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: Okay....how 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.


  1. Catherine,

    Any true grammarian knows that that the prohibition on ending sentences with prepositions is a myth. It is almost always okay. Some jack-hole latinophiles tried to shoehorn English into Latin. No sir, I say! No sir!

    Fight the power,

    Thomazzo Jenkins

  2. Dearest Thomazzo,

    Thank you for your grammatical support in this dark time. I feel validated not only stylistically, but as a human being.

    Miss your face!