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.