Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Swimming" With Dolphins: A Middle Flipper Perspective

Let's see a raise of hands out there for how many of you have wondered what it's like to actually swim with dolphins?  How about those of you out there who have/do swim with dolphins regularly; do you get this questions a lot?

Fact: We are not swimming.  We are floating.

I think everyone who's seen a dolphin has wondered at some point what the experience of hanging out with them in their element is like.  Let's save the "what is it exactly about dolphins that make humans heart them so much*" for another blog post, but there is this unexplained and occasionally weird obsession many people in many cultures have with cetaceans and the desire to be near them.

Some of us watch dolphin shows and presentations, and see trainers and dolphins doing waterwork, flying through the air or tearing through the water.  It's an impressive sight (....unless you're watching me do it).  It captures our imagination, especially if we haven’t had the experience of being in the water like that with a dolphin.  Why? Because I mean LOOK at this:


And this:

Zoom zoom zoom

Talk about swimming with dolphins! That’s 18mph of pure fun** for both taxa involved.

So we’ve got trainers being hurled out and about by dolphins in a coordinated display of relationship, physical fitness, and good training (on both parties’ ends).   This is probably the epitome of the experience, right?

Well, let’s really look at this idea of what I mean by “swimming with dolphins.”

Waterwork is 90% the dolphin’s energy.  Yes, it takes the trainer a lot of physical conditioning depending on the actual behavior in order to do the behavior well and safely.  I’m not in any way saying that the trainer does nothing.  But when it comes to actually swimming with the animals, waterwork is not an accurate illustrative example of what it’s like to be in the water with these powerful animals.  We as trainers swim out to the area we need to be in for the waterwork behavior, and then the dolphin does all the muscle work (i.e. swimming and jumping).


What I mean by swimming with dolphins is, you’re in the water, swimming around like the little weird water apes we are, and the dolphins are right next to you.  There is very little towing or pushing involved, just you hanging out beside a dolphin under your own steam.  What is THAT like?

First of all, a quick shout out to National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Dolphin Documentary Filmmakers Everywhere:  thanks for NOTHING.  "Thanks"  for using high-speed film and SLOWING IT DOWN.  Like, I grew up thinking that dolphin jumps had a distinctly slow arch that took minutes to complete.  You know the footage I’m talking about, right?  You see a dolphin or two sailing into the air, water beading off of their gorgeous sleek bodies, arching across the horizon.  This processes takes a long enough time to get up to go to the kitchen, make Baked Alaska, and return just in time to see the dolphins perfectly re-enter the glittering Caribbean Sea water that all bottlenose dolphins seem to live in in Documentary World.

Slow motion tells us lies, like that water makes a great hat.

Until I saw a dolphin in real life, I thought they were slowly powerful, like an Olympic athlete doing his thing on some rings, or a yogi moving through a vinyasa.  Intense muscular action contained in a fluid, rhythmic and slow method.  Yeah, I heard/read that orcas could swim over 30mph.  But that meant absolutely nothing to me as a kid; I had no basis of comparison.   Understanding speed for me as a kid was broken down into categories:

1. The speed at which I ran*** the mile, which took me 9 days to complete on average
     making my mean pace something like 0.000001 mph

2. How fast the car moved, which was carefully measured by Tree Blurriness Factor (but
     was mostly ignored due to Coloring Books)

3. How fast time went (slowly), especially in school (god awful)


So a mathematic/physics prodigy I was not.  Thirty miles per hour meant nothing other than that it probably looked really slow, because all the orca documentaries I’d seen had extremely slowed-down footage.  

Long story short, I had absolutely zero concept of how fast dolphins moved in real life.

The first time I saw a dolphin, I was 9 years old.  I went to the Shedd Aquarium with my school and saw the adorable Pacific white-sided dolphins.  If you know anything about that species, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Uh, well, Cat found out real quick how fast dolphins are.”

Yeah, Shedd!

Yeah, those guys are quick.  I was amazed at how high they could jump, how smart they seemed to be, how beautiful they were (and still are).  But more impressively, I couldn’t believe how fast it took them to come BACK from some of their impressive aerial behaviors to their trainers.  It was lightning fast.  And after the show, the dolphins zoomed around at a cruising speed of Faster Than National Geographic Documentary miles per hour.

You’d think that with this newfound knowledge of cetacean velocity, I’d therefore have some idea of what it’d be like to swim with them.  I’m happy to report that no, I remained clueless on this front, like so many others.  Why? Because I’d still never been up close and personal with a dolphin.  Also, I think humans have a really bizarre tendency to think they are way better at something than they really are.  

Maybe other animals have this problem, too.  Like please someone tell me if they work with a panda who is just convinced they are great at Impressionism, or a sea lion who believes they’d be good at spelunking (I may or may not know such a sea lion).

When I was a kid, I used to imagine that I’d be the best bass player around, in our own galaxy and perhaps neighboring ones.  I’d listen to music for hours and pretend I was the one shredding the bass line, winning every Battle of the Bands event ever.  I dreamed about it, how I’d just pick up a guitar and just know automatically how to play everything.  This extended to instruments I’d never even held before, like the bass clarinet or the saxophone.  I don’t even know which end of those things to blow into, but in my mind I thought if I ever picked one up, I could totally figure it out.  Of course, in reality I had to practice really hard to play bass at even a womp womp level.   And it was always a great disappointment when I realized my deficiency.

Please enjoy this picture of me

Humans collectively do this with their abilities because we like to imagine and dream, which is awesome.  It’s just a good thing to realize our tendency to exaggerate so we’re not totally blown away when we find out how out of touch with our actual abilities we are.  And most things we can practice and cultivate, and become extremely proficient or even GENUIS at.  But there are some things that no matter how hard we try, we will always be Womp Womp.

I think swimming is one of those things.

