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

Monday, February 21, 2011

From Space Odyssey to Office Space

Behold, the water tight gate!

Today I realized that my job is essentially just like some of the best movies on the planet.

Deep cleaning habitats is an undertaking all zoological personnel (be it professional or amateur) must endure.  It is a crucial task to keep the animals who live in said habitats comfortable and healthy.  As we all know, some habitat cleaning is not as messy as others.  Cleaning a cat litter box is featherweight cleaning; scooping elephant poop like my dear friends Maura and Matt is on the "OMGGGGG" end of the spectrum.  

Nonetheless, whether we have adopted pets or work as animal care professionals, we find ourselves performing tasks that are mildly hazardous, disgusting, tedious, and/or physical demanding so that we can maintain a healthy and happy animal family.

In the dolphin training world, we don't have to worry about cleaning dolphin poo up in the way essentially every other zookeeper or pet owner has to.  One of the most charming aspects of dolphins aside from their intelligence and cute looks is the fact that their, ahem, "output" dissipates into a cloud and is usually filtered out quickly from the water.  

The biggest villain in the dolphin training world is Algae of all types.  All forms of algae are the cockroaches of the Protist* world in that algae never dies.  I am convinced that a perfectly clean pool filled with nothing but mercury could host seven different species of algae when exposed to sunlight for approximately 9 seconds.

Luckily, a little algae in a habitat is no problem. Algae is merely "seaweed" and so is not as a) disgusting and unhygienic  and b) gross-looking  as a cockroach.  However, if left untouched in a manmade habitat (not a natural lagoon with its own natural tidal filtration), it will grow into a wild meadow of seaweed that can trap the more solid pieces of dolphin poop that would normally be taken up into filters.   Trainers have to stay ahead of the algae before it grows its long tendrils.

See how the algae laughs at us!

In some cases, it is necessary to drain habitats to blast the little algae jerks right off of their feet with a pressure washer. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of helping deep clean all of our dolphin habitats. In the case of the facility by which I am currently employed, we must drop 300lb metal bulkheads (herein referred to as "water tight gates") into gate channels that separate the dolphin habitats from one another.  Once all water tights are in place, our dedicated Life Support Staff (super heroes, really) can safely drain the water out of the pool and we can begin a dirty but fun job of erasing budding algae off of the walls in quick fashion.

I should also note that no, of course the dolphins aren't in the empty habitats.  They are safely in water-filled habitats, making sure we don't break anything as we clean one of their rooms.  And they never tip.

After our pressure washing adventures have ended and we fill the pool back up, there is the great task of  removing the water tight gates.  They are 300 pounds and in the water.  Sometimes, we need to wedge them in the gate channels with crowbars.  It requires at least ten wait, let me correct that: four very strong (and/or stubborn) men, and six girls to lift and install or remove the gates. 

In the case of the water tight gates near our med pool (the magical pool with a floor that can be raised to the surface of the pool), we can lift the floor up high enough to aid us in pulling up water tight gates straight up, resting for a second, then tilting the gate until it looks like a tabletop that the ten of us can carry to its appropriate storage place.

So today as I was looking at us lifting the first water tight gate straight up out of the gate channel, I was suddenly struck by the image of the Great Monolith in the opening scene of the incredible Stanley Kubrick gem 2001: A Space Odyssey

Mysterious Monolith or Water Tight?
As the trainers, burly maintenance guys, and life support crew look onto the Great Water Tight Gate as it towers towards the sky, we ponder the potential of it blowing over in the wind, squishing all of us beneath its massive weight.  There are no dolphins around for it to smush, but plenty of us bipedal apes are at its mercy.

Once we have seen our Death By Water Tight run through our terrified minds, we all begin to reach our arms and hands skyward to receive the gate as it is tilted towards us in the tabletop fashion described above.   Kind of like this:

Here, the trainers receive the water tight gate as it is lowered into the "tabletop" position.  Ooo ooo ah ahhhhh!
As it is lowered into position, we are reminded of the magic of weight distribution.  It whisks us momentarily to junior high slumber party games of "light as a feather, stiff as a board".  For mere minutes, the water tight becomes an ethereal object of little to no weight.  The relief that none of us resembles Flat Stanley after the removal of said gate floods over us as we move the gate to its final resting place.  Or rather, until we need it again in four months for more deep cleaning.

