Sunday, April 12, 2015

Communication: Let's Talk About It! (Special Guest Author James Weinpress)

I love guest blogs.  Reading insight and personal experience from other people is so much fun and one of the best parts of being in this field.  

So why James as a guest author?  Well, let me tell you.  This guy clearly loves his job and does it well.  Not just because it's a cool job; you can tell he puts a lot into the animals for whom he cares.  Anytime I see a work-related post from James, it's something to showcase how awesome one of the animals is or one of the recent training successes he or she has had.  It seemed silly not to ask someone who has worked with so many different animals, who's been in the field a while, AND who clearly still is passionate about the work he does to write a Middle Flipper.  I'm honored to have him write something for all of you.

But don't let me convince you.  There is a lot of wisdom in the blog below (and a lot of great stories).  Enjoy!


Wow! An opportunity to be a guest author on the incredibly popular "Middle Flipper"! When Cat contacted me and asked if I wanted to contribute I immediately began brainstorming potential topics to discuss. We work in such a dynamic field, it felt impossible to pick just one! It could be an aspect of training a stubborn animal, or discussing the most effective animal presentation formats, or even the challenges of working on a team. That's when it hit me...communication! To be truly successful at our jobs we must be outstanding communicators! This is true from training a new behavior to creating a memorable experience for our guests. Luckily, getting an animal trainer to shut their mouth is more of a challenge than getting them to open up about their job.

During my time working in zoos and aquariums I have learned the importance of efficient and clear communication with animals AND humans and I know I am far from done improving at it. 

The ups and downs we experience as animal trainers are important to our own professional development, but also serve as a unique way to engage our visitors and leave them with a greater message than to simply, "be green".

So let’s jump on in!

Old George

I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a number of different species ranging from African elephants to bottlenose dolphins to domesticated geese (strangely one of my favorites) and have observed firsthand the success of positive reinforcement training incorporated into their care. When I was given the opportunity to work with a 36 year-old white rhino named George I set out to train him the "simple" behavior of targeting to a buoy. I could not have imagined the battle that lay ahead of me. This was an older animal with poor vision, who had never before gone through a formal training program. He was the exact opposite of the dolphins and sea lions I was accustomed to. George was slow... this was true from every movement he made down to the speed of training progression.  For three months I worked to condition him to a bridge, find food items that he found reinforcing, and convince him that a target pole was NOT a weapon of mass destruction. 

I remember it like it was yesterday...the sun was out, the guests were enjoying the animals, the poop had been scooped, and I had a good feeling about my session. I placed the target pole through the training fence and George slowly but surely brought his drooling square muzzle to the buoy. I was ecstatic! What do dolphin trainers do when their animal makes a major breakthrough? We cheer and jackpot them with all their food, right? 

This rhino didn't appreciate that. When I tossed George's bucket of apples, bananas, and carrots to him and stood to cheer for him his eyes became wider than I had ever seen and he took off running. Instead of making it the most reinforcing scenario possible, I had managed to scare the daylights out of him and set my progress back three more months. The lesson in all of this was I needed to know the animal that I was working with on a much deeper level; beyond applying the rules of operant conditioning. 

Thankfully, George did give me a second chance, and I learned that he appreciated slow, deliberate movements from his trainers with no sudden "surprises". George now works confidently with a number of different trainers and takes part in an educational guest encounter program where he targets like a CHAMP. 

The Many Faces of Hudson

Recently, harbor seals were the topic of the Middle Flipper. They are truly unique and challenging animals to work with. I often compare them to the character of Sheldon Cooper on the TV show "Big Bang Theory". They are incredibly intelligent but completely unaware of how to act in a social situation no matter how many times they take part in them. They can come off as cold and rude but at the end of the day, you still find yourself enjoying their company and keep coming back for more. 

Hudson was a young male harbor seal that I was tasked with as his primary trainer. It was my first time training with harbor seals and I had a difficult time interpreting those wide alert eyes as they scanned the exhibit, attempting to locate even the faintest noise that was surely a sign of a quickly approaching polar bear. Looking back at my time with him, I believe it took approximately one year to really get to know him and understand the many faces of Hudson. Hudson was (and still is) a very intelligent young animal who can learn a behavior relatively quickly; but like all gifted youngsters, he can lack motivation. Our training team soon had many different personifications for Hudson to help describe his behavior during any given session. Bear with me…these all make perfect sense in my head.

There was "Mudson" who lacked all motivation and either wanted to just sit on land (especially during molt) or stare at you from the waterfall. "Hudson-do-good" was a "Leave it to Beaver" style, innocent kid who tried his best even if he didn't succeed. "Bloodson" was a jumpy, grabby, skittish seal; and, most recently came "Studson," who was far more interested in the lovely female seals that he shares his pool with than his training session. 

