Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Note to Northerners

I have a bone to pick with my non-zoological friends who still live up North.   When winter rolls around here in the Southeast, my Northern friends are first to say, “CAT! You’re complaining it’s 46 degrees?  Well, it’s SUBZERO here!” 


So, for the purposes of Education, this blog shall address the topic of Marine Mammal Trainers complaining about the Cold to their Northern friends who work inside.  Feel free to read the entire blog, or skip to the end for a fun exercise to level the playing field.

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that if the air temperature is lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and you are wet for most of the day, you are Colder Than Anyone Up North.   Northerners, I understand that to get to your car or bus stop, you have to brave the frigid, sub-zero temperatures across a distance that could amount to tens of feet.  Maybe, if you live in a city and use a subway system, you have to walk a few blocks.  

Maybe the chill of the air nips at your nose, or whatever part of your face is exposed from underneath your really warm-looking hat or hood.  Maybe your dry pants get a small amount of snow on them.  But, truth be told, it’s a little hard for me to see just how cold you are while you’re wrapped up in that large Northface jacket.  Luckily, this chilly torment will be over as soon as you walk in to your office.  There, once you’ve thawed out from your extreme exposure to the elements for an ungodly amount of time, you can further complain about the weather that you’ll actually BE in for roughly 9 minutes cumulatively.

And then, there are the animal caretakers who are inside for 9 total minutes.

Northern winter.  The kind of winter you enjoy from an 80 degree, heated room.

Marine mammal trainers get up every morning feeling a Sense of Purpose and Joy in their job.  They get ready to face the day and Build Relationships with Animals, Inspire Guests, and Do Right By the World.    And then they walk outside.  Let me share a recent experience I had with working in the elements:

The other day, I walked outside into 30 degrees.  Thirty degrees are way too few degrees, in my opinion.  Especially in Florida.  Not only did I suddenly realize what sort of day (cold, wet) I’d have at my current place of employment, but I noticed my car was solidly encased in ice.  

Luckily, I had retained my ice scraper from my years living in the North.  I triumphantly shaved the frozen sheath of water off of my windshield.  Then, I got in my car, turned the thermostat to 99,999,999 degrees, and waited for the engine to heat my short ride to work.  I made sure to stop at a grocery store and buy a hot lunch.  I thought in advance about whether I’d like to wear my wind pants or my 3mm wetsuit with my steel toed boots.   To assume either are effective in weather below 50 degrees is a lie we trainers tell ourselves routinely.  

I have three wetsuits on in this photo.  No, I'm not making this up.

When I dressed for work, I chose a wetsuit/boots ensemble. I even tossed on a fleece jacket, for a carefree look. I accented this classic fashion with an industry favorite: Latex Gloves Over Normal Cheap Gloves We Get By The Dozen at Target.                

A trainer's best friend

That day, I fed a number of different types of animals.  Here are some of the things that these animals have in common:
  1. They spend most of their lives in the water
  2. Their restaurant-quality food needs to be kept at a cold temperature
  3. Their restaurant-quality food is covered in ice (aka frozen water)
  4. These animals need to eat routinely
  5. These animals live outside

Every time I fed one of the aforementioned animals, my hand had to go into an icy bucket or cooler.  It had to touch fish until the target animal decided to ingest it.  I repeated these steps one zillion (give or take) times throughout the day for each training session.  Even with the Glove-on-Glove ensemble, it does not fully protect your hands and fingers from the biting cold.  And let’s face it, it’s simply not practical or professional to wear gloves in that manner, unless you’re going for the Stay-Puft marshmallow man look.

It's a nice look.  But not for the Marine Mammal Training Industry.

So at around 10am, the gloves came off for show and interaction program purposes.  And as time marched on, and I (and my fellow coworkers) got wetter and colder, and the temperature remained below 50.   And by about 3pm, we had all been wearing our soaking wetsuits for seven hours.  Our bright red fingers were so numb, banana slugs could’ve written more legible behavioral records than what we produced that day.

Nonetheless, we charged through the day.  We told jokes through chattering teeth, we laughed despite our involuntary shivering.  We said some Choice Words to the Weather.  We enjoyed our job because we got to look at these faces all day:

And then, around 5pm, when all of the cleaning is finished, and the last little tasks are completed for the day, we can only think of one thing.  The only thing on this Planet (and possibly others) that can truly combat the Weather’s powerful Cold Fronts Used Cruelly Against Marine Mammal Trainers:

A hot shower.

