Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Middle Flipper is...(Part 5)

....a dolphin who plays keep away.

One of the most unique experiences in a dolphin trainer's life is their first six months on the job.   Most of us naively assume that after an internship, a helpful membership to IMATA*, and surviving the Holy Trinity of job applications, swim tests, and interviews, we've Made It once we land our first position.  

Oh, we think.  We've finally Achieved Our Dream!

Livin' the dream!

Well, I don't know about most of you fellow animal trainers out there, but let me say that my first job as an Apprentice Trainer was 60% Excitement and 40% Sheer Terror.  You've got the job, yes.  But now you need to become a Good Trainer.  That road is long and never-ending, but it seems most daunting at the very beginning.  I spent six months of my life worrying only about never making a single mistake.  Ha!

Among some of the many fine examples of how my first place of employment takes excellent care of their animals, we Apprentices were indoctrinated with Animal Safety Protocol.  We had a series of tests we had to take as new hires before our probationary period was up.  If we did not pass, we would be asked to leave.  Not only that, but a passing grade meant an 80% or higher.  This was serious business, and it was great to have my first job show me how important animal safety is.

As you may have already deduced, I passed all required tests.  I promised myself I would always uphold the Safety Protocol, and never cut corners.  I, Cat Rust, Apprentice Trainer, would ne'er fail the animals nor the Company!  Nothing and nobody could shake my determination to be the shining example of Maintaining Animal Welfare!  And then, one day, one of my bosses tested me.

So who was it?  Was it the curator? The supervisor? The senior trainer?  No.

It was one of the grey, bald, aqua bosses we commonly call dolphins.  And this particular dolphin's name was Abaco.

Abaco, the Man, the Myth, the Legend.

At the time, Abaco was about five or six years old.  He lived with a group of other similarly-aged dolphins.  Their habitat was located in a different area than where our trainer's office was, so several times every day we'd load up a cart with their buckets for their training sessions. I had only been working with these animals for a few months, but was enjoying getting to know them individually.  

One day, after a particularly good training session, one of the senior trainers asked me to put toys into Abaco's habitat.  Not forgetting the Pledge of Safety, I double-checked all of the footballs I wanted to give them.  They were properly inflated, their structural integrity was sound, and they had been recently cleaned.  I tossed them into the habitat and waved to the other trainers as they left me to watch the dolphins play.  

One of the Rules: all toy play must be supervised, in case a 400 pound animal with 88 cone-shaped, sharp teeth decides to dismantle their playthings.   This was very unusual, as their toys were designed to withstand harsh play, but one could never be too careful.  Plus, the Rule was fun for the trainer who got to watch (unless you did not enjoy watching dolphins play, in which case your career path was incorrect).

As I watched the dolphins play with the footballs, I found a chair and pulled it near the habitat's edge.  I sat down and looked at my watch.  

"Oh good," I thought.  "I have 30 minutes until I need to be back for My Next Assigned Task."  I could not be late, as that would be a Mistake.  And as we've discussed previously, I did not allow myself to make any of those.

The adage "Time flies when you're having fun" ought to be amended.  I move to change this popular phrase to read:

"Time flies when you're having fun, unless a required task begins to encroach on a time-sensitive duty, in which case you are no longer having fun, you are trying to find a tangible element of Time Itself, wrap it around both hands, and heave it backwards to Just Start The Hell Over."

As the half hour lapsed, I began to get the footballs out of the dolphins' habitat.  Four of the dolphins had since moved on to other more fun dolphin tasks, such as Rolling All Over Each Other.  There was one football left in the water just out of reach.  I looked beneath the surface to see where the dolphins were before I tried to reach the football with a target pole.  

As I reached the pole out towards the ball, a dolphin rushed towards it and retrieved it in its mouth.  The dolphin moved so quickly I couldn't tell at first who had foiled my clean-up.  When he slowed down and peered at me with his left eye across the pool, I saw the culprit.  Abaco.

Oh, how cute! I thought.  Abaco wants to play with this football.  

Footballs.  Every dolphin needs one.

I glanced at my watch again.  I only had a couple of minutes before I needed to be back at the Scheduled Time.  As an Apprentice Trainer, you do not show up late to anything.  You show up early. And I most definitely was not going to be early at this rate.

Another Rule I had to follow was I could not actively try to ask Abaco for the ball back.  That was a Trained Behavior, and I did not have anything with which to reinforce him, should he bring the ball back to me.  

In my embarrassing naivete, I thought perhaps Abaco wanted to play a game of fetch with me.  I stood at the edge of the pool wall with my arms extended.  

Me: Come on, Abaco! Bring it over, I'll toss it back!