Corny? Incredibly. But most importantly they were a way to take a lighthearted approach to working with a challenging animal, ensuring that frustration never got the best of us. It was important to look at all the factors that would play a role in his behavior during a session and how to best set him and his trainer up for success.

Sharing IS Caring! 

No matter what your title is; animal trainer, zoo keeper, vet tech, intern, etc., we are all communicators. To me that's our biggest role as animal care takers and educators. If a guest leaves a facility without greater knowledge of animal behavior or a better understanding of how to preserve the natural world, we have not done our job. Don't let the fact that it is our job make you forget to have fun with it though! I always enjoy speaking with guests about my successes and failures with training to help build that personal connection between them and the animals. Sharing the experiences described above and many others like it are great way to leave a lasting impression on someone who walks away knowing a little more about an individual seal or rhino, and in return feels a closer and more personal connection to an entire species. 

I'd like to give a big thank you to Cat for letting me post my ramblings and embarrassing stories. I love working in this field because it is made up of passionate individuals who never cease in their drive to share experiences and learn from one another. 

James "Jim" Weinpress graduated with a degree is psychology and has been working in the animal care field since 2008. James has worked with an array of animal species including bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, grizzly & polar bears, and African elephants. James is an active member of IMATA and AAZK and currently resides in Rochester, New York.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Wisdom and Good Fortune of Bonus Fish

In every job, there are little things that happen on occasion that just really make your day.  Those little things are specific to your world; outsiders just don't get it the way you do.  They may nod their head in a sort of, "Hmmm...that's...interesting...." way, but only you and your colleagues appreciate the full awesomeness of it.

In the marine mammal field, one of my favorite things in the whole world is


Everyone loves a bonus!

If you're a marine mammal trainer or any zookeeper who feeds fish to the animals under your care, you know what Bonus Fish are.  Maybe that's not what you call them, but you encounter them regularly. 

When I first started as an intern, I never encountered Bonus Fish.  This was likely because I didn't have the pleasure of thawing frozen flats on my own.  At that time, another department sorted through the boxes, piled the fish into giant stainless steel trays and left them to thaw overnight in our refrigerator.  By the time I got to fish prep the next morning, I had my pile o' capelin and herring to weigh out and that was that.

It wasn't until I landed my apprentice trainer job and met my future spouse (Russ) that I had my Allegory of the Cave* moment.  There we were in the fish house, sorting through hundreds of pounds of capelin and herring, trying to beat the clock.  At that time, we had a lot of dolphin mouths to feed and not a lot of time to prep the fish before the first sessions.  Concentration was paramount because despite the limited time, you could not allow any sub-par fish to slip past your watchful eye.   You had to make sure that the fish was superb quality, the amounts of fish were correct for each dolphin and each session, and that everything (floor to ceiling) was cleaned and disinfected.  It was a serious business and for a brand new trainer like me, who was convinced at any moment I'd probably get fired because seriously whose dream actually comes true, I was fully involved in the task at hand.  There was no fun to be had.

Uh, because I have to finish fish prep.

Russ on the other hand was a seasoned trainer who didn't feel the same pressure to Prove He Could Win Win Win and/or Be The Best Trainer Ever.  He had established himself.  He knew how to sort fish at lightning quick speed.  He also grew up on the beach in Florida and was an avid fisherman, so fish was his life.  The ease at which he completed a task that I struggled to keep up with made me uneasy.  I treated Fish Prep like we were performing triage on a critically wounded soldier and he treated it like a crawfish boil.


But, as the topic of this blog is so good at doing, there was something that could pierce my fervid focus.  And that something was a stickleback.


"Whoa!!!" Russ said in his surfer-dude way.  "Boooooonus fish!!!"

He picked up a tiny little fish roughly an inch long, richly counter-shaded with a black spike sticking up near the head.  He placed it on the top edge of the sink (the splash guard I guess?).

"WTF is a bonus fish??" I asked him, slightly irritated that he'd interrupted my flow of capelin-sorting.

"Dude!! It's a fish that is extra! A bonus fish!"

"You can't put that up there," I said.  "That's not where fish belongs."

"It's where Bonus Fish belong!" he countered.  "Plus, they're good luck."

By the end of the fish prep shift, Russ and I had found about ten stickleback Bonus Fish to decorate our sink with....and they were good luck.  I mean, we finished our fish prep early and for the first time in my employment I felt really happy and relaxed.  The Bonus Fish had really improved my mood.  Plus, they looked great on the sink.

Bonus Fish became something of an obsession for me from that day forward.  I told every intern and new trainer about it when training them in the fish kitchen.  I made sure to tell them that Bonus Fish were good luck, and soon enough I started hearing those people train other newbies on the same Bonus Fish principles.  You could hear squeals of delight coming from the Fish Kitchen door every time someone found a fish that wasn't supposed to be in the flats.  "Hey!" they'd say.  "Look at this guy!! He's good luck!"