A really, really hot shower.

A recent study indicated that Marine Mammal Trainers take showers at temperatures used in such activities as: boiling lobster.  And the only thing I can do once I’m in this hot shower is slip into a Shower Coma.  Symptoms of this include: standing in the water stream frozen in one position, an inability to form words to think or say in this moment other than “I’m going to spend the rest of my life in this shower at this temperature”, and drooling.  And then, when your frozen toes and fingers stop feeling like trolls are stabbing them with bits of glass, you know your body temperature has approached 98.6 degrees. Then you can enjoy being inside for the night until you do it all over again the next day.

Now, for those of you who are not in this field and/or the skeptics, I’ve thoughtfully prepared an exercise for you to do at home when it is between 30 and 50 degrees.  This simulates what I’ve just described in this entry.

  1. Put on a tight-fitting sweatsuit
  2. Fill up a bathtub with water (can be any temperature)
  3. Lie in bathtub with your sweatsuit on
  4. Get out of bathtub
    1. *BONUS: Place feet (with or without socks) in rubber boots
  5. Walk outside.
  6. Count to 28,800 and do at least 4 of the following activities:
    1. Place your hands in ice cubes off and on for fifteen minutes
    2. Talk to strangers without showing how cold you are
    3. Try to write something legibly.
    4. Look at cute pictures of animals (This is easier if you have a pet you can play with outside)
    5. Just when your clothes are beginning to dry, jump back into the bathtub, and run back outside
  7. Go inside and take a hot shower.

Of course, we all have to remember that despite being uncomfortable (or at times, miserable) outside in the elements, marine mammal trainers adore the animals with whom they have the privilege of knowing.  The times I notice the pain in my hands, or the chill in my core, or my hair freezing at the ends is only when I’m walking from one animal habitat to the other.  I don’t notice being cold or uncomfortable when I’m playing with or training one of the amazing animals I get to hang out with on a daily basis.   They are really worth it.

** Standby for entry in 6 months on Unbearable Heat and Marine Mammal Training **  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Quasi-Sad Saga of the Rhinelander Ducklings

For the past 25 summers, my family and I have spent a week in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  North Wisconsin has a lot of plusses, including but not limited to:  Awesome Wildlife, Great Fishing, Beautiful Country, Fascinating Accents, and Cheese Curds*.  Because I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and half of my extended family lives in Wisconsin, I knew about the plusses of this great state since I was a small child.  Thus, our annual trip to Rhinelander was one I looked forward to more than any of our other vacation to Touristy, Tropical Locations.

If you don't think this is gorgeous, you're probably stupid.

We stay at Holiday Acres, a family-owned resort situated on a beautiful lake.  This resort sports comfortable cabins, a lodge with hotel rooms, a great bar and restaurant that combines the best of the Northwoods and a chic jazz-club vibe.   In our many visits to this serene place, we’ve befriended the owners who make the resort even more incredible than it already is.

To date, every time I go to Holiday Acres I end up having some sort of unusual wildlife encounter.  Every year, no matter my chronological age, I find my inner 10-year old and wind up hanging out in saw grass looking for frogs and snapping turtles.  I become giddy when I see bald eagles, or the Northern loons that live on the lake.  Don’t even get me started on the flying squirrel.  I feed the mallard hatchlings bread, even though I know they are all supposed to be on some kind of Atkins diet.

What my inner 10-year old still looks like.

And so, this story focuses on a special year in which I finally did something right for the mallard population of Lake Thompson.

It was 2006, and I had just started my job as an apprentice trainer at the Miami Seaquarium.  I’d already had my Rhinelander trip planned before I’d taken my position.  Now wait, before all of you Trainer Hopefuls roll your eyes at me (how could I sacrifice an entire week my New Dream Job for a Lame Family Vacation?!), remember that this place is where I stoked my passion for animals.  Up until Rhinelander, my only wildlife encounter was Antface The Wonder Spider in Chicago.

I digress.  So during one afternoon of sitting around on the beach, watching people yell at their kids and flocks of ducks swim by, my family and I noticed a mallard hen with four very, very young ducklings.  So late in the summer, these ducklings had a chance of survival that was slim-to-none.  They could not fledge in time for the mallard migration.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time my family had witnessed a late mallard clutch.  While it made us all sad to think of the ducklings’ fate, we never intervened with “Mother” Nature**.  Well, I suppose we did intervene with the sheer tonnage of bread we stuffed into those cute little beaks.  But at least their last weeks were spent in my favorite State of Mind: Carbo-Load.