Abaco: remained still, the football still in his mouth "Yeah, right!"

Me: We are going to have so much fun playing fetch! You bring the ball, I toss the ball, you bring it back, I toss it out again...

To which Abaco replied by quickly spitting the ball out of his mouth.  It floated a few inches in front of his face, but still well within his control. 

"There," he said to me.  "You see? I don't give a %(*& about the football.  But you still can't have it."

I looked back at my watch.  I was now officially Late.  I had no way to get back to the office, because it required me to leave the habitat with an a toy Unsupervised.  I stuck to my guns.  I'd just have to get in trouble.  I could not break a Rule.

I feigned disinterest in the ball.  I walked around the other habitats, checked on the manatees in a nearby exhibit ten feet away.  I peered over my shoulder at Abaco, who had since let the ball float away in the current.  He stared at me, turning his head to follow me as I moved nonchalantly around the area.  

I waited until he returned to a normal swim pattern.

No, my Gut told me.  Don't go for the ball right away.  He's expecting that.  

I smiled at my own cleverness.  Dolphins are smart, but c'mon, they can't outsmart a human.

As the sun slipped behind the clouds, the football moved lazily towards the wall closest to me.  I made my way slowly over to the pool, watching the dolphins swim unaware of my presence.  I looked beneath the surface to make sure there was no dolphin, but the cloud-cover made it impossible to see the bottom of the deep habitat.  

GO FOR IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! my Gut said.  I lunged forward and reached for the football.  My fingers grazed its side and a wave of relief washed over me  an actual wave of water washed over me.  Abaco launched himself at the football from directly beneath it.  He sped away, ball in tow.  He popped up at the opposite end of the habitat, staring at me triumphantly.   I'm 108% sure he was laughing.

Me: Blast! You've outdone me again, Abaco!

Abaco: The game is up, Mere Human! Declare defeat, return to your kind in humble shame!

Someone has to come out here to check on me, I thought.  I'm really late for My Assigned Task.  They're going to come here to find out What The Eff I'm Doing.   I prepared myself for being scolded.  I thought about the future of my career.  And then the Terror of Apprentice Trainership set in.  What if I got in trouble for being late?  Would they understand it was because I was following a Safety Rule?  What if that didn't matter?  What if I was supposed to go to the nearest department, use the phone, and call for help?  What if I went to the nearest department, used the phone, and called for help and got in trouble for leaving Abaco alone with his football?  What if I left Abaco alone with his football, and a dozen or so space aliens hovered their spacecraft above the habitat, beamed up the football, and no one could ever find it again when we did the daily toy inventory? 

I had to call for help, I didn't know what to do.  I'd now played Cat and Mouse (to clarify: Abaco was the Cat) for over thirty minutes and I needed to get some expertise.  I ran as fast as I could to the Sea Lion Department, which was not too far away.  I breathlessly called my office and explained to the senior trainer what was going on.

The reason I know that mouse is my kindred spirit is because I too would steal cheese.


Senior Trainer: Oh, don't worry.  We figured that's what happened.  Just wait until he throws the ball out, or just wait until we get out there for the next session.

Me: Oh, okay.  See you soon.

Relieved, I went back out to Abaco's lair.  "I shan't play your childish games anymore!" I declared.  "You can try all you want, Abaco.  But I have won, because I don't need the football! I have taken your power! I emerge victorious in this Battle of Wits!"

Abaco and I did become pals.

Abaco disappeared beneath the surface with his football.  I leaned back in my chair and returned to a calm demeanor.  

The football popped back up at the surface.  In a matter of a few seconds, the ball moved closer towards my reach, but it moved against the current. 

Curious, I leaned forward in my chair to see through the water, and as the sun peered its way through the clouds, I suddenly saw Abaco sitting a couple of feet beneath the football, staring up at me. 

"OMG," I said.  "You're baiting me!"

We remained still, sizing each other up.  "I'M GOING FOR ITTTTTTT!" I told Abaco as I threw my hands towards the football as fast as possible.  Abaco charged the football and slipped it out of my hand, racing away towards the other dolphins.  The other dolphins began porpoising and vocalizing.  They followed Abaco around the habitat, watching him with the football.  Every time Abaco surfaced away from me, he'd tilt his head towards me, and throw the ball as hard as he could.  When he got closer to me, he held onto his prize so I had no chance of getting it.  

Now all five dolphins were riled up.  On every throw that happened on the opposite side of the pool, Abaco's tosses were more and more charged.  He was really gloating about this, I thought.  I conceded defeat.  

Me: You win, pal.

Abaco: No kidding, chump.