One does have to wonder

Seriously, no matter how comfortable you are in the water, or how long you can hold your breath, or how many gold medals you’ve won in swim competitions, you’ll always SUCK compared to a dolphin.  Sorry, it’s true.  But that’s not something you realize until you’re in the water with one and they’re like, “HEY LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!”

I think people imagine themselves getting into the water with a dolphin, swimming alongside of them at an easy pace, checking out the native fish and invertebrate life (“Hey dolphin! look at this cool sea star I found!”) and communing with Mother Nature.  There may be some interspecies communication happening about Mysteries of The Universe like the Purpose of Life, Does God Exist, and Why Can’t The Cubs Win The Pennant?  Bystanders green with envy will watch from the shore as the two of you glide beautiful alongside one another through the perfectly clear and calm water, sparkling in the warm sun.  

Next frame: swimmer by herself with not a damn dolphin in sight.

Of course, we’re leaving out some of the important details of this swim, like: choppy water, low visibility, jellyfish, the fact that you’ll need to come up to take a breath more often and way less gracefully than a dolphin, and oh, that no dolphin gives a #*%@ if you find a sea star.

Now okay, I’ll admit there is a difference between swimming with a dolphin in human care and one who is not.  Also, in the U.S. and Canada it’s illegal to harass wild dolphins which includes pursing them and jumping in with them and swimming.  So I’m talking about that you’re like just la la la hanging out in the ocean and BOOM there are dolphins (doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen).

There is no swimming WITH dolphins.  Here’s a quick synopsis of the experience from a human perspective:

Human: paddle paddle paddle, choke on seawater and sputter around for a while, clean out the fogged up mask, paddle paddle paddle, stop to choke some more


Here is a majestic picture of me swimming with dolphins

Dolphins in human care have learned that we are hopelessly craptastic in the water, and usually act accordingly.  Usually.  The first time I ever got in the water with dolphins was at a natural lagoon facility in Honduras during a marine biology excursion, and oh my god.

I seriously had dreamed about this trip for months, and specifically about the experience of getting in the water with dolphins.  The illusory scenario I wrote a few paragraphs up? That was basically what I thought would happen.  That I’d somehow call to me all the dolphins and they’d swim along side of me at like 3mph, and we’d play with seashells and stuff.  And all the other students would be sooooo jealous.

In reality, I got in the water and was ignored by all the dolphins for about 20 minutes.  I had snorkel gear on, including really good dive fins, so I swam faster than I normally could, and I was still ridiculously slow compared to the ten other dolphins flying around.  They. Were. So. Fast.  Graceful, yes.  But oh my god.  I was so sad that they weren’t interested in me, either.  So I decided to just watch them interact with each other, realizing fully and completely that I really had had no clue what these animals were like until I’d seen them in person like this, in this context.  

Sarah's impression of me the first time I swam with dolphins.  Derpa derp

This still happens with me, even as a relatively experienced trainer.   Just a few days ago, I got in the water to swim with one of our female dolphins, Lily (the one who brings us gifts all the time).  She seems to find trainers swimming with her reinforcing.  But sometimes she gets really hyper and excited, not to the point where she’s like that around humans, but if you’ve got a mask on and can see what she’s doing, you can really appreciate how fast she can really swim.  I was playing with a football with her, and she was going crazy with it.  There is something to be said about watching a dolphin swim at top speed towards a favorite toy, leap out of the water, and then race back to you…all while you’re in there, being a slow as Cat Rust In Math Class human.

Sometimes I think the dolphins feel bad for us.  There have been multiple instances with several different dolphins I’ve known who have been swimming next to me really slowly (because they’ve grown up with humans and know how awful we are in the water, and have learned to swim next to us) and suddenly, they jut out a pectoral flipper and hook my arm and speed up.  It took me a few times to figure out WTF was going on, but when I grabbed on to the offered flipper, they tow me around at a speed kinda sorta approaching what their normal cruising speed is.  And these were dolphins (mostly younger ones) who had not learned any kind of towing/pushing behavior for waterwork. 

It’s like they were like, “okay, I know I’m supposed to swim next to you, but good lord grab on.”

I love this experience, but I’m always a little embarrassed.  Maybe someday, we’ll be able to communicate more complicated ideas to dolphins and I can be like, “Look, I wish I could swim that fast, but I CAN’T AND IT’S NOT MY FAULT WAHHHHHH!”

Human! Why you blow all your air out!

I feel that dolphins must talk to each other after park hours about how awful we are at swimming:

Dolphin 1: Oh my god, did you see my session with Cat today?
Dolphin 2: She tries so hard, doesn’t she?
Dolphin 1: Yeah, she does.  Normally I’m inspired by her tireless effort but today I wanted to rip my nonexistent hair out.  And they way she lifts her entire head out of the water and gulps air like a dying fish
Dolphin 2: Just try to remember the things she does well, like fall down.

The one time I’ve seen dolphins swimming around me in the wild, it really made me appreciate the relationship I have with the dolphins I’ve known in human care.  Really.  I mean, I’ve swam with calves who are like “YAYAYAYAY” or “OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS WATER OF MINE” and are swimming in all directions, seemingly at once (it’s scientific fact that baby dolphins have mastered quantum physics principles such as being in two places at one time).  I’ve also seen dolphins take off after something more interesting, leaving me on the swirly, white-water sidelines like the kid who’s always picked last for kickball.


But it was different seeing wild dolphins swim around me.  They act like they have no clue how fragile we humans really are compared to them.  And the area I was in has a horribly long history of feeding wild dolphins, so the animals aren’t just coming over to have a metaphysical encounter.  