Mom with her four ducklings in August 2006.

Towards the end of our week however, my mom (she is much nicer than Mother Nature) and I noticed that the four ducklings’ mother was missing.  This was highly unusual, and we all feared the worse: the mom had abandoned the ducklings or had died.  In fact, after a full 24 hours and no mom, that is likely what had happened.  It was very, very heart-breaking to watch four miniscule ducklings swim aimlessly up and down the beach.  They rarely went into the saw grass, where many-a muskie and northern pike lay in hopes of swallowing a tiny duckling whole. 

I called a local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation clinic.  I explained the situation and was told what I already knew: if the ducklings were left as they were, they would soon all die.  What choice did I have? 

It was our last day in Rhinelander, and I went into Operation Duckling Rescue mode, which involved gathering supplies completely inappropriate for such an event.  For example, if I had to do it all over again, I’d use the following supplies:

A large butterfly net
A plastic terrarium with a locking lid
Swim fins

Here is what I actually had:

A tiny net which had no utilitarian purpose
A garment laundry bag
A Need to Save the Ducks

What I needed: a big, deep butterfly net that could safely and securely hold any squirming animal.
What I had: dumb, shallow, totally useless for anything other than capturing and holding rocks.

Luckily, I’d had years of experience in childhood going from door-to-door asking for money to Save the Whales, Girl Scout Cookies, and Wrapping Paper.  So asking people for pity was no stranger to me, and I began asking other Holiday Acres patrons if they had a cardboard box.  Much to my dismay, I’d overlooked the little-known factoid that no one seems to carry cardboard boxes with them on vacations.

Finally, a lady in a cabin nearby heard about what I’d planned to do and brought over a box.  She wished me luck and told me if I needed anything else, to let her know.  I appreciated her help, and for the life of me (and my hair color), I can’t remember her name.

So I went about trying to catch Terrified Baby Ducks (TBDs).  TBDs act much differently than normal Baby Ducks, in that while they are still incapable of flight, TBDs can easily approach swimming speeds that defy laws of hydro-and aero dynamics.  They turn into little water airplanes when they Sense Danger.  And when you are the size of a lime, there are a lot of Dangers.

I tried to be clever when sneaking up on the flotilla of ducklings, but my clumsy human form stood roughly 68 times higher than the ducklings’ heads, and they saw me coming.  So what was intended to be a swift and graceful rescue resulted a Beastly Blond slapping the water in sloppy strokes, barging under floating docks, and clomping through shallow water, to herd these small, fuzzy bullets towards a  barrier row of small row boats.

As the boats got closer, two of theTBDs got wise to my herding plan and wiggled away at 95mph.  The others were trapped.  Aha! I thought, I’ve got them now!  I pulled out my Pathetic Excuse for a Net and gently plopped it on the now trembling duckling.  But there was no way to pull the opening of the net closed.  If I had man hands the size of dinner plates, I could’ve placed my hand over the opening of the net, but alas.

The four TBDs.

So I had my mom bring out a red laundry garment bag, which had a way to cinch the opening closed, and I gently placed the duckling in there.   He only had to be in there for a short trip from the water to our lakeside cabin.  In no time at all, the little TBD (now a Petrified Baby Duckling) was sitting on a towel inside his cardboard castle.

The second duckling rescue was surprisingly easy, and I once again sequestered the youngster away from his (her?) siblings towards the beached row boats.  He joined his pal in the box, and I felt somewhat accomplished.  

Me with the ducklings and their luxurious box apartment.

And that was when it got Crazy. 

The other two TBDs were so terrified that they swam totally out of sight for the first time in a 24 hour period.  I worried that they’d get gulped by a large mouth bass, and so spent several hours waiting on the beach for the little guys’ return.  By this time, many of the resort guests were curious about the rescue, and most people were excited about the mission.  Someone else donated a box with a lid, which I placed on the beach in anticipation of the final two captures.

In the late afternoon, the TBDs swam back towards the beach and I had a couple of people helping me drive them towards the boats.  I captured the third duck, and placed him in the box and carefully placed the lid on it.  I turned to the lake, now more determined than ever to get the final TBD to his breathren.  

This poor little TBD was, as the kids would say today, Legit Freaking Out.  For all I knew, he probably thought I’d skewered his pals and fed them to raccoons.  His erratic swim pattern and strained squeaks indicated to my zoologically-trained-mind that he was Facing A Conundrum: save himself, or stick around for his siblings (his only source of security)?  He frantically swam into the saw grass and back out into open water, over and over again.

