Sunday, December 21, 2014

Working With Baby Animals (a.k.a. The Best Thing Ever)

Baby animals.


OMG, right?  What's cuter than baby animals?

Even this guy doesn't know.


The end.

Thanks for reading!

Ha ha, just kidding, that's not the end.  But seriously, let's talk about young's   

Training baby animals is one of the coolest experiences a trainer can have, for a number of reasons.  And like most cool experiences, it comes with its fair share of frustrations and insecurities.  It's hard to separate the "cool" from the "unglamorous" aspects of working with very young animals, because I genuinely feel that they are not mutually exclusive.  I have worked with a few dolphin calves from the moment they gave a hoot that I existed, and I'm now working with three one-year old California sea lion pups.  Not only do I learn from my direct experiences, but I also have the honor of helping other trainers learn how to train and get to know brand new animals.  

So what are my favorite things about working with baby animals?  Here's a little list!

1) Babies are an unknown quantity

You don't know ME!

When they're born, they don't even know who they are.  Their own moms don't know who they are*.  And if you're any kind of decent trainer, you know that getting to know an animal as an individual is the first key to establishing a fantastic training program.  We say all the time to colleagues and laymen alike that Relationship Is King.  Some of us mean that sincerely; we don't just mean we have a rapport based solely on food.  We get to know what intrinsically motivates the animals.  We figure out what kind of temperament the animal has; are they quick to spook? Naturally curious? Completely laid back to the point where they could ignore mild-to-moderate nuclear warfare?**

But babies present us with a challenge in this relationship-department on two levels: a) we don't know anything about them, and b) they probably don't want what we're serving.  If you work with mammals, your baby animal friends are pretty happy drinking milkshakes all day instead of eating whatever slop you've got in a bucket.  So where do you start?

Of course, like any challenge, this presents some incredible opportunities for growth for us trainers.  If you get the opportunity to work directly with a young'un, you learn very quickly not only how to establish a meaningful relationship from nothing, but I think you also appreciate more what hard work and tremendous love and dedication it took to establish relationships with your older animals.  And for those of you who haven't had the chance yet to work with babies, I'm not saying your relationships aren't special, nor am I implying that you didn't have to put a lot of time and effort into building a meaningful bond with the animals for whom you care.  But it is a different type of experience working with a baby; they have no concept of us Weird Hairless Creatures giving them anything they want.

Um, okay, not this hairless creature.  Question: is there such a thing as a cute baby blobfish?

We got our three naturally-weaned sea lion pups from another facility.  They had some training before they came to us, but only a few months worth.  The trainers at the other facility did amazing things which gave us a head start; they already ate fish, they did well with following trainers, and they knew how to crate.  However, they didn't know targets, and they didn't know the fundamental behaviors we (both sea lion and human) need in order to safely interact in the type of habitat they are in.  

Answer: Yes.  Baby blobfish ARE cute.***

I remember when we first got them and did our first training sessions, I looked at their cute little faces and thought, "Who are you guys?"

Over the past few weeks, I've gotten to know them more on a temperament level (as they have with me).  Our littlest is the sassy, too-smart-for-her-own-good who is more motivated by learning four hundred different things at once than she is with the fish she eats.  When she eats, it's like she's swallowing it to get it out of the way.  Like, "Okay, I swallowed that thing, can we get back to the targeting now puh-lease?"

When will we get to the advanced lessons, like astrophysics?

Another is a mild-mannered, very tentative sea lion who has a serious stubborn streak I thought was only found in things such as: my dog.  My dog, the one who tries to eat poisonous toads despite how it makes his mouth foam and burn...over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over.....  She is Gandhi-like in her stubbornness, though.  She went through a period of time that just the presence of a target pole rendered her unable to come within a 10 foot radius of her trainer.  It wasn't just being scared of it; it was a dramatic flop back into the water, and then several attempts to station with other trainers, completely ignoring or refusing to sit with her original trainer no matter what we did.

Just slap some flippers on her and you've got it.

Our bigger male, well he's just not too happy about his fun training session ending.  "Dude, NO" he seems to say when we try to leave.  He will sample just about any behavior if it superstitiously got us to come back in the habitat.  He'd be great at free-shaping, that's for sure.  And boy, does he test us.  "What if I do THIS?!" his eyes say as he sniffs our boots.  "Or THISSSSS?" as he crawls along the ground with one flipper up on a wall.

I wonder what they think of all of us, too.  Because it's a two-way street.  I bet each one has their own opinion of me.  Like would they describe me as the hulking yellow-hair who doesn't shut up and bares her teeth all the time?

You know, cuz I'm smiling.

Still, the sense of accomplishment you get after you figure out WHO the kid is is unlike anything else. It requires an open mind and compassionate mindset.