Ponyo is arguably the best Bonus Fish find ever.

Finding Bonus Fish is like exactly what Charlie Bucket experienced looking for the Golden Ticket.  I mean aside from the fact that he won an amazing prize and got to hang out at Wonka's factory and wound up owning it.  But other than those things it's the exact same thing.  You KNOW there's something special hidden in some of the fish flats.  You don't know WHAT.  You don't know WHEN.  It's random luck and deeply satisfying when you find a little guy who doesn't belong.  And I don't care what anyone else says, those little things are good luck.

You start to learn what Bonus Fish are more common than others.  In capelin flats, sticklebacks, thread herring, and sand lance** are pretty normal to find.  That doesn't make them any less Bonus Fishy though; they have their rightly place on the sink to keep us company through the rest of food prep.

Sand lance, bringing good feelings to fish preppers everywhere!

Okay wait a second, I'll change something I just wrote.  Finding thread herring isn't really that awesome.  I'd actually like to contend that thread herring are Bogus Fish, not Bonus Fish.  Despite being very popular prey items for wild dolphins, their razor-sharp anal fins make for serious Fish Kitchen Hazards and most facilities don't even feed them to their dolphins.  They look pretty similar to the herring species we feed our animals, so to the untrained eye it's easy to let one get in a bucket.  I mean, those fish are called "Razorbellies" for a reason, and they'll cut you like a razor if you leave one in a bucket.  So no, thread herring.  You are not good luck.  You are not Bonus Fish.  You are dead to me!

The razor bellies seem to say.

But it's when you find the REALLY cool Bonus Fish that you just know your day is going to be super awesome.  The best finds I've seen?

1) The time that Russ and I found a flounder.  Like, a big flounder, probably four or five pounds the size of a dinner plate.  "This is good meat," Russ said.  He did not put the flounder in the usual Bonus Fish display area.  He promptly filleted it and ate it for dinner later that day.

No no, not that Flounder!  Cheer up!

2) I've found a couple of dogfish at two facilities I've worked at.  It's sad that this awesome predator was bycatch, but it was still a delightful Bonus Fish surprise.  Those guys are hard to display in the usual place, so when I find one I usually just lay them gently on a flat surface where I can see it to keep my spirits high.  Usually I'll look in their mouths at their teeth because well, I just like doing that!  Don't rain on my Bonus Fish parade, man!

This could be a slightly better find.

3) Baby cod.  Those guys are so cute with their giant mouths and big eyes.  I don't see them very often, so when I do it really makes my day.


4) Little baby squids.  Oh my god.  So cute.  And so easy to stick anywhere.

Yes, we're very excited about it.

5) Rock cod.  I've only found one of these things.  And technically, Russ found it (again, this dude apparently attracts Bonus Fish).  Over a year after he first taught me about the awesomeness of Bonus Fish, we had another fish prep shift together and he found a massive rock cod.  At first, we didn't know what it was.  We just knew we'd found the best Bonus Fish ever, and that maybe it was some kind of toad fish.  It was the size of a small dog and looked real crabby, but I suppose that had something to do with the fact that it had gotten unceremoniously killed and stuffed into a flat of capelin.  In fact, imagine that guy's last few moments.

No no, I said rock COD, not rock GOD.


His poor body was squished and flash frozen in a box that would wind up in a southern Florida deep freezer, patiently awaiting the day that two morons would do their normal fish prep shift and stumble upon the entombed animal.

Russ and I couldn't handle it.  We called everyone we could over to see it.  Our bosses let us preserve it in the freezer, Russ carefully laying it on a lid of an unused Igloo cooler and covered it to prevent freezer burn.  He took a zillion photos of it with his then-cool Motorola razor phone.  He sent them off to Florida Sportsman magazine for identification, since we could not figure out what it was.  

The rock cod was the talk of the department.  People traveled from all over the park to see the Best Bonus Fish Ever in his freezer mausoleum.  That guy was in there for a couple of days before we had to dispose of him, but the memory of him lasted a long time.  In fact, here it is being presented to you, dear reader.

The holy grail of Bonus Fish.

It's been almost nine years since my first Bonus Fish and I still think they are the most fun thing ever. Fish prep is clearly an important element to our job, but let's face it, it gets awfully tedious.  But at any given moment you can find something unique, something that gives you a little pick-me-up, and that's worth looking forward to.  

There is one thing I wish I could find.  I've heard tell of it but have yet to experience it: I want to find a big octopus.  Or some bizarre bottom fish that is so weird and hard to identify that it causes another excited buzz around my facility.  Alas, the only way for that to happen is to do fish prep a whole lot, and sadly those opportunities are fewer and fewer the farther up the career ladder one climbs.  