I went after the TBD with everything I had. A group of Grumpy Tourists on the beach started to chastise me for capturing the ducklings, saying I should let nature take its course.

Grumpy Tourist 1: Leave that duck alone! His mother will smell you on him and will reject him!
Grumpy Tourist 2: Let nature take its course!
Me: Thanks for the relevant, scientific, and oh-so-helpful commentary!  Go eat a bratwurst.

Bratwurst.  Go eat it.

I could not let this little dude face his sad fate on Lake Thompson, especially not now that he was utterly alone in the world.  I dove, I swam, I ran, I skulked.  But try as I might, he out-smarted and out-maneuvered me.  I could not catch him. 

I walked up the beach, defeated for the time being.  I knew that as long as the last duckling’s buddies were not with him, the last TBD would return, and then I’d catch him.  I walked over to the box and gently picked it up.  I was surprised to not feel the little duckling panic and run around inside.  When I got into the cabin, I opened the lid.  The box was empty.

Based on what my Napping Father witnessed before he lost consciousness in the afternoon sun, I extrapolated what had happened.  My father clearly remembers a kid approaching the box sitting on the beach containing the third TBD.  My dad recalls the kid peeking inside, then quickly closing the box and running away. 

So I’d bet that at some point during this viewing, the third TBD hopped out and skittered away to join his renegade sibling.  And the human child, overwhelmed with guilt at letting go this tiny organism, ran away to prevent detection.

Heartbroken, I was forced to take the two rescued ducklings to the wildlife rescue without their unlucky counterparts.  The rescue’s closing hours fast approached, and we had to leave very early the next day to catch flights.  I delivered the scared but safe ducklings to the rescue personnel, who were very attentive and kind.  They told me I could call to check on their progress at any point.

I know this story is sad.   So here's a cute picture of a duckling who is probably very happy and old and lives a fulfilling life.

When I got back to the cabin, my sister and I belly-bombed on Pizza Hut, eating our feelings.  At sunset, I saw the two evasive ducklings only one more time, swimming far away from our beach.  I did not see them the next morning.

Two of the TBDs and their very healthy, natural duck diet of white bread.  
The rescued two ducklings fledged and were released the next summer.  As to the fate of the other two, I have the option of imagining them in two scenarios.  The first one is the “Mother” Nature scenario, in which they make a bass very happy for the 0.0005th of a second it takes them to swallow something.  In the second (and I submit to you, the most likely of all) scenario, the two ducklings hitch-hiked their way to Milwaukee and had a moderately successful off-Broadway theater career.  Their production of The Blond Beast and Our Heroic Escape has had mixed, but mostly positive reviews from local duck communities.

To those of you who’d like to criticize my efforts in saving the lives of two ducks, please submit your complaints in writing and describe in 300 words or less what it’s like to live without a soul.

*Not to be confused with Cheese Heads

** For the record, I think Mother Nature is a jerk.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Middle Flipper Is....(Part 4)

Well, here we are again ladies and gentlemen.  After a two-year hiatus from writing this blog, I could say I’m an older and wiser writer.  But really, I’m just two years older (and probably less mature).  Luckily, time serves bloggers of life experience well.  I’ve got two years of additional stories of animals ignoring me.

And so, on this day I give you to the rebirth of The Middle Flipper.  

The Middle Flipper is... (part 4)

...a dolphin who blows off all of my hand signals.

One of the best things a trainer can do for their career is work at a different facility than the one they at which they started.  While we all know every animal is different individually, each family of animals is unique to that facility.  Once you’ve built relationships with animals and spent a significant amount of time with them to know their history, it’s very weird to switch zoos or aquariums and work with the same species of animals, but know nothing about who they are.  Moving through the transition from being perhaps a seasoned trainer, but newbie at the individual animals and the way are accustomed to living their lives, is deeply satisfying and humbling.

I’ve now gone through this transition several times in my career.  Each time provides me what appears as endless fodder for Middle Flipper events.

When I went to work at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium a few years ago, I knew that I would have to clear my mind and get to know the animals.  I interned at CMA in 2005, but I wouldn’t say I worked with any of the animals enough to earn a relationship with them.  Nonetheless, I figured at least I had the edge of knowing their history and working around them.  Luckily for me and my hubris, Nicholas the dolphin was there to take me down a few notches.