2) Babies are blank slates

LOOOKKK AT HIMMMM (or herrrrr....IDK does it matter?!)

Isn't that an understatement!

Like humans, many baby animals have extreme mental plasticity.  They learn skill sets at alarming rates, both in the natural world and in a training sense.  When it comes to many of the species we work with in marine mammal facilities, we are working with non-precocial kiddos.  They are not born knowing how to just be a dolphin or a sea lion.  They've got mad skillz to learn; hunting, avoiding predators, and (just as importantly) social skills.  Without all of those three skills, a marine mammal is in deep trouble.  

In the training world, once a baby shows interest in his/her trainer and has learned the basic building blocks of operant conditioning (like bridges, targets, etc), there is a major power curve in trained behaviors.  This is one of the main reasons I personally feel it is critical to try to engage a baby marine mammal as early as the mother will allow, because sometimes I feel we spend too much time and energy trying to get the kid to eat fish.  


One of our standard industry answers to the question, "When do you start training the babies?" is, "When they start eating fish."  Well, in my experience at least, most of the dolphin calves I've gotten to work with from a young age did not start showing an interest in fish, but showed an interest in other things like ice cubes, toys, and rub downs.  If you've got something they want, you can train them just the same.  The fish can come imagine if you can start your training with a calf at two months old instead of 8 months!  

I know every situation is different, but in general, I think it's a good idea to optimize the amount of time you get when their little brains are just big ol' sponges, ready to learn!  Hey, if they only want snacks, okay.  But it's worth trying other possible reinforcing things instead of just waiting for them to show interest in fish, right?

But even if your relationship with a calf or pup is solely food (as it is with our little sea lion pups right now!) for whatever reason, you know that those little guys are learning, learning, learning.  

What could POSSIBLY be bad about this?

Baaaaad habits!

Well, they learn everything.  Not just what you intended.  They are retaining so much, and observing so astutely all of your little quirks.  All your little mistakes.  Those big, adorable eyeballs? They see all of your flaws, and they will capitalize on it.  

WhadderYOU doing?

In fact, training a baby is like playing an old school, side-scrolling video game.  You know, like Sonic or Contra.  You can be really, really good at it but the fact is, there are no save points.  When you mess up, you have to start the level all over again.  And that's what it's like training baby animals.  One little mistake can unfurl your entire training program. You might be the most seasoned Mario player in all the land, but one little mistake and BOOM you're back at the beginning.  As terrifying as this sounds, it's again important to remember that a) these babies are not software; they don't just learn in a steady upward trend and b) they will learn as much from their mess ups (and yours!) if you know how to rally.

Old school gamers rejoice: you probably can handle training baby animals.

I got so excited one time that this little dolphin calf was making such zealous progress in his lateral layouts that I was taking early approximations and getting really animated when I reinforced him with rubs and footballs.  I thought I was really on a roll with teaching this guy critical husbandry behaviors.  But what did he learn?  Oh, he learned that lateral layouts lasted 1.4 seconds, and you should come out of them at warp speed creating as much water disturbance as possible.  It took me twice as long to calm his crazy self down as it did to teach him the basic layout.  It made me realize how extremely careful I had to be with my criteria, bridge points, reinforcement and ENERGY with a little brain sponge as babies tend to be.   And hey, it made me be that much crisper (i.e. predictable and fair) with the other, older animals!

3) Babies test the limits

What if I do....THIS?

This is probably the biggest point of insecurity and woe of trainers everywhere.

Yes, babies are blank slates.  They learn fast...right or wrong things.  The really bright, really motivated and/or really sweet babies always give you time after time of warm fuzzy feelings.  You connect with them, you fly through behaviors, and you feel the connection.  You feel validation in your career path as a trainer, because you're training a BUTTLOAD**** of behaviors and you've got this little nugget who just so excited to see you and find out what today's lesson will be.

But then at some point, you are boring.  I mean, c'mon.  We are adults.  They are kids.  It doesn't matter that you come from an entirely different lineage than them.  You are still slow and stupid and boring and an adult.  Kids is kids.  You can't possibly keep every baby animal, especially of the marine mammal variety, interested in you every single moment of every single session.  And what does a curious, eager and sassy calf, pup or cub do?

I declare!

Mess with your a##.

This is probably the biggest pitfall of working with babies, especially if it's your first time.  Let me give you two real-life examples.

Our male sea lion pup really has a problem with his trainer ending the session.  We have a training plan in place for this, which occurred after we realized we had a serious blocking problem.  Okay, we thought.  This is the problem, we are trainers, we can handle this.  

There he is, far left.

So we implement the plan.  Within two days, we saw significant improvement in Big Guy's behavior (because you know, his sponge brain).  His primary trainers felt really good; you could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices as they recanted the sessions to other trainers.  Oh, isn't working with babies so much fun?

