Monday, March 14, 2011

Tails from the Heart: A Pat on the Head

I've experienced a lot of Middle Flipper Events in my career thus far.  They make my job interesting, funny, and keep me humble.  As I've mentioned in a previous post, Middle Flipper Events are further proof that the animals with whom I interact are their own beings, not robots who are programmed to perform.


I can't forget to share with all of you the countless moments when the animals share a tender moment with me.  Because I love words and puns, I've decided to call these posts "Tails from the Heart". 

I'll give you seven seconds to moan/roll your eyes/show disdain that'd put an angst-filled teenager to shame.

The first story I want to share is about a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Loke and her calf Ohana. They came into my life when I was a brand-new dolphin trainer and provided me with one of my first Tails from the Heart.

The Pacific white-sided dolphin.  Cute.  Little.  Fast.  Learn more about them; click here!

As a new trainer, I was "most valuable" doing the things that most non-trainers never get to see us doing.  I cleaned a lot of buckets, scrubbed a lot of fish prep sinks, sorted through hundreds of pounds of fish and weighed out over 20 dolphins' daily diets.   I also got to do a lot of pool cleaning, which translated to using a hydraulic scrubber and scuba gear to wipe off as much as algae as possible.

Hydraulic scrubbers are a gas.  Well, they are fun when you know how to use them.  The problem with these scrubbers are that they usually involve a gasoline or electric engine, a high-pressured water hose, and a scrubber “head”; a contraption that has a motor, a spinning, circular brush, and a trigger of some kind that looked kind of like bike brakes, but worked in the opposite manner.  If you squeezed the trigger, the scrubber turned on full force.  The brush spun and you could scrub a habitat in far less time than if you scrubbed it with a brillo-pad.

Behold, the Scrubber Head!
The best part; turning this beast on with a lawn-mower pull thing.  The string always broke.

The problem see, is that the Trigger and the Scrubber are not good bedfellows with Lumpy Nerd Kids like myself.  When you pull the Trigger, it causes the Scrubber to move its brush around at an alarming rate.  It pulls the scrubber constantly to the left, so you have to continuously force it to stay straight to assure that you don’t lose control of it.  The trigger was tough. 

At the time of this story, I had to work with a scrubber with a Dial instead of Trigger.  I’m sure the Selling Point of the Scrubber Head with a Dial was, “NOW Controllable!”

It seemed genius; you slowly turn on the scrubber via the dial (and therefore the force of the torque) and use it with as much power as you could handle. 

The problem is, if you lost control of it, that was it.  The scrubber spun uncontrollably without a human at the helm.  You’d have to surface and let your spotter know to turn off the engine that supplied power to the scrubber head, or you had the option of wrestling the scrubber head underwater using brute strength and stupidity.  

I’ll be honest; once you figure out how to use this thing, it’s a LOT of fun.  It’s a great workout, it’s fulfilling in the way it magically erases algae, and it gives you a couple of hours of alone time where you can think about important things such as Mitch Hedberg one-liners, what you’ll make for dinner, or the same repeated two lines of a song you hate (“Heyyyyy Macarena!)*.  But, even when you mastered the Dial Scrubber, your entire dive was attenuated with anxiety involving Control Loss of Scrubber Head. 

In addition to my fear I'd Lose Control, I dreaded diving in one pool.  The cold pool.  The one with Loke and Ohana. 

Don’t get me wrong; I thought that they were great animals.  Most of my interactions with them had been underwater, and those were simply me just cleaning their habitat as they swam around.  I had seen Ohana a few hours after she was born, had watched her nurse from her mother, and had seen her start to mouth fish at only a few months old. 

The author with Loke (who did not tip for this massage, by the way).

But her pool was kept chilled at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. The kind of temperature that makes you feel like you have an ice-cream headache all over.  Alas, Pacific white-sided dolphins are cold-water dolphins.  With the right wetsuit, trainers can be kept warm in 62 degree water, but I was not one of those trainers with one of those wetsuits.

All I had was a 3mm wetsuit (suitable for temperatures in the low seventies with prolonged exposure) and a dive hood, some dive boots, and gloves.  At the time, I had no idea that I was inappropriately dressed.  Being a Chicagoan, I had no idea what wetsuit thickness really was, thinking that as long as a had A Wetsuit, I'd be warm.  If I got cold, it wasn't because of a wetsuit that was too thin, it was because I'd Been in The Pool a Long Time.

Nonetheless, I dove in Loke and Ohana’s pool at least once a week (other trainers cleaned in there throughout the week, too) and each time I’d use two tanks, putting my dive time between one to two hours.  It goes without saying that when I finished, I was Fuh-Reezing.  All I could think about after I submerged with my second tank was, “Just scrub as hard as you can so you can keep yourself warm.  Warmish.  Not hypothermic.  Heyyyyyyyyyyy Macarena!”