What weird things have you found in your food prep history?  Even if you don't work with fish, I'm sure all zookeepers must find weird stuff in their food all the time.  I'd love to hear your stories!

* You know, that story where people are all like in a cave for their whole lives and then suddenly realize they can leave, so they do, and they go outside the cave and see what's outside the cave (e.g. sunlight, trees, cupcakes) but then when they have to go back into the cave they know what they're missing on the outside world and they're all sad and stuff.

** Is that what those long fish we find in the capelin flats are?? I still can't really ID them.  Some of us call them "snakefish".

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Middle Flipper Is (Part 14).......

....a seal who royally messes with your mind.

A sealfie.  Teehee.

The subject of this particular Middle Flipper entry goes by the name of Milo.  He is a young harbor seal and he has quite the list of personality quirks.  In fact, I think Milo collects bizarre personality traits for a living, which further adds to my belief that he is a genius who is borderline eccentric.  

If Milo were a person,  he'd probably have a PhD in human psychology, specifically looking into how the brain responds to PERCEIVED reality.  Why do I think this? 

Because as you can see, he has a THIRD EYE.  Bahahaha. (Yes, that's a fish eye on his head)

Because Milo messes with our heads all the time.

If he were a human, I imagine he would dress in ornate smoking jackets with paisley prints.  These jackets would be real expensive and he'd only wear them once, because he wouldn't be caught dead in the same thing twice.  Sometimes, he'd wear glasses with quirky frames, like bright colored ones or ones with crazy patterns.  Sure, he's colorblind like all the rest of the seals on the planet, but he'd argue that should NEVER get in the way of fashionable accessories. 

Milo, personified.

His trainers, especially the ones who have known him since he was a pup, are very tuned in to Milo's deeply complex self and desire for self expression.  Milo has the largest collection of wearable accessories of anyone I know who makes less than $700,000 a year*.  He boasts a wide range of seasonal hats that compliment his handsome, dark look and big, expressive eyes.  

The Jake Owen look is a favorite of Milo's

"Sure," some of you may be saying.  "Your seal can wear a hat for a few seconds.  Big deal. I know a lot of animals who can do that."

So okay, in and of itself, Milo's fashion collection is not an impressive feat of training nor does it adequately show his uniqueness.  In order for you to fully appreciate this boy, let's look at some of his other components.

He is a Red Sox fan.

First of all, Milo is sensitive.  Deeply, deeply sensitive.  I mean, what eccentric genius isn't?  Harbor seals are not necessarily known collectively for their austere bravery.  I mean, they are pretty much giant snacks in their native habitats for sharks, orcas, and occasionally other species of seals.  Harbor seals have all the right in the world to be skittish little nuggets.  But what tends to set Milo apart are the other, less obvious stimuli that send him into a tizzy.  Here is a little list:

1) Kids playing in a sandbox.  We have a sandbox next to his exhibit.  This sandbox is next to the sand, because we are literally right on the beach.  There is sand everywhere.  Milo can see sand and the Gulf of Mexico for as far as the eye can see in either direction.  Sand sand sand.  Kids and adults play in the beach sand all day, and that is perfectly acceptable.  But oh, a kid in a sand BOX?  NO.  UNNATURAL.  He can't take it. 

Sorry, I don't DO sandboxes

2) "Random" birds that fly over or near the habitat.  Like I said, we're on the beach.  There are laughing gulls, pelicans, sparrows, pigeons, grackles, crows, egrets and herons that frequent the rooftops of all of our habitats throughout the facility because of Favorite Bird Snacks such as capelin and popcorn.  It's not every bird that freaks Milo out.  It's apparently certain ones.  Maybe Milo has a superstitious number, like 87.  Maybe it's a test, to see if humans can pick up on seemingly-random patterns.  Or perhaps, certain birds simply appear suspicious to him, which I can understand because let's face it, some birds are just malevolent.

Ooookay, I'm not sleeping for a few nights.

3) Especially that one particular blue heron, who Milo can tell apart from all the other blue herons in North America, who just sits and stares at him all day.


4) Beards are the worst thing ever, according to Milo.   In fact, he may argue that some humans have far too many oddly-formed whiskers.  There is nothing pleasant about a bearded man, according to our seal friend. 

Okay, this is a pretty strong case for a pro-beardage

5) Middle-aged men doing tai chi on the beach cannot be tolerated and are simply a cause for massive distraction and panicked speed-swimming.  "Go balance your chi somewhere else," Milo seems to say. 

Unsure of Milo's opinion on pandas doing tai chi, but I'll keep you all posted.

Here's the thing: I don't think Milo is genuinely afraid of these things.**  I think he picks these particular items in order to gauge the human response, especially that of his trainers.  At the end of each session, depending on what's happened, he probably analyzes his findings with the two other seals he lives with, Priscilla and Augustina.