And then, the Big Guy decided the game of letting us leave needed some new rules.  He started testing us.  He'd jump out, he'd stand on the wall, he'd swim in the water with his left flipper in the air.  He'd bark.  He'd try to mouth our boots.  He'd go in the water headfirst.  He'd go in the water butt first.  And I could see his trainers' confidence wane.  What HAPPENED since the last two days, they thought?


Not that older animals don't test the ropes, but babies do this like it's their job.  I had to remind the trainers that while we must stick with predictable behavioral principles so our little troublemaker pup knows what to expect, we also have to remember that he is learning as much from his failures as he is from his successes in these "testing the waters" moments.  Any reaction he gets from his trainers with any of his random sampling is logged in his brain and will be used again later for better or for worse.  That's what kids do.

In fact, the other example I have of this was with one of the sweetest, smartest little dolphin calves I've ever known.  I mean, this guy is LITTLE.  He's just a short dude who is still healthy and happy, but as a calf he was a Tiny Tim.  He started showing interest in trainers at two months old.  His mom was pretty laid back, so he ended up learning full shallow-water interactive programs before he was one year old.  Like, he could do the entire 18 minute program.  He was a little genius (er, still is).  

The subject of our story.

You'll understand then, that he was basically everyone ever's favorite.  The maintenance staff loved him, guests loved him, and every trainer loved working with him (or couldn't wait until the day they'd be allowed to work with him).  He was very snuggly, interactive, and loved to play outside of session.  Did I mention he was little?  Like, so little he was even CUTER than the cutest dolphin calf you can imagine?  Perfect little dolphinchild.

And then, this precious cherub used his brains for evil.  Well, not really evil, but you know what I'm getting at.  He tested us.  How?

Well, when we were standing on this underwater ledge, he'd suddenly leave his trainer, sink to our feet, and then BOOM.  Hit our instep with his rostrum, KAPOW.   

Push puppets! I didn't know that's what these were called until five minutes ago.  Thanks, Google!

You know those weird push puppets? The jointed toys that are on top of a little box and when you squeeze the underside of the box, the entire toy collapses?

That is exactly what happened to us.  This little dude would bop us point blank on this pressure point and down we'd go, collapsing into the water.  Oh, think of how much fun this looked to a baby dolphin.  Over and over he'd do it.  We'd have perfectly good sessions, where we thought this dude was really having a great session, and we were doing a good job of keeping his focus...and then boop! You'd feel the hit and down we'd go!

Pretty much just like that.

Eventually, we worked through this and he stopped.  But even the Gold Star baby animal will go through a phase of testing his/her limits.  So don't let it get you down, or make you think you're a bad trainer.  Think of it as a milestone for both you and the calf or pup; and it's an opportunity for you to teach them something.  Not just that, it's something you should seriously consider writing down and logging how you navigated through it.  It'll probably make for a funny story, but it'll also remind you (and other staff members you work with down the road who work with babies for the first time) of a unique time that really boosted your trainer knowledge.

4) Sometimes, you get to see births


In the case of our pups, we didn't get a chance to see their birth or their life with their moms.  But the trainers at the facility they were born at sure did.  And with most of the dolphin calves I've worked with, I've personally seen their births.  I've only worked with babies who were born in human care, and I can tell you I'll never, ever get sick of seeing them born, or watching them hit developmental stages on their own and with their mothers.

It is an experience that, like so many we are privileged to have as marine mammal trainers, makes you grow as an animal caretaker.  No birth is the same, no baby is the same, and the process of being born and growing up from both the baby and the mother's perspective is one that all animal care professionals should be familiar with.  It is one of the most important events in an animal's life, and trainers should know what that natural process entails for better or for worse.  If you have the opportunity to witness it, don't miss it.

5) Babies is cute


This is never a bad thing.  Oh good lord, they make you melt.  And most babies, once you have their trust (and the trust of their mothers, if they are still with their moms) are usually at the most snuggly part of their lives.  Some of our otters are still pretty cuddly, but not like I'm told they were when they were kits when they first arrived at the place I'm working now (which was before I started working there).  I've had the same experience with dolphin calves; a few are just as into toys and rubs, but others grow to like other things (and no, not just fish).  They mature and change, just like any of us do.  So if you get the chance to work with babies, make sure you don't take it for granted.  Even if you've done it 45 times; it is a precious experience that should be cherished.

Don't take us for granted!

* Are you reeling from my "anthropomorphic" lingo?  Get over it. :D

** All of us could ignore severe nuclear warfare, because I suppose we'd all be um, no longer alive.

And they make adorable cupcake decorations.

And even adorable blobfish stuffed animals!!!!!  Want one? Go here!

**** I have yet to find any standard quantifiable measure of Buttload, but I think it's like 90 pounds.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Let's Talk About Blood, Baby!

I want to talk about blood.

