I could by saying no, thanks so much for the opportunity, I had fun (and really, up until that point, I had).

All of the mistakes I've talked about really shook my confidence.  It make me question not only IF I'd ever get a job, but if I SHOULD.  "Does anyone else make a fool out of themselves?" I'd ask myself.  "The field is so competitive, can I afford to make these mistakes??"

The voice inside every aspiring animal trainer's head

Take a deep breath and let it out in pure relief, because YES.  You can.  As long as you keep a positive attitude, and force yourself to get out of your head so you can learn from your mistakes, you will be fine.  The people interviewing you were brand new at this job once.  They were scared and fumbled around with their words, their technique, and their image.  They can empathize with you, even if they don't think you're the right fit.  They won't hold it against you for future job opportunities.  Just keep yourself positive (and stay off of Facebook!).

Guess what? The job I have now came from failure.  That's right.  One of the resumes I handed out was to the director and general manager of Marineland back when it was still privately owned.  Marineland had a table at the IMATA conference job fair in 2005.  I gave my resume to the director and introduced myself.  He laughed when he saw my name on my resume and said, "That's an interesting name.  Right now we don't have any openings for entry-level trainers, but keep us in mind when you get some more experience." 

I remembered that, and applied after I'd had experience at Miami Seaquarium.  Guess what? The director at Marineland remembered me, I got an interview, and landed the job.  That director is now in charge at the place I'm at now, and he brought me over.  We both joke all the time about our first encounter at the job fair; and remind aspiring trainers how important it is to network, to get outside of your comfort zone, and learn from your mistakes.  You will benefit in ways you can't even predict.

Great success!

I could go on and on about my failures.  I made so many mistakes in my job.  So maybe later I'll write about mistakes at different parts of my career later.  Yeah, that would certainly break up your reading experience instead of what is turning into a blog of Russian novelist proportions.

So any of you out there struggling to get your foot in the door, terrified that you made decisions or said some things that "for sure" have sealed your fate against getting a job, please don't worry.  Take this blog as a reminder that we've all been in your shoes.  Just keep the following things in mind, no matter how much you think you've messed up:

1) Be confident, even if you blew the interview and you have to fake it to the last moment.  It's better to be confident and professional even when you know you've "lost".  Not just for your future job prospects, but out of respect for yourself and your development

2) Stay positive; never trash-talk the facility or anyone who interviewed you.  Why? Because you're the one who messed up, not them...and that's okay.  It's okay if you're not the right fit for that job.  Maybe you will be later, but only if you take it in stride.  And maybe you'll never be, which is great too because who wants to work at a place where they wouldn't be a good fit?  Let the people interviewing you worry about that; you just stay positive.

3) LEARN.  Learn learn learn learn learn.  A mistake is an utter waste if you use it to tell yourself you suck, if you use it to tell others they suck, or if you just let it sit and fester in your head.  A mistake is a gold mine if you learn from it.

4) Know you'll fall, over and over and over.  You'll get ahead, think you've "made it", and then you'll fail.  It's normal, it means you're pushing yourself and you're growing.  It doesn't mean you aren't worth it.  So pick yourself up and keep going.

We're cheering for you!

Yeah you do!

* I’d be lying if I said anything I ever write is “brief”

** ...unless someone chooses to publicly decry their woe or disrespect for the facility (facilities) they’ve applied to and from which never heard back and/or got rejected.  We remember those people.