Milo: Human subject 14, trial 759: Subject appeared startled at my sudden, fixated stare into the distance.
Priscilla: What do you think it means?
Milo: I don't care to speculate on causation, but I will acknowledge personal satisfaction in the alarmed facial expression my behavior elicited.

My data set on humans is THIISSSSS BIIIIIG

But if Milo IS in fact terrified of the aforementioned stimuli, it makes no sense to me that he is (and has always been) 100% fine wearing hats.  No matter what the hat is, or how many doohickies and wangdoodles it has bouncing around or dangling near his face, he will wear it calmly, as if reveling in his fashionable glory.   Man slowly moving his arms 600 feet away on the beach? Unacceptable and cause for cardiac infarction.  Wearing a hat with sequins, blinking lights and fireworks shooting out of it?***  FABULOUS.

The other element to this seal's deep complexity is that I see evidence all the time of his intelligence.  Right now, you probably think he's a scaredy-cat who loves high fashion.  Maybe he has a slightly crafty side.   

The drool on the chin really completes this look

However, he does one particular thing that truly shows his smarts.

Milo has giant eyes that see everything.  He can spot that Evil Heron from a quarter of a mile away and detect beards from twice that distance.  He is always on Red Alert.  

When doing a training session with him in the water, sometimes we toss fish to him in there, which he gobbles up.  We feed variably in the water and sometimes to help train and/or maintain perimeter behaviors, his "stay" while in water, or during aerials.  All we do is toss fish to him and gulp, down they go.  Or so we'd like.

The thing is, about 60% of the time, Milo "doesn't see" the fish we throw to him.  He will detect the slightest changes in a target pole.  He'll see a Terrifying Seagull flying at 5,000 feet in the air for a split second.  But he won't see the giant herring you throw directly towards his face.  

What? No, you didn't throw any fish.

When I first encountered this problem, I thought he'd simply missed it.  I threw him another fish, this time more carefully aimed at his head towards his vibrissae.  I figured his sensitive whiskers would detect his food.  I even went as far as to dip target poles into the water to guide him to the falling fish, thinking this was a failsafe solution.  But I was wrong.  Milo simply acted like the fish did not exist.  

Over the last two years I've watched this animal receive fish in the water both in and out of session, sometimes actually hitting him (gently of course) around the head and face.  Still, most of the time he pretends like nothing ever happened, looking at you quizzically with those large seal eyes as if to say, "What? What's next?"

After these failed feedings, I'd descend into the back area of Milo's world (an enclosed area that does not provide any view into the seal habitat) to get something to get the fallen fish out of the pool. But by the time I got what I needed, the fish was gone.  All gone.  And all three seals just swim around like nothing every happened.

I simply have no memory of this fish you claim you've placed in the water.

Up until recently, I chalked this up to one of two possibilities: 

1) The seal habitat has a large amount of turnover, so I figured the fish quickly slide down the sloped sides of the pool and are funneled to the powerful drain.  

2) I was in some kind of Inception scenario where the fish weren't really real, or I wasn't really real, or I was actually dreaming and I'd wake up and learn I was in a coma for 30 years or something.

But I've finally figured out what's actually happening.

The second humans disappear from view, Milo quickly swims around and eats all the fish he allegedly missed.

Have the humans vacated the premises?

That's right.  While Milo plays dumb as us well-intended humans try to reinforce him in the water, he is actually keeping very, very close track of where the fish is going.  He pretends to not see them, and continues to eat his fill and play with his trainer until they leave to collect the dropped fish.  Then, he goes on a jolly seal-version of an Easter egg hunt and finds his bonus snacks here and there. 

That takes a lot of smarts.  To deceive another is a pretty clear sign of intelligence, if you ask me.  It's a subtle middle flipper from Milo, reminding us of two things: 1) Dolphins don't get all the first place prizes when it comes to smarts, and 2) humans share this planet with some pretty savvy critters.  Another lesson I'm happy to learn, and look forward to learning again and again :)

Who needs a smoking jacket when you have this handsome summer coat?

* Hint: I know roughly 0 people who make anything close to that

** Like cats, who just freak the heck out for no apparent reason because they want you to remember that they control everything about you, including your sympathetic nervous responses.

*** This hat does not actually exist.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Truth About Sea Lions: What The Recent Dodo Article Failed To Mention

I read something that made me really sad.

Oh noes!!! Don't be sad little sea lion!

Has anyone seen the Dodo article, SeaWorld's New Ad Is A Lie, So We Rewrote It To Be Accurate?

You may notice I didn't put a hyperlink to the site.  It's not to be petty, but it's because I don't want to send you to something that makes you sad.

Someone on my Facebook news feed shared this yesterday with a well-intended but misguided comment about it, talking about Sea World anthropomorphizing sea lions and how this new article is going to really Tell The Truth.