Yes, yes they can.

Yeah, that red stuff.  Think it's boring? Or scary?  That's such a shame, since, you know, it keeps you alive and everything.  I love it.  It lets me do my favorite things such as: eating, writing this blog, saying obnoxious things, avoiding death, and eating.

Blood also brings many animal trainers together from many taxa.  It is one of the quirky (albeit important) goals many animal trainers and caretakers strive towards as they make their way up the career ladder.  So what's so great about blood?

I'd pretty much eat any muffin, except this one.  

Well, here's the thing.  Lots of people wonder how we take care of the animals in our care, especially these days when we're under a microscope.  Like, a giant microscope controlled by a mass of people with zero idea of animal biology or husbandry except for what they do with their dog at home and/or watch on Netflix and see on their Tumblr feed.  And still others are just curious: how the heck do you make sure a mature lion is feeling okay?  How often do dolphins get sick?  Do you take a frog to the vet the same way you do your cat or dog?

Most of the animals living in zoos and aquariums are masters of masking illness.  There are some zoos whose management and/or curatorial team feels strongly against training animals; they want exhibits that focus on only natural behavior elicited whenever the critters feel like it.  But most zoos and aquariums do see the value in training.  We can argue all day long why that is, but here's what I think:  In addition to the many advantages (especially from a medical standpoint) to training, it gives you a window in the mind of the individual animal.  Yeah, I know, some zoos focus on populations more than they do the individual.  But the massively beneficial thing to getting to know them on a personal level is you are often the first to detect something amiss. The slightest abnormality in behavior can alert a trainer to something that could've been potentially lethal or at the very least, very uncomfortable.  

This stuff tells you a LOT.  

However, despite knowing an animal's personality and cultivating a relationship with him or her, that will never ever take the place of hard, medical science.  When it comes to understanding what's going on under the skin of our critters, there is one master medical sample that can tell us what's up.  


Those zoos and aquariums who do not "believe" in training?  Most of them are okay with conditioning medical behaviors, because it has such incredible advantages for the animals on both an individual and communal level.  And many facilities teach their own trainers to collect the sample.  Annnnd that is where I totally geek out.

"Wait," the naysayer says.  "Why wouldn't a vet be the one to always take the sample?  They're trained to do that.  You're just paid to scoop poop."

Yeah well, I can scoop poop AND take blood samples, thank you very much.

Ah, it's not that simple.  Yes, of course vets are trained in the art of venipuncture.  D'uh.  But in the vast majority of cases, they are not working with the animals on a daily basis.  Trainers work for weeks, months, or even years on a voluntary blood behavior with an animal.  The animal gets to trust and know the trainer and the process itself, including WHO is involved.  If you think animals aren't smart enough to figure out the difference between a trainer and a fake vet and when the actual blood sample will be taken because the vet has arrived, you're dreadfully mistaken.   

For example, one of our dolphins at the place I work at now definitely has a hefty price tag on her blood behavior.   For those of you who don't know, we obtain blood samples from their tail flukes because they are highly vascularized (for thermoregulation purposes*).  Here's a secret: despite what you may think, it is impossible, I repeat IMPOSSIBLE** to force a dolphin to hold for a blood sample if that dolphin does not want to do it.  Even when I worked with a rescue animal who had to be restrained for bloods, he kicked us all off of him and we were in a couple of feet of water with people covering him to try to hold him still. 

Every dolphin has one of these inside.

So when we go for a blood, we ask the dolphin for their flukes, place them in our laps, and then someone else sticks for the sample.  With our squeamish dolphin, we spend a lot of time building up this behavior.  We bring out whatever is her favorite thing at that time.  Sometimes it's fish, other times it's a favorite toy.  If she's learning a new behavior that she's really into, we'll use that to reward her for a job well done.  She'll get really comfortable with the entire hullabaloo until....

....the actual blood day.

Our management staff sticks for blood, which means me, our director, and our assistant supervisor.  Me and the assistant sup interact regularly with Miss Squeamish Dolphin and have a pretty good relationship with her.  We are actively involved with the training of the blood behavior in that we will go through all of the motions: bringing the blood kit down, swabbing with isopropyl alcohol, palpating for the vessel, and even placing a capped needle against her skin.  All of that is just fine.  

And then, she proves to us what incredible eyesight and/or psychic powers she possesses.  Every time were came down for the real thing, she'd tuck her head under the dock and start to pry her flukes away from us.  If we continue to pursue the behavior, she'll just kick out and swim away at 18 miles per hour; but we usually don't get to that point.  We are still trying to figure out what exactly she's cuing off of to know when a real blood is coming.  We have trained every tiny detail we can imagine, and she still knows what's up.  I think she's clearly psychic.

I googled "psychic dolphin" and now I can't unsee this.