On one such a dive, I found myself faced with another Hazard of Diving with Loke and Ohana: Ohana’s growing brain and curiosity that required her to be Face to Face with me on my dives.  Was she investigating my regulator and exhaled bubbles?  Did she find the sound the scrubber head made underwater enriching?  Was she checking to make sure I didn’t miss any algae spots? 

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why is this a Hazard?  Well, it’s not really a Hazard to my person, but to the scrubber gear.  Dolphins seem to enjoy pulling on hoses, and high-pressure hoses have a conduit that is easily broken into vis-à-vis sharp dolphin teeth.  Again, all living creatures are unaffected by broken hoses, but the very expensive high-pressure conduit dies a terrible death.  So, if a dolphin shows interest in your scrubbing equipment when you’re diving, you just keep calm and carry on. 

Ohana had no desire to leave me alone.  She only left me to surface for air, or to nurse quickly from her mom, and then would return in her position directly in front of me.  I continued to scrub carefully.

After what seemed like a half an hour, Ohana left her post.  I looked around after a few minutes of noticing Ohana’s absence and found her swimming contentedly next to her mother.  Thinking my time of scrubbing was nearing an end, and focusing on controlling my shivering, I moved to the final patch of algae that lay between me and a shower whose temperature could be compared to flames erupting from the surface of the sun.

But then, I saw a familiar shadow creep over me and the bottom of the habitat.  Ohana was back.  But this time, she brought her mother with her. 

Oh god, I thought.  They’re both going to sit in front of me and I’m going to worry about conduit and about getting the habitat cleaned and about Losing Control and by the time I get out of here, I’m going to have to light myself on fire to dethaw.   My arms were tired from scrubbing, and I was out of breath.  I dropped my knees to the floor to help keep me and the scrubber head in place while I braced for the curious mammals to block my path.

I waited.  And then I felt a gentle pressure on my head.  It was very, very light, like a piece of paper being gently dragged over your clothes.

It stopped.  Ohana’s little body swam ahead of me, turned around, and her head and flippers stopped right at my head.  One of her flippers started stroking the top of my dive hood.  The pressure was firm enough so that I could feel it, but gentle enough that it was just a faint feeling.

Ohana did this for a few seconds, and then swam away with her mother.  I smiled through my regulator, forgetting my anxious feelings I’d had just moments earlier.  This little dolphin had come by and given me something that they usually reserve for each other; a loving reassurance in the form of a flipper rub.

Thanks for the head pat, little lady!

What can I take this to mean?  I don’t think about it too deeply.  I didn’t have my crystal ball with me at the time (an oversight, clearly), so I couldn’t tell what was going through Ohana’s head as she patted mine.  What I do know is that it completely changed my attitude about the icy dive, and from that day through present day, I never take a dive with any dolphins for granted.  

Ohana is now at the same facility where I became inspired to become a dolphin trainer.  She is doing very well.  I think about her a lot, and the gift she gave to me as a young trainer.  Animals give gifts to people all of the time, and I don't know how aware they are of their positive impact.  But I suppose humans can follow their lead; how can you impact the lives of others without requiring acknowledgment, but just doing it because it's a nice thing to do?


* What songs get stuck in your head when you scuba dive?

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Middle Flipper is... (Part 3)

...a black leopard chewing your keyboard.

Wait, what?! A black leopard giving a middle flipper? Have I lost my marbles? Have I forgotten that most (if not all) leopards LACK flippers?

Of course not, faithful readers.  Considering that dolphins are not the only animal to tell you to get lost, I thought I'd periodically give other animal care professionals the opportunity to share their story.
Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to one of my friends, Sara Childers.  Sara knows animals.  Don't let her young age (she's still in college!!!) fool you; she's had over a decade of experience working a variety of exotic animals, including big cats and whale/dolphin rescue.  She has snakes.  She plays with elephants.  She is awesome!

Sara and the author, freezing.

And so I give to you: Sara Childers!


I am never good at introductions. Just the same, I am never good at remembering people's names.  I am phenomenal at remembering the names of animals; I recently recognized an Asian elephant named Judy that I hadn't seen in about three years, after only working with her for a couple of hours for one day. Judy's owner was blown away when I randomly came up to him and asked about his elephant and got her name right. I was just as blown away when I went up to Judy and she gave me a low greeting vocalization.

Nevertheless, I was asked to become a guest author of this blog, so I guess an introduction is necessary, although I don't expect you to have the memory skills of said elephant.

I've decided that elephants have an IQ of 9999999999999.

My name is Sara Childers. I have been around animals for my entire life, and have been working in various husbandry positions (whether it be through my 4-H club or through an exotic wildlife sanctuary) on and off for over ten years. I have thousands of hours of hands-on experience with terrestrial and aquatic animals alike, and I am planning on attaining a career with them... somehow. I have recently switched my major from marine biology to psychology, however, and I will probably do a couple of years of dolphin training in about three years' time. From there, I will probably go attain my Masters of Psychology and begin to counsel Autistics like myself. I have also been featured on nationally broadcasting television channels for my work with animals and my autism; I hope to one day have my own television show promoting animals, environmental awareness, and autism.