The problem is, that Dodo article is packed with a lot of misleading statements.  This makes me so upset, because that kind of "journalism" completely detours good-hearted people away from actual issues and focuses them on topics that are not actual problems.  It's propaganda and it hurts animals.


Opinions are one thing, but changing facts is another, and I'll hold myself accountable on that point too.  Just because I have an opinion on something doesn't mean I'm an expert.  It does mean the burden of responsibility is on ME to make sure what I say is factually correct and not misleading when I present information to a bunch of people.

But the more I thought about the article, the more I thought about all of the people right now (as I write this, as YOU read this) are caring for hundreds of starving sea lion pups in California.   And there are people who love animals so much and want to do right by them, and they come across this article and think, "Oh my GOD, those poor sea lions who have to live in a zoo!!!!"

The article tells us that Sea World doesn't tell us where their sea lions come from, but then lets us know that they took sea lions from their wild colonies.  Now those sea lions have bred in human care, so their offspring don't know anything about the wild, or how to catch fish.  It also tells us that sea lions have to sleep and move around in their own excrement.

I...don't even know where to start.  This is offensively incorrect on so many levels.

First, let's get this out of the way, sea lions are poop factories.  They don't really care that poop gets on them.  The fact is, any Alliance-accredited facility is about 73895825 times cleaner than any wild sea lion haul out.  Seriously, has this author ever seen a rookery in her life?! I've never seen so many poo-slathered animals as when I've seen sea lions in the wild.  They sleep by the HUNDREDS on top of each other, and poop and pee wherever and on whomever they please.   The smell is overpowering.  But the sea lions sure don't mind!

See those brown puddles all around?  Those are poop and pee puddles, not tide pools.  Some of the sea lions are actually sleeping in these puddles (I know because I took this picture).

Still, in zoos and aquariums with California sea lions, we clean their exhibits at least once a day.  So do they sometimes sleep in their own poop? Yep, some of them do.  Then we clean it up with diluted Dawn soap and spray it down, and the sea lions get nice and clean and do it all over again the next day.  So let's not propagandize the "horrible" living conditions sea lions face in marine parks and zoos.

Here's a closer shot, with our friend the poo puddle in the front left corner.

Second, let's address how "terrible" Sea World and other aquariums are for "taking wild sea lions" from colonies.

Here's what I've noticed about the wild sea lions.  While I will never park myself on the extreme end of any opinion spectrum, I will tell you that the wild is a pretty tough place for our flippered friends.  Please understand I'm not saying that therefore, all sea lions should be removed from the wild.  No.  On the contrary, there are a lot of things humans can do to improve conditions for wild sea lions so they only have to deal with the more natural crappy things they face every day.

Here is a little list of what a sea lion would probably have to deal with if humans all lived in a planet in a distant galaxy instead of being on planet Earth:

If you need me, I'll be on Planet Donut.

1) Predation from great white sharks

2) Predation from orcas

3) Normal selection pressure for young pups (developmental problems, weak
     immune systems, poor genetics, etc.)

4) Accidental injury or death

5) Illness naturally found in the environment and/or heavily populated areas

6) Occasional natural disaster-related problems, directly or indirectly (e.g. food 
    source fluctuation, disease, water temperature, etc)

7) Death by conspecific (rut is a rough time for anyone, and pups can get
    crushed under the weight of a bunch of sea lions piling on top of each other
    like they do)

I know this is sad :(  But the little guy on the left had massive bite marks from other sea lions on his face, which had shredded his jaw muscles.  He is very thin.  All he wanted to do was snuggle up with this big guy, who kept barking at him to get away.  Also, note the poop puddle in the background.  This little dude is doomed, whether from starvation or succumbing to his injuries (not a very clean environment to have a shredded face).  It's a heart-breaking but familiar scene for anyone who sees wild sea lions.  That's nature, guys.

Those are all pretty serious issues to contend with as a wild animal, but that's what it's like living in the wild and plenty make do.  But now we've got to look at the human element, which adds an entirely new set of horrors to the list that are not easy for these animals to adapt to.

Domoic acid toxicity is one of the major causes of Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs) of California sea lions.  Domoic acid is found in certain algae species (think Red Tide) and it is really a nightmare if you're what scientists call a "higher vertebrate"*.  Why?  Well basically, this toxin gets worse and worse the longer it chills in the food web.  That means by the time a "higher" predator like a sea lion eats a fish who's eaten a fish who's eaten some of this toxic algae, it is really, really bad.  Like, destroys your brain bad.  

Sea lion with domoic acid poisoning

Unfortunately, human-related activities are a leading cause of increases in these toxic algae blooms responsible for domoic acid deaths in marine animals.  Warmer water and agricultural/sewage run-off are major contributors in helping Red Tides do their thang (hey, Gill from Finding Nemo was right when he said, "All drains lead to the ocean, kid").