And then, Abaco learned a lesson in sore-winning.  In his wild celebration, he tossed the football a little too far.  The other dolphins in a tizzy, the smallest of them all rose to the surface and snatched the ball away from him.  And then, she threw the ball completely out of the habitat.

"YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!"  I said as I ran down the hill to get the ball.  I laughed out loud as I walked back up to the habitat to place the ball back in its toy box.  

All five dolphins sat up to watch me.  Among them, Abaco.  I stopped laughing and looked at him, filled with respect.  I don't know what he was thinking then, but I knew that he had given me the gift of a memory that I'd never forget.  He also gave me perspective.  While I was coming from the right place in making sure I was following the safety protocol, I was also worried about being on time, about the future of my career.  Abaco's keep-away game forced me into the present moment.  How often do we allow ourselves to enjoy a misadventure unfolding before us, completely out of our control?  Why should I have worried myself about MAYBE getting a slap on the wrist for being late, when I was only doing what I knew was right with the massively wonderful bonus of seeing dolphin intelligence in action (and my own intelligence well, missing)?   I think the lesson here is relevant to people from all walks of life.  So if you take away anything from this blog post, let it be to set aside what stresses you for just a moment, and enjoy what you are experiencing NOW.**

Here's some perspective.

* International Marine Animal Trainer's Association.  Check out their website www.imata.org

** Which right NOW, happens to be the last part of this blog.  Shameless plug?  Correct.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tails from the Heart (Part 2): The Soul of Gamma Ray

It took me a long time to realize that there were a whole lot of myths surrounding fish.   Here are some of the debunked myths I've gathered that are relevant to this story:

1) Fish do not have a three-second memory
2) Fish are capable of feeling pain
3) Fish have individual personalities

Okay, roll your eyes or laugh at me.  My degree is in zoology and I've had a passion for charismatic megafauna, most of whom have eyelids and/or fur.  Or as one very smart person said, "animals with souls".    So my interest in fish essentially consisted of an interest in Fish That Can Eat You.  

A Fish That Could Eat You if He/She Wanted, But He/She Will Probably Settle For A Toilet Seat

Like most children, I fished and had a fish tank.  However, my early ichthyological education was very limited as I was surrounded by adults who knew a lot about Business, Finance, Mathematics, History, Religion, and Philosophy.  They did not, however, have a deep interest in Biology.  Yet, they strove to answer all of my questions.  My passion being in animals, most of my questions were on that topic.  

For example, when an unfortunate bluegill found itself on the wrong end of my fishing pole via a hook in its eye socket, I immediately reacted with concern.  I found the nearest Adult and told them what happened.  

"Does it hurt him????" I'd ask.

"No," replied the Adult, attempting to pull and twist the hook out, making the eyeball bulge and bleed.  "Fish can't feel any pain."

"Why is he flapping his tail like that?!"  Oh, the horror!

"Uh, he wants to swim!" the Adult said.  "He's just happy we are letting him go!"   

Lip-piercing is all the rage

I think I knew that the fish was in a tremendous amount of pain, but I didn't want to admit to myself that I'd caused this horrific injury to a critter just looking to eat some suspended worms.   So for years, I told myself that fish couldn't feel pain.  I didn't do anything to cause pain to fish, but I didn't worry myself when I went fishing.  I figured hey, even if fish feel pain, they probably don't have a sense of Self and don't really know what's going on to them.  The hubris of humanity!

Luckily, thanks to my budding career in marine mammal training, I spent a lot of time around fish.  I got to know playful groupers, cunning eels, and curious mangrove snapper.  But perhaps the most special of all fish I've ever met was a cow nosed stingray named Gamma.

Some cow-nosed rays

Gamma and her buddy X (ha ha) came to Marineland as a donation.  Getting fish donations is more common than most people realize at aquariums, especially saltwater setups.   Gamma and X came from an aquarium in what I believe was a surf store.  The tank was not the correct habitat for the rays; it was rectangular, and those corners mean bad news for stingrays.  Gamma and X spent too much time slamming into the corners of their enclosure, and as a result caused themselves a lot of injury.   The store owner felt badly for the rays and brought them to Marineland.

Unfortunately, X was far too injured and ill, and died not long after they arrived.  The aquarists successfully nursed Gamma back to good health, and the marine mammal team began training her.  I was one of the lucky people selected to get in on the ground level to start Gamma's training.  

It didn't take long for Gamma to realize where she needed to go to eat when her training session started.  In fact, it didn't take long for us to teach her some basic behaviors: target, dorsal tactile, ventral layout, and even a little follow behavior.  She began to do limited interaction programs, which in turn changed people's view about sting rays for the better.   I fell head over heels for this little fish.