Who am I kidding? Tocoi doesn't want to spend time with me, she just wants the toy.

Likewise, I am not good at transitional paragraphs. I could write about how I was asked to contribute to this blog: I was in the middle of my zoology class brooding over the now breeding colony of Hydra of which I am the sole caretaker of when Cat texted me and asked me to contribute to her blog. The alternative outlet for my attention was a slide of a barnacle penis, which my teacher was illustrating with elaborate arm gestures while explaining how “incredibly long” said penis is compared to a human's. 

Cat asked me to write about the misendeavours I've had with animals; basically, the times where the animals have said “up yours” to me and have strolled of in some various direction, leaving me to look like an absolute dunce in the given situation. I gladly accepted.

As somewhat previously stated, I have been working with big cats for about ten years now. As a senior handler for a wildlife sanctuary for about eight years (before I packed up and went to college), I was one of the ones responsible for the care of over twenty big cats of the genus Panthera, although my main task was raising the cubs that were occasionally rescued. I had the great fortune of being able to hand-rear these cubs at my home for several months at a time, to watch them develop, and to be able to socialize and condition them to some of the behaviors that they would need to know for the rest of their lives. I was going to high (and earlier, middle) school at the time, so I was double-teaming with my mother, who was also a senior handler and fully licensed and permitted to handle and care for big cats by the Fish and Game department. I absolutely loved being able to share my living space with a lion/tiger/leopard/cougar cub, although they had an uncanny knack at destroying things, which is where my story begins:

Don't let the cuteness fool you: this is DestructoKitteh Model 7429XX

I often insist that high school is way harder than college. I still believe it to this day. When I was enrolled in high school, I was taking seven courses (two of which were Advanced Placement in my senior year, which is when this event happened), versus the four classes I am taking in college. High school also was hormone central, where Mister Tough Jock, Mister Hardened Rocker, and Mister Academic Success all gunned it out for the attention of Super Pretty School Promiscuous Lady. As an autistic, I failed to understand the whole social structure of high school, and I made my fair share of societal mistakes.

Anywho, I digress. 

The highlight of my days was being able to come back home from a hard and stressful day of school and be greeted by, in this particular case, a black leopard cub named Icarus (affectionately called “Icky” or “Sticky Icky”). As soon as I came in the door, he would bounce down the stairs of my family's two-bedroom apartment and enthusiastically rub in between my legs before we migrated into my bedroom for a two hour nap. His innocence and love was decieving though, as he was notorious for destroying everything he could. 

My computer was no exception. 

While I was at school, I was naive enough to leave my computer (with all of the essays and reports that were due that week) out within reach of the little leopard. While I was at school, I really didn't think that such a sweet, loving, cuddly, and precious little leopard would dare think of destroying anything of mine because I thought he “loved” me too much (I must admit, this particular leopard preferred my company over anyone else's). Boy was I wrong. 

At the end of the school day, my mom picked me up with a grim look on her face. 

“How much do you love Icky?” she asked me. 

I thought this was a general question with no specific reasoning behind it, so I answered it earnestly. 

“Lots and lots,” I replied without a second thought. 

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small bag with computer keys. Puzzled, I looked at the bag, and back at her. 

“What are these,” I asked. 

She grimaced and responded, “These... are your computer keys. Icky woke up, hopped up on your computer, and stretched. He stuck his little butt up in the air, and all of a sudden I hear 'pop pop pop pop,' as your keys were pulled off of the computer by the flexing of his stupid little claws. I'll call John and have him fix your computer within a couple days. I was in the kitchen when it happened, and couldn't stop him from stretching in time. I'm sorry.” 

This is a more accurate illustration of DestructoKitteh Model 7492XX.  Note the keyboard-popping claws, which come standard with this model.

My jaw dropped to the floor. I had two article summaries due that particular week for my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, and a three page essay due for my Advanced Placement Literature class, among other things that I needed my computer for that week. I really didn't believe that the classic “my leopard destroyed my computer” excuse would work for a postponement of my due dates, but it was worth a try. 

I convinced my mother to accompany me, with Icarus, to school, to explain why my assignments will be late. I grabbed the culprit by the scruff of the neck (he was only about a month and a half old at the time) and paraded him to each of my teachers. I told them what happened, and along with the physical evidence of Icarus' claws and the computer-keys-in-a-bag, I was granted an extension on all of my assignments. 

I still think that it was Icarus' rolly-polly-cuteness that gave me the extension, instead of my broken computer. My computer was fixed in about seventy-two hours' time, and I was able to turn in all of my assignments the following week.

I also managed to not strangle the juvenile-delenquent-leopard-cub, despite the fact I was at wit's end and had to work ALL WEEKEND. His cuteness made up for his destructive tendencies, even though I found him peacefully napping on top of the refrigerator the day after he destroyed my computer. Of course, I'd NEVER harm an animal, unless it were a biting/stinging member of the phylum Arthropoda that decides to bite/sting me first.