I was in the water way in front of and to the side of a pretty big pod of bottlenose dolphins.  And they found me.  Normally they swim by, tens of yards away.  Too for to see underwater, but you can see them at the surface for a hot second.  But this time, they all came at me from behind.  I was just swimming along at the surface, choking every so often because there was a pretty good chop on the water.  And I am really, really comfortable in the water; I’m a strong swimmer.  Still, that’s just for a human.  So when these dolphins came up underneath me at an ungodly speed, I was scared.  One of the dolphins was about eight inches underneath me, looking up at me.  They circled around me, echolocating and making a buzzing sound that doesn’t always precede a friendly handshake.  I was actually scared.  I had no way to get away, I had no way to even ask them to let me leave, like I can with the dolphins with whom I work.  I just basically had to sit there and hope they didn’t try to mess with me.  Luckily, they left as quickly as they’d snuck up on me.

Cool picture, scary when it happened

So swimming with dolphins is more like floating with dolphins.  And unless you have some super secret X-Men talent that allows you to reach speeds even CLOSE to that of a normal dolphin, it will always be this weird, kicky floaty encounter.  But that’s okay, because it’s not our element.  It’s theirs.  We can and should appreciate the inherent power these animals have.  And enjoy every accidental water-inhaling minute we have with the dolphins we know and love in the facilities we work in all over this globe.  Because even though it ain’t glamorous, we can answer the question, “What’s it like to swim with dolphins?”


* Seriously! Dolphins are awesome! Like so many other species of animals.  But there is just something about those guys

** Terror, for poor ol’ me

*** Ha ha ha, just kidding.  Walked.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Wild: Mother Nature or Cold-Hearted Meaniepants?

** Disclaimer: There is one photo below of poaching that is disturbing.  I'll give fair warning in advance, but didn't want anyone to be caught off guard**

With the debate surrounding animals in human care, there's one particular point that both sides of the argument continue to use against one another.  I'm not sure why I felt that this week's blog would attempt to tackle this issue, but it's something I hear (from both sides) a lot.  I figured I'd try to give another perspective.

Perspective from all angles (even chonrichthyian) is important! 

It all comes back to WHY we debate the necessity and value of animals in human care.  We all say it's because we love the animals and want to fight for them, and I think most people genuinely care.  I know I sound like a broken record, but I think we collectively focus too much on defending our point of view in a way that at least appears as though we just want to be right.  When we focus on putting ourselves firmly onto a "side", we tend to start making statements that are defamatory, sweeping, and ultimately ineffective in sharing information and trying to find common ground to actually conserve the species we love so much.

So what's the topic I've cryptically alluded to? 

"The Wild."  

Silver Springs!

We talk about The Wild a lot in the zoo/no-zoo debate.   Depending on what side of the argument you're on, you probably have a different perspective on what The Wild is actually like. And herein lies the problem.

Let's first look at the dichotomy of The Wild as seen through two very (grossly) generalized lenses.

Anti-Zoo Wild

Tra la la la!

The Wild is a place where animals are free.  They can be with others of their kind, hunt, play, roam, migrate, and be themselves.  Mother Nature is a nurturing force who cares for her Creation.  She is separated from Evil Human Beings who take, kill, and exploit.

Animals in The Wild have nothing to worry about, other than reproducing, expressing their animalness, and providing food for themselves (and maybe their young, if they raise their offspring).  Birds can fly thousands of miles, dolphins can dive to hundreds of feet, elephants have expansive territories to stretch their huge limbs alongside their family members.  They can be the animals they naturally are and choose to do whatever they want.  They are fulfilled and happy about everything all the time.  The Wild is always better.

Pro-Zoo Wild

I wanna be....where the crude oil is.

The Wild is an evil, dark place with things such as Pollution, Hunting/Poaching, and Death.  Animals die long before their prime, because nature is a Cold-Hearted Beeyotch who kills dolphin babies before they are a year old, causes owlets to viciously toss their weaker sibling out of the nest to his/her untimely death, forces an old pelican to die slowly of starvation as his blindness takes away his ability to hunt.  Animals are hit by cars, eviscerated by boats, poisoned by toxins.  Evil Human Beings and Nature combined create an awful existence for animals that they must be saved from.  

Two very different and extreme viewpoints that are more illustrative than an attempt to rile any of you guys up.  But let's face it, each one of us falls closer to one of those perspectives than the other, right?*

But we all know that neither perspective is closer to reality than the other.  Making either claim is not only inaccurate, but totally takes away from the point we are all trying to make about getting people who don't CARE about animals, who don't CARE about the environment, to care.

Anti-Zoo people tend to align themselves with the notion that there is no way an animal can be happy and healthy if he or she is not in The Wild.  The dangers of this belief have actually put animals directly in harm's way.   I use African elephants as an example a lot, because they are in serious danger of extinction in our lifetime (don't believe me? Check out this campaign: 96 Elephants).  The Wild is NOT a place where African elephants can be elephants.  Thanks to habitat loss, agricultural development, and the insanely high rate of poaching ivory, an African elephant's Wild involves protected, human-managed areas in order to save them from poaching or death from local farmers who are sick of their land and property being trampled.  And guess what?  Elephants are still dying ( 96 African Forest elephants die EACH DAY) on these protected lands because it is impossible  to police and monitor every square inch of their habitats to prevent poaching from happening.

The Hawaiian crow is now extinct in the wild and only exists in zoos.

** Disturbing photo below**

But the terrifying thing is that some zoos have been attacked by well-meaning Anti-Zoo folk for having elephants at their facility; the push being to "release" the animals back to The Wild.  What are we releasing them back into?

We release them to this.  I'm sorry to post something so sad, but it's the reality and we can help stop it!

The other idea of releasing some kinds of animals back into The Wild, according to the general Anti-Zoo movement, is that we are freeing these guys from a prison.  That once they get back to the wild, that's the equivalent of letting a human out of prison back to his or her daily life.