So if an animal can detect as-of-yet imperceptible precursors to a legit blood draw, you understand then how easy it is for them to go, "Wait, what is Dr. Vet doing here? OH GOD IT IS BLOOD TIME."

Of course, our job as trainers is to make this behavior not scary; we don't want any of our animals to dread one of the most critical parts of their health care.  Some animals are naturally chill about it, others take a little coaxing, and others are like NO HELL NO for a long time until you figure out how to make it worth their while.  And I'm happy to say with our dolphin, she's made huge progress in her blood behavior and will give us blood more times that she won't allow us.

Anyways, if your zoo or aquarium does not have a vet who can be at every blood training approximation, it just makes sense to teach responsible trainers how to stick for blood.  The good news is it's not rocket science, although there are some very important things to learn.  Having a good teacher makes a big difference.  It was one of the highlights of my career to learn how to get a blood on a dolphin.  I'm currently learning how to get bloods on a seal, which is blowing my mind.

Not this Seal.

Bloods tell us almost everything.  They are precious resources for vets, vet techs, and curators in the zoological field.  In fact, the faster your animals know a voluntary blood behavior, the faster you can establish their baseline.  What is healthy for one animal is not necessarily healthy for another.  Age, genetics, and life history can drastically alter blood results (just like in humans).   Knowing what is normal for each animal can not only save a life if someone gets sick, it can in some cases catch a problem BEFORE that animal may even feel uncomfortable.  How cool is that?

And that's often the case with the animals we find in zoos or aquariums.  Take dolphins and sea lions, for instance.  These are animals who hide their illnesses very, very well.  Why? Well, think about it.  If they get a little superficial illness (like we ALL do once in a while....unless you're some kind of biological miracle), here's what could happen:

Dolphin: I'd like to make an announcement to the Gulf of Mexico.  I'm not feeling very well.  Just a little tummy ache, probably because I ate this weird fish.  But I'm just gonna take it easy today.  I'll probably feel better in a few days, but I'm going to swim real slow and just zone out for a while.


Boom, dolphin gets eaten.

So dolphins and sea lions hide their illnesses, even very serious ones like cancer, until they get better or until it is really, really advanced.  Sea lions in the wild can have cancer for years; it's only when they are predated upon or wash up on shore, drastically underweight and barely able to move, that they succumb to the symptoms of their metastasized nightmare.  

In aquariums, it isn't very common to have dolphins or sea lions get sick, but I mean it obviously happens.  Some people may criticize that, which is ridiculous because again, where in the world can anyone go and claim they've never been sick in their entire lives?  But anyway, there is no way we are going to just sit around and wait for someone to look a little sick before we get a blood sample.  No.  We want to know, on a regular basis, how everything is doing in that magical red (or blue, for you crustacean lovers) fluid.

Copper makes everything real pretty

Dolphin trainers get routine blood samples on every dolphin (every one to three months) at most facilities.   If the sea lions are trained for the behavior, the same goes for them. We will go for another sample if we have any suspicion that something's just a little off with any of our animals, but again that is not the time to get the first sample....because you've got nothing to compare it to except a hypothetical baseline.

Training an animal to allow a trainer or vet to take blood voluntarily is a critical component to having animals in human care.  I don't mean to offend anyone who disagrees with me and feels that any training in some way spoils an animal's will to be who he or she is naturally, but there are so many reasons why voluntary bloods make your animals' lives better.  The fact is, your animal is not in the wild.  And they are 100% reliant on you to care for them and provide them with the best quality of life. I appreciate different opinions, but you will never convince me than an animal prefers to be physically restrained or placed under general anesthesia just to get a routine blood sample.  If you can train it, you should at least work towards it.

I mean, come on.

Let's think about that for a second in terms of how a human would respond to that.  

Imagine yourself going into a doctor's office, just doing the normal behaviors a human does in a new environment.  You read all the brochures and pamphlets.  "Wow," you think.  "If I ever get bubonic plague, I'll have to ask about Plague-X."  Maybe you read a 5-year old magazine, look out the window, check Facebook on your phone.  


The door flies open! A team of doctors blasts in! Four burly men pin you to the exam table and grunt in your ear.  

"WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?" you yell.  You fight, you look around frantically trying to make sense of the situation.  But you don't understand anything anyone is saying.  Oh no! Everyone speaks only Russian! How did you miss this critical detail in your doctor search?  Now you really have no way to control this situation.

That's when you see another doctor with a giant needle in his hand.  You feel your arm forced away from your body and the doctor with the needle shoves it into a blood vessel.  It hurts, you're scared, you're trying to comprehend what's going on.  And then, as quickly as it begun, it's over.  And then you pay for the experience and make an appointment to do it again next year.

Well, except sometimes.