Over a period of a couple of weeks, we started to notice that Gamma was losing weight.  We increased her diet; we always tried to feed her until she was stuffed.  We fed her clams, shrimp, and capelin (a type of fish).  She ate the food readily and to satiation, but she still lost weight.  When our aquarist team could not figure out what was going on with Gamma, they did not hesitate to reach out to other aquariums and ray experts.  They all said the same thing: Gamma had a parasite.

We treated Gamma with what we could, but we were told it was likely a very common but untreatable internal parasite found in the majority of cow nosed rays.  If it was this parasite, we were told Gamma would not survive.  Because veterinary care of cow nosed stingrays (and many other fish) is not necessarily as advanced as that of "Animals With Souls" (remember, fish "don't have feelings"), the diagnostic tests were very limited for poor Gamma.  We basically had to decide if we should assume she had a terminal illness and euthanize her, or if we should keep fighting for her survival on the off-chance she had a curable problem.

We chose to give Gamma a fighting chance.  She swam around her exhibit, but was spending a little more time at the bottom.  Her cartilaginous skeleton was clearly visible through her skin, and she finally stopped eating.  

Despite her lack of appetite, Gamma still came over to her trainer when we'd visit her throughout the day.  Not only that, she would sit on our hand or come by to let us pet her soft, almost velvety wings.  She'd circle back around towards our hands for another rub, then another, and another.  When I commented on Gamma's solicitation of tactile interaction to the head aquarist, he simply replied, "Well, they are social animals."

That gave me pause.  Social animals are typically the creatures we have as pets, or the wild animals to whom we relate.   We think it's completely plausible, even likely, that social animals like dolphins, wolves, elephants, bonobos can form meaningful relationships.  Maybe we go even further to acknowledge common social behavior in parrots, chickens, or meerkats.  But we forget about fish; so many species of fish spend time with other fish in schools.  Setting aside brain size*, why should we be so quick to dismiss the possibility of eyelid-less creatures needing social interaction?

Gamma spent the last of her few days with her trainers and the aquarists.  Although weak and thin, she managed to muster up enough strength to visit any human that came to the side of her pool and rest on their upturned hand.  She passed away one morning, and left an entire group of humans in mourning.  She blasted apart any misconceptions we had about fish, inspired guests who had the opportunity to see her and interact with her, and gave us all the opportunity to peer into the life of an animal we don't usually get to see or even care that much about.  I learned so much from that one, single stingray.  

Some people (especially behaviorists) will read this post and believe there is a scientific way to explain Gamma's behavior that does not indicate the potential for thought or social need.  Her reinforcement history "programmed" Gamma to come over to the human stimulus; not a need for companionship.  I'm not interested in debating the why or the how any animal (including humans) acts.  Social behavior is not some higher cognitive power.  Just because humans have it, doesn't mean it's something elite.  But it is special.  And what is more special than two species coming together to discover something about each other?  For the humans, we humbly learn that maybe we are wrong about how we see "lower" animals.  And for the stingray, she learned to seek comfort in the most unlikely of places when she was terminally ill.   There is nothing more touching or special than that.  

Thank you, Gamma Ray!

My hand and Gamma!

* Does brain size actually indicate intelligence?  Of course not.  Politicians have the same brain size as us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How My Work Uniform Fixed My Road Rage

I have a road rage problem.  No, let me rephrase that.  There is a problem today with the way people operate their motor vehicles.  My road rage is a symptom of the previously mentioned problem.

When I was in high school, I penned my very first Middle Flipper-esque blog entry (I don’t remember the name of the blog now).  I turned it in for an A.P. American Literature assignment my senior year.  In fact, my teacher awarded me the highest grade.  At the top of my paper, she stamped a purple stylus; a symbol indicating that she felt the writing was worthy for publication.  And what was the topic of this first masterpiece?

Road rage.

I’ve calmed down a little in my advancing years.  When I was in high school and college, I occasionally retaliated against drivers who cut me off, yelled at me, or followed me by tailing them and saying choice expletives.  Sometimes I expressed my anger in other ways involving hand signals.  Nowadays, I just swear my head off when I’m sure the other driver can’t see me.  


This problem becomes compounded when I am in my work uniform.  I have to Represent The Company when I’m in my uniform.  So when I’m driving to or from work and I encounter drivers such as: Grumpy Middle Aged Man With An Expensive Car, Spring Breaker With IPhone And/Or Alcohol, or Old Woman Whose Hair Appears To Be Operating The Steering Wheel, I really force myself to keep any frustration inside.   It works well on two levels.  First, I don’t make [insert Marine Park Name here] look bad.  Second, it helps me realize that there are far worse injustices in the world that I could get upset about*.