This issue is way more complicated than simply saying, "It must be done" or "It can't be done."  But if we have this idea that The Wild is a Disney theme park, then no wonder it seems like the best possible thing for every animal is for him or her to be "out there" versus "in here."  But we forget sometimes, the complexity of the animal species in question.  A bottlenose dolphin who was born in human care has a very, very low probability of understanding how to survive or (more importantly) thrive out in The Wild.  


Beyond learning how to hunt, they are socially complex animals.  There is a lot more to thriving in an environment than just knowing how to feed yourself, although that task is one that even wild dolphins have failed to do well in rescue and rehabilitation situations (to the point where National Marine Fisheries Service declared them unreleasable).   Dolphins are cultural animals.  That is, how they are raised is their reality, not based solely in an instinctive drive like say, a barnacle.   

If you took me out of my house, with my store-bought food, controlled environment, and safe social network (I haven't had to stab anyone in the face for a donut in like, months) and plopped me, with my human brain and my smart phone, into the middle of Yellowstone National Forest and said, "Hey! You're in the wild, just like your ancestors.  Other humans have figured out how to survive and thrive out here, so you ought to, too!  Be free!"  I'd probably die.  I have no training in how to live to 80 years old in the middle of the woods.  Do other people?  Yes, they do.  Because they've spent years (or were raised) learning how to live that lifestyle.  I might be able to learn that, if I had enough money, time, or interest.  So I don't really even have the "choice" to learn how to live that lifestyle.  But I'm still happy with my current living situation, as "unnatural" as that is for me as a human.

But I mean, this guy clearly figured it out.

The fact is, no dolphin of any species born in human care has been successfully integrated into The Wild.  Dolphins who weren't born in a zoo or aquarium but have been there for decades have not been successfully reintroduced.   It's still difficult to do so with a dolphin who's been in human care for a few years, but that's the only circumstance (other than rescue/rehab) when a dolphin has been reintroduced to the wild.  Dolphins are cultural animals and are not simply just "happy" in The Wild, no matter what we as humans assume.

But let's look at the other side of the coin, because people on the other side of this issue are just as guilty as making outrageous claims.

The Wild is not a bad, evil, horrible place.  To paint a picture of The Wild as so awful and then to directly contrast it with why a zoological environment is the Best Place For An Animal To Be is misleading and unfair.  Of course, I support the field; I've dedicated my life to it.  But that doesn't mean that I think that all animals would just be better off in a zoo or aquarium.  

Why do some of us animal caretakers tend to contrast our facility with The Wild in such a stark way?  It comes from a good place (just as the naysayers of our profession have good-hearted intentions, too).  It's undeniable that many people DO actually think that The Wild is equivalent with a benevolent Mother Nature.   That is scientifically incorrect, so we try to simplify this idea by bringing up some of the really, really bad things about The Wild.   We talk about disease, predation, and pollution.  Of course, animals in human care do not deal with these issues to any extent comparable to some of their wild counterparts.  They have access to veterinary medicine to treat and/or cure illnesses or conditions that disable or kill animals in The Wild.  

So what's wrong with making this simplistic contrast if it's just to provide another perspective to a concerned laymen?

It's taken to an extreme, sometimes.  And that extreme often completely ignores the idea of conservation, which is the point of having zoos and aquariums in the first place.

Extremes are only okay in close-ups.

Some of us explain that the reason why dolphins live longer in human care is because they are not subjected to lethal illnesses that bottlenose dolphin populations are experiencing along the east coast of the United States.  That they get fed on a consistent basis, and have no worries about predation, nor human harassment.  They get high quality veterinary care and food, and never-ending love and attention from their trainers.  All of those things are factually true.

But then we may continue on to say something like, "And they experience no pollution here.  Out in The Wild, the oceans are polluted with agricultural run-off, diesel fuel, crude oil, and garbage.  There are antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections popping up in common bottlenose dolphins.  Their life expectancy is 12.7 years old because of these things."

And we keep going, listing the reasons why The Wild isn't a great place, and why it's actually a terrible place that no animal could possibly thrive in as compared to a zoo or aquarium.  Then, that's where the diatribe ends.  Instead of using that as a springboard for HOW we can improve the environment, our oceans, whatever, we just stop the explanation there.  That sends the wrong message.  It implies that animals are better off in zoos and aquariums, and not The Wild.  It puts us firmly on the extreme end of a continuum.  

Furthermore, some of us are a little dodgy on some facts about The Wild.  For example, some populations of bottlenose dolphins have similar average life expectancies as those in human care.  Yes, more bottlenose dolphins reach their 40s and 50s in human care for the reasons I mentioned in an earlier paragraph.  But that doesn't mean that they can't live that long in The Wild.  However, there are bottlenose dolphins whose average life expectancy is under 13 years old, because they live in an extremely polluted environment in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas.  It's different depending on what population you're looking at.

Again, perspective makes the difference.

We could share with our guests the reasons why more dolphins tend to live longer in human care without making The Wild seem like the worst place ever.  We could learn about some of the environmental issues in our own backyard, learn how to make an impact, and share that with our guests.  If we know something about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, we could say, "Yes, that area is awful and the animals in that area really need our help.  Here's what you can do at home, or at the beach, or on vacation."

That sends the message I know we as animal caretakers want to convey: The animals in zoos and aquariums are ambassadors, and are thriving in our care.  Let's all work together to better the lives of animals in The Wild through conscientious conservation efforts.  

So what is the reality?  The Wild is altogether wonderful and horrible.  It isn't governed by a mindful presence, but a series of processes that human beings have labeled such as: selection pressure, change in allelic frequency over time, infanticide, altruism.  It has no conscious.  The organisms that live in it are not 100% at the mercy of an uncontrollable system, but they are also not frolicking about singing tralalala every day.  There is a struggle, sometimes a natural one and other times, one that is totally our fault.  A polar bear struggling to feed her cub because she is a poor hunter is a natural struggle (that could result in the death of both her and her progeny).  A polar bear struggling to feed her cub because of serious ice melting and there is limited access to seals is a problem we as human beings have created.  There is a serious difference.