Now, imagine a different scenario:

You sit in a doctor's office, knowing full well that you'll probably have to get a blood sample.  But that's okay, you've been in here before.  You know the drill.  Not only that, the last time you were here, your doctor gave you $4,000 and a diamond necklace for being such a good patient.

"Good morning," the doctor says as she enters the room.  "Ready for your blood sample?"

"Why yes, yes I am!" you reply, giddy with excitement.

"Great! Today, I have two first class tickets to Fiji and a $1,000 gift certificate to Amazon for anyone who sits calmly for their blood draw."

"Take as much as you need," you say, as you stick both arms out.

Medical professionals in my life, take note: I'll willingly do anything for a date with Charlie Hunnam.  Just saying.

Which scenario would you prefer?   So why wouldn't we choose the same for the animals in our care?

Let's not forget that a stressed blood sample is not necessarily an accurate blood sample, too.  An animal who is calm and sees a blood behavior as a fun game is going to give you a much more accurate understanding of what's going on in their body than an animal who is stressed out and just trying to figure out why you're stabbing them with needles.

So I take learning to draw blood very, very seriously.  Yeah, it's a cool skill to cultivate.  But most importantly it is the quickest way to understanding your animal family's health status; and the quickest way to making them feel better when they fall ill.  It can be simple, quick, and fun....if you're a willing and respectful trainer, that is.  

Three cheers for blood!


* p.s. I saw on the Interwebz today someone claim that dolphins do not "need" their dorsal fins if they are in human care.  Um, what?  They use that to keep themselves from over-heating, not just for stabilization.  C'mon, check your facts buddy.

** Im. Possible. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Animal Groupie: Super Fan or Super Pain?

I got this awesome email the other day from a trainer who had a great idea on this week's blog topic.  She was interested in exploring the Groupie Factor.  More specifically, what IS a "Groupie", and what distinguishes them from a "Super Fan" (as she eloquently worded it)?  

Arguably the best Super Fan.

If you're scratching your head while reading this post, let me elaborate.

At some point, most people who love dolphins discover their local and/or favorite marine mammal facility.  They learn as much as they can about the dolphins living there.  Because of their love for all things dolphin, but they aren't able to actually work directly with them, they try to get involved in the animals' lives as much as they can.   There are entire internet forums dedicated to groups of dolphins, from genealogy to personality to "who has the best relationship".  Some people find fun, enriching things to do at underwater viewing windows.  Others form relationships with trainers or educators at the facility.

I did this to some extent, when I was in high school.  As you can all relate, I love animals.  The relationships I've forged with animals (humans included) are the most important thing to me.  And there is something really, really special about building trust between you and another being who cannot speak; it is a raw, social bond that requires a lot of time, mutual understanding, and unconditional love.  I think most aspiring marine mammal trainers (myself included) are really mesmerized and desperately want that same relationship with a dolphin.  You can't get this unless you become a trainer, so what to do until then?

The Red Hind: A grouper groupie.

The moment an aspiring trainer and/or dolphin lover realizes that this may be possible without getting the job, that's when things get interesting.  And hence, the inspiration for the trainer who wrote to me about the topic of this blog.  

Let's first talk about what it means to be labeled a Groupie in the trainer world.  My email pal had a couple of things to say about this:

"One dynamic I ran into was the Groupie vs Trainer struggle. Until I started working...first as an educator and now as a [trainer], I was never aware of the VENOM with which some staff members talked about the 'groupies'."  

"I was not aware that this was going on, and wasn’t aware of how notorious they could be amongst the zoo staff. From then on I was pretty terrified of being even remotely associated with these individuals them due to the aforementioned 'career suicide' factor. I just like taking photos, and I do it a lot, but I was and still am so afraid to be lumped in with that particular brand of enthusiast. Being called a Groupie at SeaWorld is like being called a Commie during the Cold War. It’s a black mark. " 

If any of you classify yourselves as Groupie (or are afraid you're classified as one), just take a deep breath.  And if you are a trainer who is squirming in your seat because you know what it is like to handle Groupies and some of the negative aspects they bring to the job, you go ahead and take a breath, too.  That's why this blog is here!

I wasn't aware, when I was playing with dolphins at the windows of the Brookfield Zoo or SeaWorld, that it wasn't a good thing to be identified as a Groupie.  I'd never even heard of that term.  I had friends who spent hours on Dolphin IDs, which made me think I was behind the eight ball of becoming a trainer.  Logically, it made sense to me that to really impress future employers, I should probably know their animals.  They'd probably be REALLY impressed if I knew even MORE than that, like their birthdays, their personalities...and maybe if I had a genuine relationship with one of the animals, they'd see the merit in hiring me.

Iiiii know every dolphin's birthday

Oh man, how wrong I was. 