Also, don't let this chick near any sea lions.

Another problem?  And this is what the Dodo article was referring to: the Bonneville Dam sea lions.  For those of you unfamiliar with this situation, the Bonneville Dam is located in the Colombia River near Washington State and Oregon.  Its primary function is generating electricity.  Its primary ecological problem is that it poses a massive traffic jam for sturgeon and salmon who just want to settle down and have 6 trillion kids.  While the dam has what it calls "fish ladders" to allow the fish to pass, it does a pretty awful job at it.

The Bonneville Dam

So what happened?  The fish heap together waiting for their turn through the fish ladders and in the meantime, some really smart "higher vertebrates" realized their good fortune.  Human anglers and sea lions thought their lives were made when they realized what a bountiful, easy feast the dam provided.  And like all animals, they over-exploited their resource.

So what happened?  Oh, the salmon and sturgeon populations fell drastically.  This upset a lot of people for a lot of understandable reasons.  Some less-than-understanding anglers decided to take matters into their own hands and started trying to illegally kill the sea lions, and they were successful in some cases.  In other cases, they maimed these poor animals.  State governments decided to cull the sea lion population.

A big dude having hisself a snack at Cafe Bonneville

Yes, you read that right.  I'm not an ecology expert and realize that there are a lot of factors that come into play, but my emotional side keeps winning when I think about this situation.  Nonetheless, there are a lot of steps taken to prevent killing sea lions:


1) Individually identifying problem animals, which involves a hot brand.  Yes, it hurts the animal.  No, I don't know what other methods are effective and I have nothing to do with this process.  I'm just sharing a fact.  The animals are captured and branded so that government officials can identify "problem" animals.

That gun is loaded with firecrackers to deter sea lions from the dam area

2) Humans attempt to deter the sea lions from the dam by using a variety of methods, which can include underwater explosives.  Again, this is to prevent the sea lions from coming near the fish, so it's not necessarily a cut and dry thing is it?  I mean, we could all have our ideal answer (take down the dam! Find sustainable and low-impact energy sources!).  But how can we spare the lives of California sea lions TODAY or tomorrow?  The answers from California and Oregon are scaring the crap out of the sea lions with underwater explosives.  Facts, people.

That is one big pile of sea lion.

3) Relocate really problematic sea lions....which doesn't seem to work very well.  Because they keep coming back.....

Tanner, a male sea lion at the Shedd aquarium, was rescued from Bonneville Dam (see his branding?)

4) Put out an all-call to zoos and aquariums to take as many Bonneville Dam sea lions into their care, because the next step is killing them.  There is no other option.

This is the crate the sea lions are captured in for branding, removal, rescue, or euthanasia.

5) Euthanize.  Engage in stressful capture, place sea lion in a metal pen, and euthanize them chemically or with a high-powered rifle.

The majority of animals who are slated to be moved to a zoo or slaughtered wind up being euthanized by wildlife management.  Zoos simply do not have the resources to save all of these animals.  And unfortunately, the Bonneville Dam is just one of many places where this kind of thing is happening.  Aquaculture up and down the Pacific coast of North America attracts marine mammals of all kinds since hey, the fish is nice and available in convenient little packets.  Humans trying to protect their livelihood have no qualms about shooting at sea lions, seals, dolphins and porpoises.  I actually saw this firsthand when I was in British Columbia in 2006.  Yeah, it's illegal.  But there really isn't the law enforcement coverage you'd think there'd be.    Marine mammal rescuers have patients routinely come in with life-threatening or fatal gun shot wounds.

Here's another sea lion at the Shedd Aquarium.  This little guy was found as a pup with gunshot wounds that rendered him completely blind.  The Marine Mammal Center nursed him back to health and he ended up going to the incredible Shedd Aquarium.

Recently, you've probably seen a lot of press about the starving sea lion pups and how over the past few years, this problem has gotten significantly worse.  I just heard a story on NPR this morning about it.  One of thing things mentioned by the person they interviewed was that half of their job is looking at these poor, suffering baby sea lions and figuring out who is going to make it and who isn't. You know what that means, right?  Having literally hundreds of pups flood the marine mammal rescue centers (and there's like, a handful of those IF that that are handling the entire Pacific coastline of the U.S.) means you have to decide which little ones are too close to death's door and no amount of TLC or top-notch medical care will bring them back.  My heart breaks thinking about this, for the animals themselves and for the people who have to make that decision and see it every single day.

Tube-feeding adorable little faces

So what's going on with these pups?  The strongest hypothesis has to do with diminished food resources thanks guessed it....human-related nonsense.  Global warming.  Not enough cows are farting to make this big of a difference.  But humans (being the animals they are) over-exploit their resources and pollute the planet, and it causes massive and catastrophic damage to ecosystems everywhere.  In this case, mom sea lions are not able to get enough food to feed themselves and nurse their pups properly, and their babies die a slow and miserable death.