Leave me my ice and snow, please!

But there are populations of animals who are thriving and doing just fine.  Florida's manatee population has increased, and while they still have problems with human boaters, we as humans made a conscious and collective effort to make serious lifestyle changes in order to save the species.  So did we win that war? Can we relax and just forget about the manatees?  


Because guess what?  There's a push now from land-owners along the Crystal River spring system to take the manatee off the endangered species list so they can drive their boats really really fast on the river.  So we are still trying to win that battle (because some people really don't care about animals like we all do, no matter what side we're on).  The manatee Wild is a better place than it's been in a long time, but that could change if we don't stay on top of the situation.

So instead of us fighting each other about how "good" or "bad" The Wild is, let's re-prioritize our efforts to focus both the laymen and our own attention on conservation issues that make a positive impact on wild populations of (insert your favorite organism) wherever they may live.  It's not a battle to be won for the sake of defensiveness; it's a battle to be won for the sake of our planet and its inhabitants.  Which battle do you want to fight for?

* If not, good for you! You're further ahead than us.  Seriously.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Names That Confuse Me

In my very first blog, I talked about naming animals.  That's like one of the most fun/stressful things ever.

Missy, aka Meep Meeps, aka Meepers. But as Shakespeare once wrote, a penguin by any other name will still projectile poop.

How do animals in zoos and aquariums get named?  Sometimes, it's through a naming contest.  That's a great way to get guests involved with your facility, especially with Facebook and Twitter and all the other social media outlets I'm too old to understand.  As animal trainers/caretakers, these contests are one of the most stressful methods of animal christening.  Why? Because invariably, there is at least one Bad Name That Makes No Sense But All Guests Love For No Explicable Reason.

 I wish I knew.

For example, let's say hooray! A seal pup is born! And he is cute and squishy and has huge expressive eyes, and you're all like ready to go to name the little dude.  The entire training department will start throwing out names like:

Pacific, you know, because that's his lineage, a Pacific harbor seal.
Or Franklin, because that's a really cute name plus it's the name of the owner of the park.
Or Stanley, because Stanley the seal is a nice alliteration.
Or maybe you go with an Inuit word for a name, the ones that sound coolest (Tomkin, Massak)
Or Vancouver.  Nanaimo.  Johnston (after the Strait).

At some point, the list is whittled down to four names from which to select.  And you're really excited because you know you've picked some good ones.  The list is revealed after many weeks of consideration:

1) Franklin
2) Tomkin (Inuit word for where spirits gather)
3) Vancouver


4) Pumpkin Pie


"Whaaaaat!!!!" you exclaim upon reading the final name choice.  "That is RIDICULOUS! Who thought of that!?"

Your calmer, more rational mind takes a hold and tries to calm your emotional side down.

"There, there," it says.  "No rational group of people would ever think Pumpkin Pie is appropriate for a seal."

The great Facebook naming contest begins.  Or Twitter.  Or whatever.  And slowly but surely, the names gather votes.  Pumpkin Pie is not only in the lead by a long shot, but it comes with a lot of great comments from its fans.

"cant wait 2 c pumkin pi!"


"What a cutie! #pumpkinpieisbestsealnameever  #ppie4life"

You helplessly watch as the general public chooses the final name for that adorable seal pup, knowing full well that for the rest of his life he will come to the name of the most delicious dessert around.   I mean, it's fine, right?  Because his name doesn't in any way affect the care or love he receives. 

Aside from naming contests, you know what else blows my mind on like a daily basis?  

Animals who have very plain, human names of people I work with or see on a regular basis. 

His name is Kevin.

I love it when animals have human names, like Alvin, Phebe, Nicholas, Webster, Sebastian, Kyle.  I don't know why I love that so much, but I do.  

However, sometimes my blond brain gets completely upended when I work with both animals and humans with the exact same names.  It's provided some most excellent (and very confusing) humorous situations when I try to figure out WTF is going on.

The first time I encountered this was at my first paid job.  I worked with both a trainer and a dolphin named Denise.  There weren't too many confusing experiences with the two of them, with the exception of occasionally someone would say, "Who's doing the show?" and the answer was "Denise" and we couldn't figure out right away which taxa was being referenced.

Since I've been at my current facility, I've had a lot of completely misunderstandings.  

Kyle, our male sea lion, also happens to be the name of one of our former trainer's boyfriends.  Once in a while, something like this would happen:

Trainer: Hey, I need to go for a few minutes, I have to go see Kyle.
Cat: Oh okay, is he out in the parking lot?
Trainer: Uh, no.  He's in the south habitat?
Cat: asldiguaosdivaosg78o9w8egtkahsdvliasudgliu

What are you doing in the parking lot, dude?

This also continuously happens with a sea lion and and employee named Cory.  Cory (human) has been at this particular facility for something like 16 years.  He's a former Marine, a sweetheart and  in his early thirties (I should mention he's single, ladies!) and has done just about every job short of working with the marine mammals.  Since I've known him, he's been an aquarist and most recently he took a job in the maintenance department.  He is a jack of all trades, but he is also the Scuba Dive Guy. 

Cory is a sea lion who has been with us since the early 2000s.  She was born at Zoo Atlanta and when she was one year old, moved to MAP  (the facility tragically destroyed in Hurricana Katrina) and is in her early 20s.*

Sea Lion (not Human) Cory

I can't tell you how many times I mix these two up in scenarios people are describing to me.  My brain creates great mental pictures of this confusion, too.  

One day, someone said to me, "Hey Cat, Cory's in South Habitat.  Should we clean in there?"

I imagined Cory sea lion, sleeping in her usual spot in that habitat.  I was like, "Uh, we clean in there all the time with sea lions.  Is there a reason you think we can't?"