However, my patience was really tried a few years ago when I worked at Marineland of Florida.  

Marineland sits on a scenic coastal highway known as A1A.  A1A is a two-lane highway that winds its way through hammock forests, beach dunes, and old Florida attractions, restaurants, and homes, and along the Atlantic ocean.  Needless to say, it’s one of the best commutes I’ve ever had.  


The unfortunate part about using A1A as a commuter highway is that it’s 2-lanes.  A1A hosts vehicles such as school buses.   It is a scenic highway, so tourists and snowbirds often use it.  The speed limit for much of the commute from where I turned onto A1A until I got just outside of Marineland city limits was 55mph.  Stir all of these variables together and you’ve got a highway with a lot of slow driving.

School buses notwithstanding, I often became frustrated when a vehicle in front of me drove well under the speed limit because they were enjoying the view.  Or perhaps they were not paying attention to the speed limit signs and figured There Was No Way A Scenic Highway Had A Speed Limit Over 25mph.   But still, I kept it inside when I wore my Marineland uniform.

One day, I had a later shift at work that started in the late morning.  Traffic was moderate on A1A, but it was moving along well.  Me and my little Prius happily hummed along the historic stretch of road when I noticed a large black Suburban roll through a stop sign and turn right in front of me.  I slammed on my brakes and luckily did not hit him.  

“WHAT THE FUN DIP?!” I thought to myself. 

The Suburban continued along with me following several car lengths behind it.  Suddenly, its brake lights came on and the SUV lurched forward.  I had enough space and distance to roll to a stop, but I wondered what was going on with the guy.  He started driving again, and got to a stretch of road that ran through a State Park.   

Washington Oaks State Park

The Suburban stopped in the lane.  A dead stop.  His brake lights were still on, but I thought for certain something had happened to the car or to him.  I tried to see the driver’s face in the mirror.  The driver rolled his window down and waved at me to pass him.  There were was a steady stream of cars in the oncoming lane, and because we were in a State Park, there was hardly a shoulder for me to pass on the right.  I stayed put and noticed that there were several cars now lined up behind me.  

I rolled down my window to try to see if the Suburban Man was okay.  Again, he waved me around him.  He then looked into his side view mirror and looked at me and mouthed, “GO!”  I pointed to the oncoming traffic and said, “I can’t.”

At this point, the cars lined up behind us are now tearing around us at Mach 4 speed on the right, and I’m starting to freak out that there’s going to be some kind of accident.  The Suburban Man refused to budge, and when I saw an opening in the oncoming lane, I passed him (legally, might I add!) on the left.  As soon as I got in front of him, Suburban Man started following me.  No, tailing me.  

Imagine: a hugenormous SUV driving mere inches away from the poor, pathetic little fender of a Prius.  And while I can boast all I want to about my Prius‘ fantastic turn radius and decent gas mileage, it takes my little car roughly 9 hours and 60,700 batteries to go from 0 to 60. 

Look! Look how many batteries!!!!!!! One for each mile per hour.

When I saw Marineland, I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled into the parking lot....

....only to watch Suburban Man (let’s call him SUV SOB) follow me in.  I panicked.  Several important questions raced through my mind.

  1. What did I do to deserve this?
  2. Was I going to get slaughtered by some crazy man?
  3. What time was my lunch going to be scheduled for if my shift was so late?

I pulled into a parking spot and looked in my rear view mirror.  Phew, I thought.  I don’t see the SUV SOB anymore.  Maybe he drove away.

I got out of my car and began to walk to the back entrance, which entailed me walking through the parking lot and then back to A1A.  

“Next time, leave early!!!!”

I whipped around at the sound of a strange man’s voice and the hum of a large vehicle.  Oh my god, I thought.  This is it, this guy is going to beat me up.  I need to think of something eloquent, witty, and an appropriate for this situation.

“I’m sorry, I think it is extremely inappropriate behavior for a grown man to follow a woman he doesn’t know.”  My brain said.

“What?” My mouth said.

“If you’re late to work, LEAVE EARLIER!”

“Wait, I’m late to work?” I looked at my watch.


“Wait, what is going on right now?”


“I wasn’t tailing you!  You cut me off earlier, but other than that I stayed a good distance behind you.”


Then, the duality of my personality came into effect: Uniform Cat and Normal Cat.

Uniform Cat:  You stopped on the highway, sir.  I had no idea what was going on.  I’m sorry if I did something to upset you.
Normal Cat:  Eat dirt.

Mmm, dirt pudding.