Sara Childers

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dolphin and Humans Share A Lot in Common: Refer to Owner's Manual

There are a lot of bizarre parallels in the realm of dolphin training and being human.

One of those parallels involve Instruction Manuals/Booklets/Tutorials.

I am one of millions of human beings who experience the ironic emotions of receiving some kind of gift and realizing it has an Instruction Manual. For those of us born after 1970, we experience the love/hate relationships with Instruction Manuals from a young age, usually after some Major Commercial Holiday such as Christmas, Hannukah, Birthdays, or Temper Tantrums.

I recall the first toy I received that needed an Instruction Manual to operate. It was a Robie Jr. the Remote Command Intelligent Robot.

Yay! It's Robie Jr!

I don’t believe I could read Instruction Manuals at the point of my life when I received Robie Jr. In fact, I don’t believe I can read Instruction Manuals now, but at the time I recall my father attempting to absorb as much information as to how to animate Robie Jr.

Robie Jr. had a tray that could hold a Coke. He could (in theory) roll around the house and deliver you that very Coke. He had a little bumper that when pressed said, “That tickles”, “Oops, excuse me”, or “Ouch, that hurt!”. His eyes lit up in meaningful ways; like if he was turning left, only his left eye lit up. I guess he didn’t need both eyes all of the time, because they didn’t shine when he wasn’t moving.

Pulling Robie Jr. out of the box, he doesn’t seem like a guy that requires a lot of thought to figure out. But that isn’t true. He needs different types of batteries for his remote and his body. My young self did not quite understand how many degrees of torque poor Robie Jr’s arms could endure before they snapped off. And he said 9 phrases and had four modes of operation. I wanted to know them all!

I hated waiting for my dad to finish reading the Instruction Booklet. This hatred has exponentially increased as I age and am exposed to newer technology that does not have arms or apologize when it bumps into things (e.g. smart phones, adding Digg buttons to blog posts, starting a car without a key ignition, etc). Sadly, my overwhelming feelings of anxiety and anger are simultaneous with my understanding that in order to play with Cool Things, I have to read how to use them. Gone are the days of Cool Things that are simple to play with, like teddy bears or bags of marbles.

Humans rely so heavily on well-written Instruction Manuals* to usher them through the Fog of Confusion and Desire to Play with Cool Thing and guide them to the Realm of the Savvy User. I dare you to use a DROID platform phone without spending 49 hours learning how to unlock the phone and dial 911. Without the Instruction Manual, you can’t use your Cool Thing for anything other than a door stop.

Like humans, dolphins play with a lot of toys. They are curious, they are playful. In trainer and zookeeper terminology, we call toys “enrichment”. Enrichment isn’t exclusive to toys, but can include different sights, smells, habitat changes, social group changes, awkward ice-breaker socials, etc.

But let’s just focus on toys, because dolphin trainers usually provide a wide variety of toys for their animals.

Dolphin toys can be as simple as basketballs or boat buoys, or they can be an aggregation of Dolphin Safe Things (e.g. items that a powerful, 500 pound animal cannot destroy).

Many dolphin training facilities require that newer trainers or interns build a new toy for the dolphins, so they can understand what goes into providing dolphin-safe enrichment to their family of sea mammals. Veteran trainers will also make new toys when they are inspired by what other facilities are creating.

When this happens, we enter the Parallel Universe of the Instruction Manual.

A dolphin usually knows what to do with this object:

A Basketball.  Simple. Elegant.

So fun!

So easy to use!

It’s round. It doesn’t make sound. It doesn’t sway in the current. It is a toy that other dolphins play with, so it must be safe. The dolphins can watch other dolphins play with it, so they have a good idea with what sorts of things they can do with it. It is User Friendly, like a ipods, pop-up books, and pizza.

A dolphin does not usually know what to do with this object:

W. T. F.

Wait, let me retract the aforementioned statement. Sometimes, a dolphin will not know what to do with a new, Crazy Toy. Sometimes, the dolphin will Freak Out, his/her whole life flashing before his/her eyes, and won’t return to the place it saw the Crazy Toy for decades.

This is not such a far stretch from humans interacting with a new object, especially one that seems daunting and has only slight components of familiarity to it, like Twitter. I will not go anywhere near Twitter, because it terrifies me. Other people ignore it because they don’t know how to use it.

Most humans are able to read, and therefore can take initiative to read Instructions. If their will to play or use the Cool Thing is strong, it will outweigh the frustration of deciphering the Instructions and they will prevail as a Savvy User.

To get a dolphin to the point of Savvy User, trainers must use another method.

A lot of people are surprised to hear that we “train” our dolphins to play with toys. It almost seems to cheapen the point of play. We are suppose to let the dolphins play because it keeps them engaged in something, it is a way they can choose to pass the time, and they are really smart animals, so why would they need to be trained to play?

Because none of their toys come with an Instruction Manual.

As far as this author is aware, dolphins are unable to read, so Instruction Manuals are simply out of the question. It is also impossible to sit in front of the dolphin and attempt to explain what they are supposed to do with the new Crazy Toy.