"Well Cory's just blocking the door with all these paint equipment in there and I didn't know if it could get wet."

My brain instantly pictured this old female sea lion amidst her pile of paint supplies, warning all trainers away so we wouldn't ruin her precious cargo.  And then I realized they were talking about Human Cory.

Jenna Marbles gets it

Another time this happened was when I came back from my weekend but had to organize the day.  So I asked all the trainers at our morning meeting, "Hey where is Cory?", because we had been shifting her into different habitats to socialize one of our new sea lions.

"I think out by the dumpsters."

Again, mental picture: Cory Sea Lion helpfully taking out the trash.  And then the realization that they didn't know to which Cory I was referring.

But the best story I have recently of this mix up was of Patty (the subject of my last blog).  We indeed have a Human Patty, too.  She is our finance/HR type person.

During one of Sea Lion Patty's extreme trainer preference episodes where she hadn't been eating from almost anyone, we had an issue with our time clock machine.  This machine will not work under circumstances such as: humidity, heat, and/or daylight.  So everyone's time card was getting really screwed up, a problem that fell into Human Patty's jurisdiction (Sea Lion Patty made it crystal clear she wanted nothing to do with payroll problems).

Such as payroll

My boss was out of town while all this was happening, so I was the next in charge to help mitigate the issue of the Picky Sea Lion and the Ornery Time Card Machine.   In between the other things I had to do that day, I was checking my phone to keep in touch with my boss who was getting emails from vets, the general manager, and other staff members about all the aforementioned problems.

Here's the text conversation:

Bossman: How's the day going?
Me: It's going well, busy.
Bossman: What's going on with Patty?
Me: She's eating well today!

Eatin' good.

And then I didn't hear anything back from him for a few hours.  I figured, hey, he's satisfied with the fact that our only potentially problematic animal situation was resolved, that Patty had found a trainer she could eat from and we didn't have to worry about anything medical right then.  

So I continued on with the day, until I checked my phone and saw a text:

Bossman: What??
Bossman:  I meant did she figure out the time cards?

I started laughing uncontrollably.  I realized my boss was asking me about Human Patty, not Sea Lion Patty.  I can only imagine what HIS mental picture was when he wanted to know what was "going on" with Human Patty and the only response he got from me was that she was eating well.  As if I was carefully monitoring all of Human Patty's food intake, because hey, I sure as hell wouldn't solve problems on an empty stomach.

Speaking of food, here's another important reminder that it's OCTOBER AND PUMPKINSSSSSSS

I think I've just resolved myself to accept that animals with the same names as coworkers is always going to confusing the heck out of me, but luckily it's usually hilarious.  And the other good thing is that this doesn't happen very often; three shared names is a lot (I think) for one facility, but it's still only three names.  If we start hiring people named Emerald, Chopper, or Oreo, then I'll be in for some serious brain malfunction.  So for now, I'll enjoy the bizarre images my brain forms as it struggles to discern Human from Marine Animal.

What about you guys?  Do you have this same problem?  Share your story and we can all laugh (or cry at our simpleton-ness) together!

* She is also single, but prefers to remain that way

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Middle Flipper Is (Part 11)......

...the pickiest sea lion in all the land.

Meet Patty.


I can hear all of you collectively "awwwwing" at your computer or phone screen.  Why? Because Patty had an adorable face.  You know what else she had?  Here's a little list:

* Charisma
* Smarts
* A lovely singing voice
* A beautiful blond coat
* Sass.  Lots and lots of sass.

Patty was a 32 year old California sea lion who was rescued as a pup, like so many others*.  Perhaps because she received excellent, doting care when she was such a young gal, she did precisely what she wanted, when she wanted.  She underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer when she was 30, pulled through like a champion, and went on to tell Planet Earth that she ruled.  Despite being mostly blind at her ancient age (30 years old for a California sea lion is the equivalent to a 90 year old human), her eyes were always bright and ready.  She vocalized a lot in short, staccato-like pulses that resembled normal sea lion sounds but were orated with confidence.  There was no, "BARK BARK BARK".  There was, "Bark.  Bark bark barkbark? Bark....bark!  Bark bark bark bark?"  Or, "Bark."  Simple, elegant, definitive.  God I wish I knew what she wanted to tell us.

I met Patty in 2013.  She was one of the first sea lions I ever got to know well, which surprised some of the veteran trainers at my job.  Why? Because Patty was picky.  Very, very picky.  She had a long history of hand-selecting her trainers.  In some cases, she only saw one or two trainers for extended periods of time, so I'm sure that didn't really help her be open-minded about her human servants.

Yes, my queen.

When I started to learn what Patty was all about, I witnessed her show this extreme differentiation between trainers.  You know, it's not like pickiness is unique to this particular story.  We all know an animal who has a stronger relationship with someone that isn't us, right?  Or an animal who knows how  to yank our chains and have a good time at our expense.  That's part of the fun.  It's also an important element to any animal training program, so we can all cultivate strong relationships with our animals.

In most cases, when an animal chooses to leave a trainer in a scenario likely related to differentiation issues, there isn't much to write home about.  It goes something like this:

Cat: Hey Sally the seal! Good to see you! Let's get started with-
Sally: No, thanks.  Bounces off

Or maybe something like this:

Cat: Hey Penny the penguin! Target!
Penny: How about I take 67 seconds to target?  Or what if I spin? How about a nice spin?

So you go back to the drawing board and really try to build up your relationship and all is well and good in the training world.

But when Patty had a problem with her trainer, oh, you knew it.  You couldn't be in the same habitat without knowing when Patty was making her Selection (or ha ha, Rejection).  Like a Grecian goddess descending from Lofty Heavenly Heights with Ire and Conviction, Patty dramatically left her trainer and barreled her way in the shortest distance between two points: her current trainer and the Chosen One.  If you were in her way, too bad.  She had an agenda that could not be stopped by the biomass of a human being.