But this isn't just an issue about Groupies.  There is another side to this story, and that's how trainers tend to deal with these people as a whole.  In general, and I'm not saying this to upset anyone, I'm just being honest, trainers are not very tolerant of people who try to know everything there is to know about the animals under their care.  Sometimes, totally normal guests get the brunt of trainer hyper-Groupie sensitization. 

"I’ve seen plenty of zoo staff members be flat-out MEAN to these 'super fans'. For every trainer, educator, or keeper who calmly explains to these people why their behavior is obnoxious or even harmful, there’s another who just unloads on a guest with little provocation. "

Okay, so what's going on here?  Why are Groupies driving trainers crazy, and why are trainers fed up with the Groupies?  

The first and main reason?  The extreme Groupies.  And here I will refer to the aforementioned quote where my email trainer friend used the term "super fan".  I love that.    Herein, "Super Fan" and "Groupie" are differentiated by several extremely critical characteristics.

Super Fan

Look at these happy fans! Go team!

* Love animals

* Have a genuine interest in animal training

* Want to forge relationships with the animals they are passionate about

* Mean well

* Acquire information for own personal knowledge

* Listen thoughtfully to the experts, even if they are hearing something they
   don't want to

* Respectful of trainers and other guests



* Love the idea of having a dolphin like them

* Acquire information to lord over other people to show their superiority

* Ask questions with the intention of showing off, or knowing they will publish it
   regardless of sensitivity

* May have good intentions, but do not think about placing others' needs before
   their own

* Take over underwater viewing windows without thought of other guests

* Refer to an animal as "their" animal, or "my baby" or some other possessive

Get the difference?  There are a lot.  And they are significant.

Super Fans are passionate people.  Sometimes, they make mistakes.  I am one of those people, I was corrected, and here I am with a successful marine mammal training career in a management position no doubt.  We are all misguided and benefit from some compassionate realignment, because those of us who are truly passionate would never do something to knowingly compromise an animal's well-being, no matter how indirectly.

We just want to help some animals

But here's the thing, I understand where the trainers are coming from.  Because the Groupie category has truly hyper-sensitized us.  

"The groupies, unlike regulars, take everything they do to an extreme. They make custom t-shirts with the name of their favorite animal on it, try WAY too hard to grovel to the animal trainers, bring duffel bags full of toys to the underwater viewing areas, ask trainers invasive and not-so-tactful questions about the animals (which they then race to be the first to post online), they know every animal’s family tree back to the 1970s, they attempt to elicit trained behaviors from the animals, refer to the various creatures as 'their baby', and they attend summer camp every year and make it their job to one-up the counselors. They have a lot of knowledge, and they like to make sure everyone within a 25 foot radius hears ALL about it. Trainers and keepers don’t trust them because they dig for information to share with their e-friends. Plenty of sensitive information has been spread around because these (generally young) people can’t respect things they’ve been told in confidence."

OMG OMG OMG [insert orca name here] LOVES ME

If you're not in this field, you may ask, "What's the big deal about sharing information with the world? What's so sensitive or secret that you can't share it with the public?  What do you have to hide?"

Well, speaking for the four facilities I've worked at, nothing.  But the reason to keep some things under wraps is not some clandestine, evil corporate conspiracy that all zookeepers maintain.  Sometimes, facilities keep pregnancies as proprietary.  Why?  Because some facilities get a lot of scrutiny if the birth is not successful.  No matter what the reason, even if it is 100% natural, we will get bombarded by email, Facebook, newspaper, and in-person comments about it.   Yes, we get sensitive people who express condolences for the mother, or curious well-meaning questions.  Those are always welcomed, even if the questions are tough ones.  But we also get a lot of really awful, awful statements made.   Last year, we were told by a woman that she hoped our dolphins all died, babies included, because they'd be happier dead than at our facility.  

Are you kidding me?!

The last thing an animal care staff needs to deal with is fielding absolutely uneducated and socially unintelligent comments while we try to focus on what's most important: the animals.  This goes for animal deaths, as well.   When an animal dies of complications related old age, we still get comments like, "Finally, this animal is free."  It shows no respect to the trainers or the animals who knew and loved the deceased.  

Other totally mundane details also get completely twisted around depending on who shares them.  Training methods, or what the animals are learning, or what husbandry samples we are getting....all of this information in the "wrong" hands can get spun into an impressive amount of tripe.  It's a bell that can't be unrung, in some cases.  

For example, I was visiting a dear friend of mine who works with elephants.  While I was waiting for her, I sat outside the elephant yard and watched the animals alongside a few other guests.  I watched three adult elephants and two calves explore their area; I had no idea what was going on, and didn't really know who was who, but it was fun to just watch them interact. 

Who doesn't love a baby elephant? The answer is no one.  Unless you're a jerk.