At this point, I was speed-walking to the entrance.  SUV SOB kept driving next to me with his passenger window down, telling me what a terrible person I was and how I ought to leave earlier to be on time for work.  I ignored him and eventually I got to the door.  He sped off and I never heard from him (or saw him, thank god) again.

I sometimes imagine what I would’ve done had I not been on my way to work.  I probably would’ve said Really Witty Things That Put Him In His Place AND Taught Him Life Lessons.    But I didn’t, and now I guess I have to admit that no matter how awesome my reaction was, it wouldn’t have helped anything.

I do have some consolations about how I handled that situation.  I leave you with them to ponder.

  1. I took the high road, which is usually better (this rule does not apply to siblings)
  2. I was only yelled at, not pummeled by a strange man
  3. I’m not dumb enough to stop in the middle of a 55mph highway to teach someone a lesson
  4. After some careful calculations involving Math and Common Sense, I conclude that this encounter cost the man an addition $6.21 in gas due to a number of factors including the speed at which I walked away from him towards Marineland, his gas mileage, the distance for which he followed me, and my enormous imagination.

    * Such as too much frosting and not enough cupcake

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Happens When Animals Say, "Nah."

I'm going to let you all in on a little secret.  I woke up this morning and felt inspired to write a blog on what happens when an animal doesn't do what you want him or her to do.   

"While I write," I thought.  "I will let my sweet little cockatiel Lennon sit on my shoulder, because I didn't get to spend a lot of time with him last night."

So I walk over to his cage and let him out.  He came out and was really snuggly and very talkative.  Oh, how I love that little bird.

What a cutie!

I still had my yoga clothes on, so I wanted to put on a sweatshirt so Lennon wouldn't crap all over my bare shoulders to stay warm.  I walked into my bedroom, put Lennon down on the bed, and put my sweatshirt on.  When I went to pick him up, he started making little Nervous Cockatiel Sounds which he often makes when I leave for work, or when I put him back in his cage for the night.

As my finger approached his face, he lashed out and bit the %&*! out of it.  

I recoiled unprofessionally; no animal trainer is supposed to react to unwanted behavior. So fire me.  You stay still while an angelic-looking bird rips your flesh open because They Can't Believe You're Going to Leave The House Again!

So I put my sweatshirt sleeve over my hand and asked him to step up.  He did, but not without lots of biting.  And then he flew to my head (which was securely ensconced in the sweatshirt hood) and whined and bit my scalp through the hood fabric.  And when I went to get him off of my head right away, he bit again and again and again.

He eventually calmed down when he realized I wasn't reacting to his biting anymore.  I placed him on my shoulder, pet his little feathery cheeks, and told him he was a good bird.  Then I sat down and began to write about hypothetical examples of what happens when an animal says NO.  I figured hey, this is a question people ask all the time.  Plus, my blog's name and theme are about this very topic.  

I reached up and tried to get Lennon to step up on my bare hand.  This stoked the tiny, angry fire raging inside of his head and he attacked again.  I ignored him. I typed and tried to feel inspired while Lennon struck at my face, my head, my wrist, and my hands.  I didn't need a hypothetical example for this blog.  One was happening to me in REAL TIME.  So I had a little conversation with Lennon.

Me: Thanks Lennon, for being such an inspiring muse!  This behavior you're exhibiting exactly portrays the topic for my latest blog!


His attacks did not stop, so I walked him back to his cage and placed him inside.  And now I can hear him, "WEE-WEE! WEE-WEE!" which most scientists agree translate to "DEATH TO ALL HAIRLESS PRIMATES".  So I don't think he'll be joining me for the rest of this blog entry.

Okay, let's break it all down.  First of all, if you're not an A-hole, you probably subscribe to the whole "positive reinforcement" training concept.  That is, you reward desired behavior and don't focus so much on the undesired behavior.  Secondly, if you decide to use positive reinforcement training, you're also empowering the animal to decide what they want to do.  

How does this work?  Well, you find out what motivates the individual, because each animal is an unique.  My rabbit will do anything* for vanilla wafers.  Lennon is more motivated by attention and affection.  I've worked with dolphins who are business-only: They just want fish.  Other dolphins are such finicky eaters that I actually have to reinforce them with their favorite toy if they don't play with their fish.

Behold, the power of the Nilla

Once the animal knows that you've got what he/she wants, then training can start.  Essentially, if the animal wants to do what you expect of them, then they will do it.  If they don't care about what you have to offer, then they may choose to decline.

What are some of the reasons for an animal to blow you off?  Well, I can't read anyone's mind.  I can barely figure out my own (and I'd venture to say most of you who know me would say the same thing about me).  Sometimes it's because:

1) You haven't rewarded them properly for that behavior
    Dolphin:  Wow.  Another fish?  How original. *rolls eyes*

2) The animal is scared or anxious of something
    Seal: There is a blue heron standing over there, plotting my demise I JUST KNOW IT! HOW DO YOU EXPECT ME TO FOCUS AT A TIME LIKE THIS?!