An actual photo of Patty searching for a preferred trainer.  

The first time I saw this, I don't remember who her actual trainer was.  I just remember being in the habitat, with three other trainers interacting with sea lions, and hearing, "Heads up! Patty's coming!"

I look over at her, and here she comes, waddling at 98 miles per hour towards Favorite Trainer Number One (herein referred to as "FT1"), who happened to be working with our oldest male sea lion, Kyle.  When Patty arrived, despite the best efforts of all other trainers involved, the feisty lady parked herself at FT1 and gazed upon her with wide eyes.  "Bark. Honk," she said.   Nothing could break her concentration, so we had to end the session and try again.

So when I started getting to know Patty, we all assumed that she'd have a rough time getting adjusted to the new blond in town.  But surprisingly, we got along right off the bat.  I don't know what I did or didn't do that got me in Patty's good graces, but I relished it.  She never chose me as Favorite Trainer per se, but she never left me.  We had a jolly old time.  We ran around, we played games, I marveled at her incredible resolve as a cancer survivor at such an old age, and I giggled at every definitive bark and honk she shared with me.  I was in pure animal trainer bliss.

We were so happy together in those days!

And then.

Something happened.  What it was, I still don't know.  It remains as mysterious as the third gunman on the grassy knoll, Atlantis, or why Lindsay Lohan is still a thing.  No one may ever know.  But something happened and I went from being Patty's friend to NOT FRIENDDDDD.

Patty would've blocked me on FB for sure.

At first, this differentiation was business as usual.  While I felt a little bit sad that our special relationship was no longer valid in the world of Princess Picky, I knew that this was part of her thing and in a weird way felt honored to experience it first hand.  We went through the normal motions of working through a major differentiation problem.  You know, pairing successful trainers with me, reinforcing Patty for interacting with me for brief periods of time by letting her go to Favorite Trainers.   But nothing worked.  And what was normal at first quickly turned into a Mystery Of Great Proportions Laced With Great Insecurity About How I Smelled.


Look, it's okay if an animal isn't the biggest fan of me.  I mean, I'd love to have the best relationship ever with every animal ever.  While I will strive to figure out how to make every animal's life special and good and wonderful, I also know they are individuals and have a right to be like, "Eh Cat, you're okay but you're not my favorite."  I mean, we don't all get along the same way with every human, right?  The animal can have a choice, and in the vast majority of cases (errrr, okay, in every case in my experience EXCEPT what I'm about to tell you), you can put the time, effort, and respect into each relationship and at least get a GOOD rapport, even if it's not one that has the greatest connection ever.

So if an animal goes through a period of time where they just aren't that into me, I don't let it destroy me.  I let it motivate me, so I can figure out what I can do to build trust and respect from that animal.

Patty showed me that there was a limit to that perspective.

After all, Patty's perspective was the only one.

Not only would she not eat from me or emit behaviors with me, she wouldn't go anywhere near me.

"No duh, Cat.  If she didn't eat from you, why would she go anywhere near you?"

Good question, dear reader.  Let me clarify.

If I were in the habitat with another sea lion, and happened to wind up near Patty, she would leave her trainer to get away from me.  

Any attempts to get me to feed her a half of a capelin while standing next to another trainer proved impossible for a good long time.  The second I'd get close to Patty, especially if I was upwind of her, she'd break focus with her Favorite Trainer, open her little nostrils, sniff the air, turn her head towards me and do one or more of the following things:

1) Spit her fish
2) Chuff
3) Sneeze/snort/projectile launch sea lion boogers and that molasses-like substance that coat their teeth and gums
4) Dramatically throw herself off of her seat and plunge into the water, never to return

Here is Patty, after letting herself into her favorite hallway, refusing to do anything for anybody.  

One day, I decided to do some enrichment with another group of sea lions.  To do this, I had to be in a hallway that joins all of our sea lion habitats together, allowing us to easily move animals around. I leaned against the wall of the hallway which led into the habitat I wanted to put enrichment in, and I remained there for several minutes playing with and observing the sea lions.

An hour or so later, I went to Patty's habitat with several other trainers to do a session.  One of Patty's Favorite Trainers (not FT1, but FT2) started off on a great start.  She decided to work on Patty's gating, and asked her into the hallway I just talked about.  I watched as Patty energetically and vocally followed FT2 into said hallway.  FT2 was giving rapid fire SDs, bridging every behavior because Patty was doing so great.

I got into my session with the sea lion I had, until I heard Patty Snort and Chuff.

"Heads up, Patty's coming back in!"

I look up and see Her Royal Highness's hallmark power-waddle into her main habitat and slosh dramatically into the water, leaving a perplexed FT2 in her wake.

"I don't know what happened," FT2 said.  "She got to this one part of the hallway, sniffed it, then left me!"

This can't be happening, I thought.  "Where did she sniff?"

FT2 described to me the exact location where I had leaned for a few minutes just an hour ago.  And suddenly, any self-confidence I had disappeared.  I must smell really, really bad.  I looked down at the sea lion I was interacting with, a very old but sweet sea lion.  I wanted to ask her:

Me: Star, do I smell that bad?
Star: Oh honey, it's not bad.  It's special!

Star, foreground, looked and acted like a Sweet Old Lady and helped me get through the dark Patty Rejection Times.

Think my remote smell is bad?  There were also several occasions over several months where Patty would stop eating from FT1 if I passed by her and the wind blew the right way. Like, she'd have a fish in her mouth, smell me, and immediately eject the fish like it tasted like poison, or worse, a mushroom.

....this is eerily close to what Patty looked like around me.