So is that it?  Of course not.  Recall what happened to the apes at the Monolith. It made them violent and irrational creatures.

As the trainers perilously remove the remaining water tight gates, they become increasingly uptight.  They are understandably frightened of the Potential Smash that all water tight gate removal/installment risk.  

All of this nervous energy has to go somewhere.  Luckily, this energy is directed to the next Space Odyssey parallel at my job.


Here is a picture of our Computer:

 Wait, did you see it?  Did you look closely enough?  Why don't you look more closely this time?

Our computer, HAL 9000.  HAL has a mind of his own.  He is intelligent, he is cunning.  He doesn't work for anyone but himself. 

Trainers use this computer to send daily updates of the dolphins' activities that day.  They use it to read important emails from bosses.  They use it to make sure they know how many people will participate in interactive programs. 

We can be guaranteed at least 38 Blue Screens of Death, 52 random computer restarts, and one rather lovely rendition of "Daisy Bell" before we are allowed to check our email.

So at the end of today, as we finished our Water Tight Removal Task, we found ourselves yet again in the role of the Enraged Ape in Space Odyssey.  While we left the computer in tact, we certainly had this running through our mind as we read once more about the Physical Memory Dump, and Failed Logins:

This will be me beating you, HAL.  One day....

HAL 9000 will one day meet his demise.  And on that day, our dolphin training lives will cross from Space Odyssey to the next best Space in the film industry:

I'll keep you posted.
Kingdom Protista: "Protists":  Tiny little organisms that can be one-celled or many-celled.  They have to have some kind of water-based environment to live in be it marine or freshwater.  They can grow in any place where there is water, such as locker room floors. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Portrait of the North American River Otter

The North American river otter (NAROs) can best be described as the Poster Child for ADHD. Not only do these adorable mustelids* have an admirably terrifying ability to move at speeds that register on speedometers as "blurry", but they have bite pressure that leaves pit bulls feeling embarrassed.

So why are they one of my favorite animals?  Well, look above! They are extremely cute, especially when they sleep...and sleep...and sleep...

After a busy 15 seconds of swimming 60 laps in a pool, digging 19 holes in the sand, rearranging logs, standing on hind limbs to catalog every scent detectable within a 10 mile radius, NAROs find themselves awfully sleepy.  Similar to my own sleeping behavior, NAROs essentially pass away when they fall asleep.

I enjoyed walking into the exhibit of the slumbering two older NAROs at one of the aquariums I worked at.  Cooper (pictured above) was a slightly lighter sleeper than his older and larger roommate, Webster.  Cooper is also partially paralyzed thanks to an unwary driver twelve years ago, so as he begins to greet my presence with a toothy yawn, he wiggles his shoulders and begins to slide his chubby self towards me and his food.  

If I was lucky enough to rouse Webster from sleep, it was the only time I can recall that he did not exhibit the classic hyperactive insanity that is prevalent in otters of any species.  Like a sleepy teenager, he lifts his head before his little eyes open.  I suppose he is sniffing around to ascertain if whatever has rudely ignored his seventh nap of the day is worth acknowledging.

Webster's sleepy eyes slowly open, revealing not the deep, bright eyes of your alert otter, but cloudy, How-Did-I-Get-Here eyes commonly seen in 20 year old males illegally frequenting college bars.

Should he decide to participate in whatever I had planned for the session, he would slowly walk to me and eat his first few fish begrudgingly.  But if I'm being honest, Webster often gave me the cold shoulder.  Even if his favorite fish was offered within millionths of a millimeter of his sensitive nose, he would dramatically throw his head in the opposite direction, purposely saunter to the water's edge, and wash his face.   Toilette routine complete, he'd slide into the water and swim to the furthest point away from me and face away from me until I left.

After their recharge naps, NAROs become loose cannons.  They are very intelligent, very fast, and easily startled.  It is the disadvantage to working with an animal that is both predator and prey.  Their predatory cunning and problem-solving make them wonderful training subjects and delightful to watch on their own time.   Their paranoia that at any time, Scary Noises May Eat Them make them relatively perilous to handle.

The latter is often lost on the Average Joe.  Average Joe is disarmed at first look at the NARO's large, cartoonish nose, their beady yet expressive eyes, and their fat rolls.  Instead of killing machines that can shred muscle tissue in seconds, NAROs are Pillow Pets.