Then I heard a woman start to very confidently tell all of us standing around her what we were seeing.  She explained that the zoo had mixed the adult male in with the babies, and she didn't know why that was happening, because the male could easily kill the calves.  She said, "My close friend who works with these animals told me this introduction would be happening, but not like this.  Something must have happened.  I can't believe they are doing it like this."

She completely freaked out the rest of the guests, who now thought they were going to watch two baby elephants get murdered.  

When my friend arrived, I pulled her aside and told her what I'd overheard.  She handled the situation very professionally and politely, explaining to the guests the very thoughtful and careful process of introducing the animals.  I asked her in private where this woman had heard the information; let's just say she didn't have any friends in the zoo keeping department.  Who knows where she overheard this stuff.  What matters is how she handled it.

So, Super Fans and Groupies alike, do you see what you're up against here?  We are proud of our professions and our animals.  We do want to share information, and help those of you who want to dedicate your lives to the care and well-being of animals in human care AND in the wild.  But we are a little sensitive to those of you who try to Know It All.

"This perpetuates an awful us vs. them mentality. I’ve seen decent and perfectly-sane regulars stop coming to the parks or start avoiding exhibits they used to love because of these off-putting interactions. For example, I almost never visit the Dolphin Cove exhibit anymore because it became such a negative space. Literally being seen there more than once in a blue moon would earn you the fatal mark of the GROUPIE even if all you do is stand there and take photos."

"I have plenty of examples of being on the other side of this, like when two girls pretty much took over an entire panel of Shamu underwater viewing for “their” play session and became overly possessive when regular guests wanted to get a photo with the whales. It got to the point I had to step in, and they called me a bitch. Or when a CMA groupie tried to straight-up take the observation clip board out of my hands because she NEEDED to know how Winter was doing." 


Here are a few tips for any animal lovers who have identified with being a Super Fan or Groupie:

1) These animals are not yours.  They are not mine.  They are not the zookeepers or trainers'. They are their own.  They choose with whom they bond...and in many cases, that will be their caregivers.  Not because you suck, or we are better, but because we spend our lives with them.  Time and effort CULTIVATE relationship.  It's not something to covet; it's something to motivate you to find your own journey into the zookeeper realm.  And if you do form a bond with an animal outside of this context at a zoo or aquarium, remember that is a two-way street.  They are not YOUR baby.  Possessiveness is not a trait of a true animal trainer.

2) If you earn a trainer or keeper's trust, keep it.  There are reasons that all go back to the animals' well-being for why things are publicly announced or why they are not.  Sharing it with the internet not only puts a black mark on your name, but it hurts animals.  Stop. 

3) If you ever catch yourself taking over an underwater viewing area, or ANY animal viewing area for that matter, show some decency.  Let other guests be apart of the experience.  If a trainer, docent, educator, or keeper asks you to stop or to slow your roll, respect and abide them.  They are not there to ruin your day, they are advocating for the animals and the other guests who are there to learn about the animals the same way you are. 

4) You may know a lot, but you don't hold a candle to the keepers.  If you think you do, you're headed down the wrong path.  It's okay.  You aren't supposed to know as much, because you aren't doing the job 40 to 60 hours a week.  It'll be your turn though, if you keep the animals first, your ego second, and work really hard.

Leggo of it

So for those of you who play with dolphins at windows, or who can identify every giraffe at your local zoo, don't panic.  It's okay you're doing that, as long as you're respectful and not disruptive.  It's okay if you have trainer friends, if you respect that relationship.  I have several friends who are not trainers who I'd consider great Super Fans.  It is not career suicide to have passion and enjoy the time you spend with animals.

Lastly, I also have a message for us trainers.

We have to remember that FIRST and FOREMOST, it is rarely okay to be rude or mean to someone visiting our facilities.  They could be the most annoying Groupie you know...but guess what?  They are still human beings.  They do not deserve to be treated like garbage.  We can be stern, we can ask them to leave if they are causing serious disruption to our animals and guests...but that isn't to embarrass them.  It's to protect and advocate for our animals; the only reason we are doing the job we do.

You'll reach a lot more people that way.  And it's the right thing to do.

Second, remember that many of us were once Super Fans who wanted the same things: to work with animals every day.  If you weren't like that, at least try to see it from their perspective.  We'd rather have passionate, loving people in this job than people who want to clock in and clock out, right?  Passionate people are hard workers who shovel poop, sort fish, and narrate endless shows for the love of the animals.  

Third, a curious guest is not a detractor.  Your facility can choose its level of info-sharing.  I've worked at both very close-lipped and very open places and have seen the pros and cons to each.  I personally prefer a more transparent approach, but that's just my preference.  No matter how proprietary your job is, curious guests are curious guests.  Don't break the rules of your facility, but don't be rude.  Don't treat them like hostile people.  Again, they are human beings.  And most of the time, they are just interested.  Handling them like they are annoying the life out of you can turn them into a detractor.   

We are all Super Fans!