Trainer: Okay, Dolphin. Just pull on this car wash strip to drag the gigantic yellow ball with you. The traffic cone will follow. Or you could just drape the car wash strip over your flippers, for a carefree look.

Dolphin: The car wash strips, yellow ball, and traffic cone look okay. It’s the dangling garden hoses also attached to the ball that concern me. They look dangerous, like monster tentacles that specialize in terror.

Trainer: No, no. I can see where you are getting that from, but take my word for it. These hoses are perfectly safe. You can carry the toy by the hoses, or just enjoy the sound they make as you drag them along the surface. Here, why don’t you just take a gander at this Instruction Manual.

Dolphin: Oh, thanks. I’m glad we had this chat.

So with what method of communication are trainers left? Training. Training is the easiest, most effective way to communicate with animals that do not understand fluent human language (this includes ex-boyfriends).

If a dolphin is completely horrified by Crazy Toy because they have not seem certain components of it, the first step trainers need to take is to reward the dolphin for being calm when in the presence of the Crazy Toy. Usually, the reward comes in the form of fish, but we can use other things that motivate the individual animal. Some animals go ga-ga for ice cubes, rubs, and favorite toys. It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as you are rewarding them with something that motivates them to stay calm.

Once they realize, “Oh wait a second, that oversized hula hoop ISN’T the stuff of nightmares and all things unholy!!!!” the dolphin can then be taught how to play with the toy.

Sometimes, once you’ve taught the animal that Crazy Toy is not dangerous and therefore isn’t scary, the dolphin will get brave and will start playing with it on his/her own. But sometimes the dolphin is content to ignore the object. At this point, this is when the dolphin trainer becomes the Instruction Manual.

How do you do this? Well, that requires a lot of boring, technical babble. There are an infinite number of toys we can create or find for the dolphins, and therefore there are a lot of different ways to play with the toy.

Generally speaking, most dolphins like to push their toys, carry them in their mouth, toss them around with their mouth or flukes, or rub on them. Whenever the dolphin starts to investigate Crazy Toy by pushing on it, rubbing it, our mouthing it, you reward them. Because their training is reward based, and reward means “correct”, they start to put together their actions and when they are rewarded.

Then, the dolphin begins to experiment with what he/she can do with Crazy Toy. They become familiar with its basic use, and eventually become a Savvy User.

Training a dolphin to play with toys is great for a lot of reasons. It allows the animal to expand his/her horizon in terms of enrichment and in terms of what they are motivated by in training. That makes you as a trainer less boring. It’s better to have a lot of different types of rewards instead of just one or a few. And for you skeptics, food is not everything for every animal. Even animals who want nothing but to be stuffed with food until they explode will get bored with a trainer who turns into a vending machine.

Training a dolphin to play with Crazy Toy -especially a dolphin who is terrified of it- builds a lot of trust between you and the animal. Because you are taking a neutral or negative experience and turning into something fun, the animal trusts you more. You also benefit the dolphin, because the more Crazy Toys they’re exposed to, the less and less nervous they are of new things. In essence, they become more Worldly.

So much of animal training is defined in cold, “scientific” terminology and it sometimes makes us forget that humans are animals too. Those of us who have brains share the same neurons and neurotransmitters. We will learn in the same way.

The only difference in learning to play with Cool or Crazy Toy in humans and dolphins is that dolphins get the fun version of Instruction Manual. The humans are still suffering through their own, mundane version. But hey, maybe the dolphins will suffer with us when they start showing an interest in the latest version of the ipad. God help us.

* Ha ha, this is a joke. There is no such thing as a well-written Instruction Manual.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Middle Flipper is... (Part 2)

...a 58 year old dolphin.

For the advanced sushi enthusiast.

I am lucky enough to know one of the oldest bottlenose dolphins in human care.  Her name is Nellie, and she turned 58 years old yesterday*. She is the second oldest dolphin of her species in recorded history.  She is as reliable as the Timex watches she used to endorse in her TV ads:

Nellie's Timex Ad

What's it like working with an animal that has reached an age that is far past normal life expectancy?  Yes, it's awesome.  Mostly, it's humbling.  Here is an accurate account of an actual and recent interaction I had with the Amazing Ms. Nellie:

Me: Good morning Ms. Nellie! Please show me your tail to allow me to see if you've gotten any bumps or bruises on it. 

Nellie: Eeeeek. Click. Click. (No.  How about I spin instead?)

Me: Okay, Ms. Nellie.  I promise it will only take me a moment to look at your tail.  Please, show me your tail.

Nellie: Eeeeek. Click. Click. (I don't care if it takes a moment, or six hours.  I'm not giving you my tail.  Why should I, anyway?)

Me: Well, it's something we trainers do to ensure you get the best health care possible.  