The trainers all opined at length about what could be the cause of Patty's distaste in my very existence in her world.  She was having more minor incidents with other trainers, but nothing to the extent that I was experiencing.  In fact, as far as I'm aware, I hold the record for Worst Picky Patty moments.

We came up with lots of hypotheses, all of which were debunked (but for your entertainment):

1) Was I too loud?
2) Was I too quiet?
3) Was I too strict in my training?
4) Did I use different laundry detergent?
5) I'm a vegetarian; does that give me a weird hippy smell or something?

I felt like I was permanently in Patty's Burn Book, with no clue as to what put me there.  From August until the end of December, I had not a single successful incident of even being NEAR Patty without her announcing her great displeasure.  We charted it on an excel spreadsheet, I avoided going near her for a time and tried to slowly approximate myself back into her sphere of influence.  Alas, nothing worked.

Oh look! Cat's on every page!

And then, almost as quickly as it started, the differentiation stopped.  She started interacting with me as if nothing had ever happened.  I actually felt like crying from happiness when I had a successful session with her, starting with 0.0004 seconds of interaction with a Favorite Trainer and quickly progressing to full sessions with her.  She was bright-eyed, she was attentive, she talked my ear off.

Then, on Christmas Day in 2013 at the very last session, the assistant supervisor and I noticed Patty having difficulty breathing.  Over the next few days her condition deteriorated quickly, which as you can imagine meant that she'd only give her Favorite Trainers the time of day. But only that lasted for a couple of days, and soon she stopped eating from anyone.

We had to get her medications that could alleviate the reason why she had breathing difficulty.  While we couldn't know for sure what exactly was going on, we knew that she had fluid in her lungs.  The medication would reduce or eliminate the fluid and make her feel like her old self again, but we knew this was likely a condition related to her very old age.  We had to find a way to get Patty to eat the meds.

Alas, even FT1 was unsuccessful.  Patty, being the sassy CEO of sea lions that she was, did not hide her irritation with us entering her castle.   It got to the point where we had a hard time cleaning her habitat because she blocked us or tried to chase us out.  I'm sure this had something to do with the fact that she felt like crappola, too.  But we knew this was a very serious issue.

Patty with FT1

Who, oh who could feed Patty and bring her back to her old self?

One of her former trainers, now the director of our Life Support Systems, used to be one of her primary trainers.  He above all others was Supreme Favorite Trainer (SFT).  So we asked him, can you try to get Patty to eat?  Patty hadn't seen SFT in at least two years, so we weren't sure how this was going to go.  But we had to do something.

I don't know how all of you guys out there imagine perfect meetings of lost lovers occurring, like if you hear violins or something or picture some Ryan Gosling movie scene.  But whatever you imagine, that's what happened when Patty saw SFT.  The years of absence meant absolutely nothing, because she lit up when she heard his voice.  She leaned into him when he reached out to give her shoulder rubs.  She started talking again, something we hadn't heard in a several days.  And she ate.  After two days of nothing eating anything, she ate like it was no big deal.

And it feels so good.

So SFT got her the meds consistently each session, and we saw Patty's quality of life exponentially improve.  Knowing that SFT had other things to do than be at the beck and call of the animal training department (oh you know, like Life Support stuff, or taking a day off), and that Patty would only benefit from at least getting some of her old FTs back on the roster, we started approximating her old cronies back into the mix.  It didn't go well.  Patty wanted nothing to do with anyone other than Supreme Favorite.

So what did we do?  Well, as I mentioned, Patty couldn't see very well.  But boy could she smell.  So her FTs wore SFT's jacket, entered the habitat quietly, and tried not to talk (or talk in a low voice like SFT's) which worked for a little bit.  We all felt like ninjas walking in there, gazing upon Patty as she sunned her beautiful blond fur waiting for her human servants to try their best to earn her favor.

Masters of Disguise we were not.

We even tried to have SFT talk to Patty on speaker on a cell phone while someone else tried to feed her (she saw right through that *%#@).    We eventually got some successes, but not without some clear signs from her that while okay, she'd eat from you, she'd REALLY rather eat from SFT.

Like this one time, FT2 went in (who had lots of success with Patty doing well for her since going on her new meds).  Her intention was to feed Patty, but let SFT give her tactile and hang out with her.  FT2 got off on the right foot, and nodded to me to let SFT into the habitat.  SFT came in, and Patty remained with FT2....until SFT spoke.  At this glorious manly sound, Patty stood up, shoved FT2 against the wall of the habitat so she could haul ass towards her True Pal.  She didn't hurt FT2 but for her feelings a little bit.


In the end, Patty started eating from most of us, even me off and on (for no rhyme or reason any of us could figure).

As I'm sure you guys have noticed, I've referred to Patty in the past tense.  At 32 years old, Patty passed away this spring.  Her cancer had come back and had metastasized; there was nothing anyone could've done.  It still makes me tear up just to write this, because despite whatever the heck I did that displeased Picky Patty, I miss her a lot.  I miss her Bark, bark, bark honk bark?  I miss how she used to lean forward on her lean with her giant eyes, and how she'd act so disgusted if she caught just the briefest sniff of me.  She knew what she wanted and went after it, not caring what our plans were.  I think about how much she lit up when she saw SFT, especially the first time they were reconnected, and being reminded of something we all know: the animals remember the relationships that mean the most to them.

The vets had never seen an animal survive metastatic cancer to the extent Patty had it.  She swam and sassed right up until the end, when I assume she decided it was time to shuffle the mortal coil and rule another, more ethereal realm.  A strong, confident, and intelligent woman who taught us all a lot of lessons and left us with lots to think about with her Middle Flipper events.  I'll never forget her.  And now neither will you. :)


* California sea lion pups are starving.  Hundreds of them strand every year.  Don't believe me?  Check out any pinniped rescue facility, including The Marine Mammal Center, Sea World, the Pacific Mammal Center, and countless others along the west coast of the U.S. and Canada.