3) The animal is distracted by, erm, "Facts of Life"
    Boy Penguin: Wow, you're hot.
    Girl Penguin: Yeah, you too.  What's that blond haired girl doing over there?
    Boy Penguin: Don't pay attention to that trainer, baby.  It's you and me.
    Girl Penguin: Oh baby, oh baby. 

4) You've accidentally rewarded them for doing the undesired behavior
    Parrot: *screaming incessantly*


5) The animal has no clue what you're asking him/her to do because you haven't actually trained them
   You: Sit, Fido.  Sit.  Sit. Sit. Sit.
   Dog: WTF? 
   You: Sit. Sit. Sit! SIT! SIT! FIDO! SIT!
   Dog: This is boring.  I need to sit down.
   You: Oh! My dog is trained!

When the undesired behavior is in progress, marine mammal trainers employ what we call an "LRS" which stands for "Least Reinforcing Scenario", which means "Just Ignore The Behavior For Like 3 Seconds."   You don't yell, you don't punish, you don't draw attention to the undesired behavior.  Why?  Because you want the following two things to be crystal clear to the animal:

1) You are allowed to do whatever you want without fear of anything bad happening to you
2) But I am only going to reward desired behavior

Here's an example of good response to an undesired behavior:

You: Sit, Fido!
Dog: Did she just say down? *lies down*  
You: *Wait for dog to stand up again, then LRS* 
Dog: Oh rats, I guess that wasn't the right response.
You: Sit
Dog: Sit! I can sit!! *sits*
You: Good dog!

Here's an example of a bad response

You: Sit, Fido!
Dog: Did she just say down? *lies down*
You: No! Fido! Sit! I said sit!!!
Dog: Oh! Mom is so excited!!! I am such a good dog!!!!

So you can see, there's a lot to consider when an animal doesn't do what you ask them to do.   So how do you handle that situation?  How do I deal with an emotionally wrecked cockatiel with abandonment issues?

Sparing you the details of my behavioral plan for helping poor little Lennon, I can just say it involves changing my predictable behavior and spending a lot more time with the dude.

But when an animal says NO, you need to listen as a trainer.  It's not a time to get frustrated long-term.  It's a time to sit back and re-evaluate your situation.  The real art of training is understanding and practicing the two-way communication between the trainer and the trainee.  The animals are allowed to say no.  You need to figure out how to sweeten the pot.  You have to ignore the undesired behavior but also make certain you're rewarding the animal when he or she is doing what it is you want them to do. 

Training should be fun for human and animals alike!

So I guess when you get the Middle Flipper, or Paw, or Wing**, look at it as a positive challenge.  And if you're not an animal trainer, realize that the name of the game isn't compliance.  It's making the game fun for the animal so they choose to participate more times than not...but also making sure you're not whoopsie-daisy rewarding undesired behavior by drawing attention to it.

So now readers, I have to go.  I have to go practice what I preach with a sad little birdbrain. 
*This is not an admission of guilt for any crimes that may or may not be connected to my rabbit, Kenobi "Bunny Balls" Rust. 

**Sorry reptile-lovers, I'm not sure how a snake would flip you the bird.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Mysterious Case of the Expanding Face

I had this whole idea of a blog planned out for a while ago.  And then you know, life got crazy and I found no time to write*.  And then, my face exploded.

Last week, in spite of my last blog post about Fuh-Reezing Weather, a Warm Front pushed through.   But this Warm Front brought along some friends (roughly 43 billion of them).  You might have heard of them? Raindrops.

Proof of Dolphin Training Occurring Despite Raindrops

So one day last week, I (and my fellow colleagues) spent roughly 9 hours in a wet wetsuit.  There was almost no break in the rain.  And at the end of the day when I changed to go home, I noticed the all-too-common Wetsuit Rash on my neck.

Wetsuit Rash occurs when dedicated men and women in the aquatic industry spend a long period of time in wet neoprene and are relatively active.  The intensity of this Rash begins at Vexing Chafing and runs through to Torture Commonly Used in Medieval Scandinavia.

My particular case began at the benign end of the spectrum, but quickly (and mysteriously) progressed.  By the next morning, I had hives all over my neck.  But thanks to the distracting nature of my job (you try ignoring the cherubic face of a marine mammal to lament your Wetsuit Rash), I didn't realize how far it had progressed until the end of the day when I had an exchange with a coworker who asked me simply if my neck was feeling okay.