Let me tell you a little something about Nicholas.  He stranded with his mother when he was only six months old.  His mother was ill (hence why she stranded), and poor little Nicholas followed mom right up onto the beach.  They were both out of water and exposed to the sun for so long that they ended up with third degree burns on their skin (Nicholas’ burn was on roughly 1/3 of his body).  Unfortunately, his mother passed away a few days after they were rescued, but Nicholas survived.

Nicholas' burn scars.  The dude's a survivor.

After a harrowing but healing ordeal, Nicholas’ burns healed.  He spent much of his young, impressionable life around humans.  He relates to humans, especially ones that have spent a lot of time with him.  I knew this about him even when I was an intern.  In trainer terms, we call this “trainer discrimination.”  Pair this discrimination with an extremely bright animal, and you have a recipe for comedy.

So I came into CMA with five years of experience working with dolphins under my belt.  I asked a lot of questions and watched a lot of sessions with the dolphins, North American river otters*, and sharks.  While all of the dolphins there are amazing, Nicholas‘ energy and attitude are a dolphin trainer’s dream.  He’s fast, he’s smart, he makes up his own behaviors, his aerials are out-of-this-world explosive.  He is the [insert famous, heartthrob athlete name here] of the dolphin world.  I couldn’t wait to build a relationship with him.

Fast-forward to my first session (which just so happened to be a public presentation) with Nicholas.  I eagerly sat on the edge of his habitat, my mind packed with his hand signals (Sds, as us trainers call them) and ideas on how to have a Variable Reinforcement Session.  He sat perfectly attentive in front of me, his eyes focused on me, ready to go.  It was the perfect beginning to a public presentation. 

Here is what I imagined would happen in the following minutes:

Me: Okay Nicholas, you’re looking good.  Let’s have a great show.
Nicholas:  You betcha!
Me: Let’s see a nice, high set of bows.
Nicholas: My pleasure! Nicholas bows
Me: Wow, those were great!  What about your signature breach? 
Nicholas: It would be my great honor! Nicholas breaches and soaks half of Pinellas county.
Audience: Now that’s a good dolphin show!

Here is what actually happened:

Me: Okay Nicholas, you’re looking good.  Let’s have a great show.
Nicholas: Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.  
Me: *smiling* Oh, gosh, I’m sorry.  Allow me to introduce myself.  I’m Cat, the new trainer.
Me: about some bows?
Me: Hello?
Me: Okay, this is perfectly normal.  You don’t know me, I don’t know you.  Let’s start with something simple.  Can we see a pec wave?
Nicholas: No.
Me: Look Nicholas, I realize this is awkward, me being the new girl and all.  But can you cut me some slack?  All these people are watching.
Nicholas: Sure.  *Finally pec waves*
Me: What about a hula?
Nicholas: Nah, I’ve got something way better.
Audience: That poor dolphin trainer.  She must be brain damaged.

At this point, Nicholas swims off at Mach 3 and breaches.  And breaches.  And breaches.  The audience loves it.  I sit there, doing my best not to react, although it was really hard not to laugh.  After the breaching extravaganza ended, Nicholas swam lazily back to me.  He floated on his side, looking critically at me with one of his eyes.   It gave me time to think about my next training move.  
A helpful volunteer whispered kindly into my ear, “Your hula Sd looked a lot like the breach Sd.”
I nodded in appreciation.  Of course, that was it.  A communication mishap that was entirely my fault.  So I waited until Nicholas sat up with good attention, and asked very carefully for his hula.  He did one, slow rotation.  Okay, I thought, he’s ready to play.

Nicholas (closest to camera) giving his "I'm ready to play....maybe" look.

I’ve written a haiku describing the rest of the show:

Nicholas did breach
After all of my Sds
Soaking my ego

And so the public presentation ended, with Nicholas the clear victor in teaching me a lesson that trainers can never learn too many times.  The animals we care for are ultimately in charge.  That’s how it should be.  Training is there to benefit the animal, not us.  So if they choose to mess with the system, so be it.  It’s their system to mess with**

Later that day, one of the divers found this etched into the thin algae layer on the bottom of Nicholas‘ habitat:

My trainer was blond
She was easy to mess with
Ha ha ha ha ha

Post script:  The author eventually earned Nicholas' respect.

*Yes, North American river otters are trainable.

** To my fellow grammar-lovers who winced at poorly-placed preposition: “With which to mess” sounds ridiculous.