It is easy to warn guests to enjoy observing NAROs from a safe distance.  Guests are not usually keen on smooching a wild animal (albeit a cute one) whose bite pressure is pound-for-pound the same as a wolverine's.  They are content to acknowledge NAROs as wild animals and go on their way.   The same cannot be said about Movie Crews.

I was put in charge of working with two female NAROs (Bella and Bogey) who were slated to become movie stars.  The night before the second unit camera crew was supposed to get footage of our resident NAROs for the Movie That Shall Not Be Named Due to Copyright Infringement I Barely Understand But Still Signed the Contract, I was informed that the gargantuan camera and its equally massive crane would be dipping into (and REMAINING in) the otter exhibit at otter-eye-level to obtain shots.

This is essentially what the 3D camera and crane looked like, except the camera had a massive, rectangular housing around it and about one zillion more cables and wires.

Flabbergasted, I responded with a professional "UH, NO" and confidently informed the second unit crew that Bella and Bogey would have absolutely no problems rushing over to the camera, up the crane, chew through all of the wires three times, and unscrew 58% of the machine's hardware in 0.75 seconds.

"But," the second unit director rebutted.  "We can pull the camera and crane back in five seconds."

"In five seconds," I replied.  "Your multi-million dollar camera will be completely destroyed and the otters will be halfway to the Bahamas."

No one believed me.  They were understandably frustrated, because they had planned on getting a certain kind of shot.

"Can't you train them to stay away from the camera?"  No.  The camera is shiny.
"Can't you just lure them with food away from the camera?"  No.  The camera is shinier than the food.

I desperately tried to make them understand: Otters are drawn to new objects in ways that can be predicted in physics.  Newton's Fourth Law of Motion states: 

"Every shiny object in the presence of an otter tends to remain the sole object of said otter's attention unless presented another shiny object, or the otter is abducted by aliens."

Still nothing.  Several well-known animal trainers-turned-movie-people attempted to help me articulate my point.  There was no feasible way to build an impenetrable shield (think a giant squirrel-dome on a bird feeder) over the crane and camera housing, and there was no way to get the camera down far enough to get the shot they thought they needed.  The older otters who would not be able to jump onto the camera couldn't be involved, because they were in the wrong habitat and it wasn't possible to move them.

We were at a standstill.  I peered down at Bella and Bogey who already were perched on their large back feet and chubby tails.  They chirped curiously at the group of people huddled around the equipment near their habitat.  It was easy to understand their otter conversation:

Bella: Chirp.  Chirp.  Chirp.  (If they dip that Shiny Thing in here, I'm going to run headlong at it and jump three feet into the air, grab onto the housing with my paws, pull myself up, and look at my reflection in the camera lenses for a second and try to bite them, then I'm going to crawl around the top of the camera housing, biting through whatever cords get in my way.  At that point, you will be clear to jump on the camera housing too. I'd suggest that I take the top part of the crane and I'll aim for the guy with the mustache.  You can crawl up the underside of the crane and aim for the guy in the khaki shorts.  You can chew on any of the cables that are in your way.  I'll stick with the ones that are in my way.)

Bogey: Chirp. (Sounds great. Where should we meet for naptime?)

We were all quiet.  I ran through every scenario I could think of to come up with a solution that would be safe for everyone involved but still allow the camera crew to get the shots they needed.  

Me and the other animal/movie guys were stumped.  I finally said, "You absolutely cannot put the camera down into the exhibit that far.  That is the fact.  I can't risk an otter escaping or anyone, person or otter, getting hurt.  Nor can I risk your camera equipment getting damaged.  These animals look like they sleep all day, but they are really, really smart, and they are really, really fast."

I paused.  "They are like wolverines on Red Bull."

Apparently, this highly educated phrasing was enough to sway popular opinion to my side.  

"Really?" the camera operator said. 

My minority of supporters chimed in in support, suddenly recalling countless stories of NAROs causing permanent damage to handlers' film and set equipment within a period of seconds.  Slowly, we gained ground.  

The next day, we figured out how high to hold the camera to get decent shots and be out of the jumping distance of Bella and Bogey.  The otters did very well with their required tasks, but spent a lot of time checking out the camera and testing how high it was.  We were all very pleased at the end.

How did the footage turn out?  Check out the scene in Dolphin Tale!  

The author with Bella

*Mustelidae includes: weasels, sea otters, river otters, and Lindsay Lohan