At that point, my distracted mind suddenly fixated on the burning and tightness enveloping my entire neck up through my cheeks.  I reached up to touch my face and it felt as what is commonly defined in the Medical Industry as Weird.  

That evening, as I slouched on the couch and crammed as many SVU episodes into my brain as I could, I kept touching my cheeks.  The skin on my face felt like drying rawhide.    Nonetheless, because I have a borderline sleep disorder in which I actually die for a period of time at night, I was able to go comatose for a while.  Until....

1:30am.  I wake up, as I usually do, for what I call my Guilty Worry Panic Time.  This is the time, once a night, when I arise from my deep death sleep and Worry.  Here is a list of things I worry about:

1)  Things I've Said To People (No Statute of Limitations)
2)  How Will I Ever Train That (Insert Behavior Here)?!
3)  Emotions I've Felt That Maybe I Shouldn't
4)  Will I Have Enough Money To Pay The Bills?
5)  How Many Donuts Are Too Many?**

I wake up in the middle of the night haunted by the thought of not eating enough of these.

But normally, my Guilty Worry Panic Time is around 3am.  So when I woke up and realized how much earlier I’d been roused, I knew immediately something was wrong.  Not to mention, my face felt like it was going to explode.

I walked to the bathroom and flicked the light on.  Here is a conversation I had with myself:



 Self: LSKDG(&*W#%IOSD<GKSO#*%*&@%)*(ASLIUDSG!!

RationalSelf: It appears as though my entire face is swollen.


RationalSelf: Oh, how fascinating.  Look at gravity and my tendency to sleep on my left has made the left side of my face more swollen than the right. 


Etcetera, etcetera.  

The best part about this discovery of my massive noggin is that I kept going back to the mirror to “Double Check”, just in case my immune system was all like, “JK! Your face isn’t a marvel of physics and immunology!”

After a terrifying trip to WalMart at 2am, I loaded myself up with Benadryl and fell into a coma.

The next day, I woke up and felt my face had expanded even more.  Sure enough, as I tried to peer through the slit that was now my left eye socket, my face looked like a loaf of bread.  I had Chipmunk Cheeks.  I had Fat Eyelids.  I had a Ginormous Double Chin.  And I had to work, of course.

When I went to Publix in the morning to pick up my lunch for the day, I pathetically hid my face behind sunglasses.  This attempt was as futile as hiding a lawn mower behind a cashew.  I knew the bulbous portions of my face squeezing out from behind my sunglasses were mesmerizing the staff at the grocery store who have seen me come every day for the past six weeks.  

Then, when I got to work, I had to unveil (no, unleash) my new look to my coworkers.  They were really (I'm being 100% serious here) kind and kept all kept their laughing in until I cracked a joke about my appearance.   And then, I went to the Hospital where I was told I was having an Acute Allergic Reaction. The doctor gave me a prescription for steroids and sent me and my face on my way.

The rest of the day at work provided me with really great moments involving showing my doughy mug to dolphin show audiences, otter feeds, and seal sessions.   Just when I thought the situation couldn’t harbor any further humor, gravity, which had given my face a lopsided appearance overnight, decided to play another trick on me.  Whatever was filling my face to the point of expansion began to drain down into my “neck.”  The quotation marks are not, contrary to popular belief, there for “dramatic effect” (those ones are).  They are there to insinuate that the area between my shoulders and my cranium is yes, physiologically defined as a neck, but by 2:00pm, it did not in any way resemble a neck.

Here are some helpful visual samples of what my “neck” looked like by the afternoon dolphin show:

Oh, yeah.

Oh, look how it ripples!

*Actual photo of myself*

Me, my giant face, and my new waddle now mesmerized audiences and colleagues alike.  My wetsuit really accentuated this becoming feature by squeezing it out and over the neck opening, so I could actually feel the waddle overlapping the wetsuit.  It moved so fluidly, it could only be described as Lava Lamp.

Luckily, after a couple of days of a methylpredisolone dosepak, my face shrunk back down to normal, the waddle disappeared, and I now look like myself again.   What was the cause of this Great Expansion?  Neither I nor the Medical Minds who examined me can pinpoint its source. Nor are they worried it was something serious.

As animal trainers, especially ones who work outside, you never know what kinds of things you’ll encounter.  Sometimes you get Allergic Reactions.  Sometimes you get Bad Sunburns. Sometimes you get Fire Ants Trapped In Your Bathing Suit (more on this later).  And you know what? I’m okay with that.  Because let’s be honest, as long as the animals don’t mind that there’s more of me to look at, I can deal with having a Balloon Face.  

* I found Law & Order SVU on Netflix.
** None.