Nellie: Click. Clickclick. Sqeak.  (That's a load of malarkey.  In my day, we didn't have health care.  In my day, I was in a Timex commercial.  I voted for President Nixon, although I now admit that was a mistake.  I remember the first monkey of your kind landing on the moon.  Seems like a waste of tax dollars to me, but what do I know? I don't even pay taxes.  I guess that means I'm smarter than you.  And for all of these reasons, you will not be seeing my tail.  Would you like to hear me sing?)  Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

Me: Nellie.  I am using positive reinforcement.  I have fish. I have a basketball.  I have all of these things that you are supposed to want.  Those things should motivate you to show me your tail when I ask you for it.  I am a senior trainer.  I know how to train dolphins.  So please, give me your tail.

Nellie: Okay, enough of the cute dolphin B.S.  Look, whippersnapper.  I am 58 years old.  In your terms, that makes me 116 years old.  You are an infantile, blond, female, dolphin "trainer", the likes of which I've seen literally thousands of times.  I don't do anything for fish or basketballs.  You are nothing but a servant to the rest of us dolphins.  You feed us when we want, you clean our rooms without pay, you provide us with free health care, you give us every toy we demand.  I've trained YOU to give them to ME.  And you can keep your stupid fish and toys.  I'd rather have a shot of brandy and play canasta.  Let me know when you can provide me with a nice, young pool boy to look at. 

You can't argue with a gigantic, intelligent, and ancient animal.  Let's delve further into this topic of Nellie's dissension:

When I think of myself as a trainer, I think of myself as this:

The Dolphin Trainer! Compassionate, predictable, fair, and fun! 
Nellie probably sees me like this:

A hopeless weirdo.

From Nellie's perspective, I can certainly understand why she gives me the Middle Flipper on occasion.  She does what she wants, when she wants.  She gives you the Middle Flipper in a way that is usually diplomatic (i.e. I do not actually understand what Nellie is saying as she refuses to do what I'm ask her to do).  She does not swim off in a huff, or slap her tail on the water (a sign of dolphin irritation in some cases), nor does she get aggressive.  

Nellie has mastered the art of civil disobedience.  And why not?  She has certainly seen the dolphin training field change in many ways.  When she was born, dolphin training was in its infancy.  Where today trainers will guide the dolphins through small steps towards an end goal, Nellie's childhood training experience likely consisted of a trainer waiting until Nellie did something awesome, then fed her for it.  Neither of these two schools of thought are incorrect, but they are certainly different.  Nellie has mastered many methods of training.  

Every so often she will do something that none of her current trainers were aware that she knew.  Swatting a mosquito on your forehead could elicit a response from Nellie that results in a triple backflip.  What else does she have stored in that big, seasoned dolphin brain of hers?  Maybe I should listen a little more than I try to teach.

So hats off to you, Ms. Nellie.  I am honored to be your student.

* The average life expectancy of a bottlenose dolphin is around 30 years old, although they can live into their 40s and more rarely, their 50s.  Once they get to their 40s, they enjoy such activities as: pickle ball, supper clubs, and watching reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Loveliest Pet I Ever Had

So one day my mom responded to my incessant, childhood demands for Pets by saying, "If you can catch it, you can keep it."

This clearly gender-biased statement banked on the "fact" that my feminine tendencies as a young kid would make it unlikely for me to physically be able to chase down and capture the type of pet a young girl would like (i.e. the fluffier they are, the faster they run).  It also insinuated that the animals I could catch would consist of the less charismatic, slower megafauna (or minifauna?) with such unattractive traits as: multiple legs, segmented thoraxes, tympanic membranes, and slime.

Now, let me make crystal clear the fact that I was never an athletic child.  Alas, despite my comfort in aquatic environments, I was unable to accomplish any of our Walden Elementary School Gym Fitness Goals.  I did not Run the Mile.  I resented it.  I could not do One Chin Up.  I could Climb the Rope as well as your average cashew.  Occasionally, the marriage of Momentum and Terrible Decisions resulted in a forward handspring.  I was Lumpy Nerd Kid.

As you can imagine, my mother believed that this killer combination of Lumpy Kid + Delicate Gender could not a Steve Irwin make.  What a gigantic underestimation of my Desire for Pets!

Despite the massive obstacles I had to overcome to acquire what would eventually become a legendary menagerie, I was not fazed by the idea that I had to collect my own Pets.  I was (and am) so in love most taxa that I was in no way opposed to the slimey or the segmented.  I plunged headfirst into any place that promised Pets! Swamps! Prairies! Algae Blooms! Window Wells! Mud!  Many of these places were too scary for boys, but that is another story entirely.

No, this story is about the loveliest pet I ever had.  I was nine when I found her.

One Sunday morning in early spring, I walked out to the garage of my family's Chicago suburban home to decide what sorts of collection devices I needed for the day's potential harvest of insects.  As I began my search, I noticed a large, fluffy mass of yellow and black struggling on the concrete floor.  This cold-stunned bumblebee had apparently timed poorly its debut from underground and found itself in quite a pickle. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I do not generally enjoy the company of any animal with a stinger.  But in the moment I saw little Bumble squirming in the cold, I felt very sorry for her.  "Plus," I reasoned with myself, "this bee is fluffy."