A very, very new pup

This is what California sea lions are dealing with today.  Marine mammal rescue centers are doing their best to make a positive difference in that situation.  That might mean comforting a terminal pup so that his or her last moments are surrounded by someone who cares about them, instead of getting picked apart by scavenging birds and mammals on the beach (the likes of which I've actually seen with my own eyes...a starving sea lion getting eaten alive by vultures.  I will never, ever forget what that looked or sounded like).   It might mean nursing a pup back to health who can be released back into the wild.  It might mean nursing a pup back to health and the U.S. government deeming it unfit for he or she becomes a cherished family member at an accredited zoo or aquarium.  

Facilities all over the country are sending trainers for weeks at a time to help these marine mammal rescue centers with all facets of their care.  The hours are grueling.  What these people are seeing is heartbreaking and the stuff of nightmares in some cases.  Sea World stopped their sea lion shows in order to provide more warm bodies to help their rescue operation handle this insane amount of animals showing up at their doorsteps.  How can anyone, even if you don't like zoos or aquariums, deny that this is a case where humans are trying to do the right thing by the animals?

These guys deserve fact-based care, not big egos trying to prove a point on the internet

So this Dodo article, talking about how awful Sea World is for taking sea lions from the wild (like the Bonneville Dam, or pups who are's not like they just go out and grab a couple of sea lions for the hell of it, for crying out loud), completely ignores the hard work people are doing.  It politicizes a topic so that people get up in arms and post stupid stuff on Facebook.  Meanwhile, I see friends and colleagues of mine work 12 to 18 hour days to save these animals who WOULD DIE otherwise.

Is the author of the Dodo article willing to go spend three weeks of their time watching baby sea lions fight for their life?  If she is suggesting that marine parks stop taking in as many sea lions as they can healthily care for, is she willing to show up at these sea lion culls or rescue centers and hold down each sick sea lion as they are euthanized?  Look into their big, gorgeous and intelligent eyes and take their life away just so she can say, "I really stuck it to Sea World!!!"

No way, no one with a heart wants anything bad to happen to sea lions in the wild or in zoos.

I really hope not.  I really hope she and anyone who believed that article can take a deep breath and say, "You know what, I still don't agree with animals in zoos.  But I can acknowledge this imperfect system of humans ruining the lives of animals.  I will do my part to support efforts to save lives, because these animals deserve to be here as much as any of us, politics be damned."

Furthermore, California sea lions live longer in human care than they do in the wild.  When I say stuff like that, it isn't me trying to convince people who are anti-zoos to suddenly change their mind.  I'm just saying that because it's true.  The wild isn't inherently bad, zoos aren't "better" in terms of broad strokes.  If we focus on the facts and put our worries towards actually saving animals, we can ACTUALLY SAVE ANIMALS.  

Little skinny kid :(

The real activists, the ones who are on the ground helping out, or the ones who are filling in for the trainers, veterinarians, and other people who gave up their time to travel to help, or even the people who sent a couple of bucks to these rescue operations, are the ones who are making a difference in these animals' lives.  California sea lions are as deserving of our attention as any animal!!

The real activists are not people who write articles like the one this blog is responding to.  They are not the people throwing rocks at Sea World employees who are trying to rescue terrified and suffering sea lion pups.  They are not the people who are just busy claiming zoos are better than the wild, or the wild is better than zoos.  They are people putting their money where their mouth is, regardless of their opinion on zoos and aquariums.  They are people who can set aside their egos in order to join forces and passion to bring comfort and a second chance to an animal in need (especially one who is in trouble because of US).

I see you little dude!

Today's blog is inspired by a lot of amazing people whose opinions on animals in human care are totally irrelevant to the topic at hand.  I see you guys fill my newsfeed up.  I see you ON the news.  I see the photos of plump, happy sea lions and know that you all have played a major role in that.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And for those of you who can't travel out there (like me...hey, most of us can't!), here are the websites of the rescue centers who could really use a donation.  If I knew what the heck I was doing with technology, I'd have a fancy donate button or something, but remember who's writing this blog ;)

All of these guys are taking care of pups: I don't care how you pick who to donate to, just pick one (or two, or ALL!):

Make a donation to the Marine Mammal Center (186 sea lion pups)

Make a donation to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (119 sea lion pups)

Make a donation to the California Wildlife Center

Make a donation to the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center

Make a donation to the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center

Make a donation to Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute

Make a donation to Marine Animal Rescue

A really awesome comprehensive fact sheet/FAQ file from NOAA about this year's strandings (seriously, everything you wanted to know)

* Higher vertebrates include you, sea lions, elephants, etc.  Lower vertebrates include axolotls and Justin Bieber.