Look at the fur!!!!!!!!!!!!

I grabbed a butterfly net and tenderly scooped her up and placed her in a small bug cage.  I thought it best to let her wait inside the warmer house while I summoned my younger sister Sara to help me create the appropriate habitat.   The bathroom seemed like a reasonable location for Bumblebee Triage.  As the little bee warmed up (undoubtedly weighing the pros and cons of being a cold-blood critter), Sara and I grabbed as much vegetation and flower buds as possible.  I knew enough about the dietary habits of bees to know that they enjoyed nectar and probably needed it to survive.  So we packed in as many flowers as we could find, to the dismay of our neighbors and our own mother, who spent a lot of time planting their annuals in their lawns. 

We carefully placed all of this plant matter into the little bug cage as the bee was still unable to move quickly and therefore could not escape. 

Over a period of an hour, we named the bee Bumble.  Bumble warmed up enough to check out some of the flowers in her new little condo.  Eventually, as she regained most of her mobility, she started eating nectar from the flowers.  She had to do some serious maneuvering to get to the nectar, as the flowers were lying haphazardly about the floor of her new habitat.  Nonetheless, she ate.

My parents were nervous about having Bumble around.  They said, "If she escapes, she will sting you." 
"No she won't," I reasoned.  "We saved her life."
"She can't stay inside the house."
I don't recall what my retort to this statement was.  I can only imagine that my third grade mind formed an Argument No Man Could Rebut, and this resulted in Bumble taking up temporarily residence in our basement for the night.

Bumble survived the night.  Before school, Sara and I collected more flowers and stuffed them into her house in hopes that it would be enough to last her the length of the school day.  But there was a small, nagging feeling in the back of my mind.  I didn't know how often Bumble needed to eat, and I didn't trust any of the adults that would be home while Sara and I were at school to keep Bumble safe and/or alive.  

I made the executive decision to bring Bumble to school with me.  

Mrs. Harris was a third grade teacher that had a passion for science, especially biology.  She was excited to see me carry my bug cage in the door.  She had a difficult time ascertaining what critter was inside, mostly because Sara and I crammed flowers from six blocks into the tiny habitat.  The only way to know that Bumble was still alive was to watch the mass of petals and leaves move about from an unknown lifeform.

"What did you bring to show the class today, Cat?" Mrs. Harris asked.
"Uh," I paused, nervous about what the consequences of revealing the truth would be.  Mrs. Harris might tell me I have to Let It Go, or Leave It Outside.  Teachers Pulling Rank meant absolutely no disobedience, no arguments, just complete compliance.  The fate of Bumble's life laid delicately in my carefully chosen words.  

"It's a surprise."

This was satisfying enough to Mrs. Harris.  As my fellow pupils and I sat down for our first academic task at hand, I placed Bumble's abode on the ground next to my feet.  Occasionally, she'd buzz her wings, but she was enveloped so thoroughly in flowers that she could not (or did not need to) move her wings as she crawled through her jungle of nectar.

Before I knew it, it was time to introduce the class to the bumblebee.  I brought little Bumble up to the front of the class and placed her on a table.

"This is my new pet, Bumble." 
The class craned their necks to see through the mess of vegetation cloaking the Mystery Pet. 

"Well, what is Bumble?" Mrs. Harris asked, slightly perturbed.

I balked.  The only way to gain acceptance on behalf of Bumble's already tumultuous life was to appeal to the Humanity in my teacher and students.

With the skill of an auctioneer, I rattled off the story of how IfoundthefragilebumblebeeonmygaragefloorandImanagedtokeepmyparentsfromsquishingherand mysisterandIhavebeenfeedingherandsheneverever ever ever ever would sting.

Mrs. Harris' face turned ashen.  "There's a bee in there?"
"Well yeah, a bumblebee.  But she has fur. So she isn't dangerous."
"Is that cage secure?" Mrs. Harris started to walk to the front of the room.  Oh god, oh god.

I grabbed the cage.  "Yes, it's very secure.  Her name is Bumble and at recess I'm going to collect flowers to put in her cage so she can eat."

Mrs. Harris eyed the bug carrier.  She touched the door and found it was firmly in place.  She gently touched the fine wire mesh that kept Bumble sealed in her apartment.  
"Cat, we can't have a bee in the classroom-" Mrs. Harris began.  I felt a lump grow in my throat.  The students were still silent.

But before Mrs. Harris could deliver her next sentence, Bumble pulled herself from her flowerly bed.  She moved purposefully to a flower near the top of her enclosure and began to collect its nectar.

"" Mrs. Harris said.  She took the cage from my hands and peered inside. She gently placed the habitat back onto the table.  "I'd like everyone to form a line, single-file.  Everyone can have a chance to quietly look at the bumblebee."

A flood of relief rushed over me.  I watched joyfully as all of my classmates looked at Bumble getting her fill of nature's Kool Aid.

Mrs. Harris said that we could all collect flowers for Bumble at recess, as long as all activities involving opening the cage door were outside, that I was the only person opening the cage, and that it was all supervised by Mrs. Harris.

We fed Bumble in a manner that resembled feeding the velociraptors in Jurassic Park  .  Once we had collected what we deemed an appropriate amount of flowers, I told everyone to place their collection near the cage and stand far away from the opening of the habitat.  Bumble was contentedly moving about the back of her cage.  I took the moment to deliver a final warning to anyone wanting to get a closer look at the flower delivery.


I opened the door with one hand and shoved the handful of flowers collected into the opening, then quickly swung close the door and secured it.   "SAFE."

We all crowded around the now hopelessly buried bee in her packed habitat.  The gentle jostling beneath the floral blanket was the only evidence we had that Bumble remained secure in her place.

One of my favorite extinct animals.

At the end of the day, we had collected flowers two more times, filling the habitat almost two-thirds full of food.  Mrs. Harris also informed me that Bumble could not return to school for any other show-and-tell days, but to keep the class updated on her progress.

She spent the night in my sister and my room.  And the next day.
I updated the class the next day that Bumble had survived another night, but it was really hard to see her now because her house was filled to the brim with flowers. Mrs. Harris warned me that I would need to eventually remove all of the flowers, or Bumble would go hungry looking for fresh flowers if she wasn't accidentally smushed by her hourly food delivery.  By the end of the day, I was convinced Bumble needed a bigger place to live.

When I got home from school, Sara and I got right to work.  We placed soil at the bottom of a terrarium, and laid down grass strands, leaves, and branches (complete with budding blossoms) from our apple trees in our backyard.  The branches were easy enough to replace, so we opted against planting flowers (and further decimating my mom's landscaping endeavors).  Sara and I made a beautiful home for Bumble and were excited for the transfer.  All we had to do was leave a small opening in the lid of the terrarium and gently shake Bumble in from the top.

We grabbed Bumble's now shabby-looking home and realized we had to remove a lot of the vegetation inside before we could hope to safely get her into her new home.  I opened the door and began to methodically and gingerly remove the plants, careful to not let Bumble out or cause any injury to her.  

Sara and I couldn't see her even as we removed about a third of crushed flowers from that little bug carrier, but that hadn't bothered us.  I decided it was better to just dump the contents of the carrier, Bumble and all, into the terrarium to ensure Bumble didn't escape. 

As we watched the cascade of Stuff fall into the terrarium, we eagerly watched for Bumble's heavenly descent into her new digs.

Bumble was no where to be found.

Sara and I frantically investigated the bug carrier; totally empty.  We looked through the terrarium and watched for telltale movement beneath the vegetation.  Nothing.

I feared Bumble was dead.  Sara and I somberly discussed the possibility that she had been crushed under the weight of her own food.  We decided to carefully sift through the contents of the terrarium to find the little body.

We picked up every individual leaf, petal, intact flower, branch, rock.  We sifted through the soil, but Bumble had vanished.

Sara and I sat defeated, heartbroken, and silent next to the two now-empty bug habitats.  

"Maybe she escaped," Sara offered, breaking the solemnity.

Yes, she had.  There was no other explanation.  I had been careless in the way I removed her flowers, or we were so distracted by the tumbling vegetation spilling into the terrarium, that Bumble crawled easily on the wire mesh on the side of her cage to the wooden wall that attached to her door.  Her grasping feet could have easily found purchase on the unfinished wood and allowed her to crawl to the outside of the habitat (the side facing away from my sister and I), and simply flown off.

I had to tell my class the next day that Bumble had escaped.   "She didn't sting you?!" they cried out.  "Bees sting when they are mad!" they reasoned.  An angry little bee buzzing in a tiny compartment being violently dislodged to be moved into more days in captivity would certainly be reason enough to Sting With Ire the captor!   Alas, I had dodged a Bullet of the Third Grade Kind.

Mrs. Harris said, "Well, maybe she was grateful.  She would've frozen and died in your garage.  Now she can pollinate and do what she was meant to."

I have no romantic notions of Bumble's life thereafter; who knows what fate befell her in the following hours of her escape.  Who knows why she didn't sting me, but bumblebees (and most bees, wasps, and hornets) are not aggressive animals and will sting for two reasons: defending their queen (Bumble had none) or preserving their life.  She had no reason to turn around and sacrifice her life just to teach me a mildly painful lesson.

Bumble has obviously passed from this world at this point in time, but I often think about that little bee.  In roughly 72 hours, she changed the way I look at bees*.  She inspired me over a decade later to get involved with beekeeping.  Now, almost twenty years later, I am still inspired by our lives briefly intersecting and giving me a respect for bees that has remained with me since the day I found her in the garage.

It's twenty years late, but thanks, little frozen Bumblebee. 

*Bees do not include yellow jackets, which are actually Imps from Hades sent to earth to terrorize the innocent