Sunday, June 30, 2013

When you get the Middle Flipper: A Training Guide.

I've had a lot of blog entries detailing various accounts of animals blowing me off.  Trust me, more are coming.

I've also written an overview on this topic.  But I still get asked, "But what REALLY happens when a marine mammal refuses a behavior?"  And still further, people assume we do some crazy things when that happens.  So here is yet another post on how to deal with a Middle Flipper response.

This dolphin trained me to put a whistle in my mouth

Crack open any comprehensive text on operant conditioning and you'll see an answer that goes something like this:

"If an animal refuses a behavior, provide an LRS and move on to a high-probability behavior or approximation."

So what does that mean exactly?  Let's first talk about why an animal refuses a behavior (or in some cases, an entire session).  Newsflash: I can't read any animals' minds (this of course includes human beings), and I hope to god no one can read my brain*.   With humans, I can ask someone, "Hey, why didn't you do that?"  And they can respond back to me (and hope they tell the truth).  Of course, I can't have a similar verbal exchange with an animal unless we just vocalize back and forth in our own way.   That means all of my decisions as a trainer are based on the following:

1) My relationship with that animal
2) My knowledge of that animal's learning/training history
3) The history of the behavior that's being refused
4) My powers of perception
5) How gigantic my ego is

I can't possibly know why a sea lion politely declines to do a flipper stand, or why a dolphin takes a show off because I can't ask them.   So my job is to focus on the positives, not get into a tizzy because the animal isn't doing what I asked, and figure out what MIGHT have happened.

Now, there are some common reasons why animals refuse behavior(s).  I've listed them here, in addition to providing an example of how much easier my job would be if the animals and I could have a level-headed discussion about the situation.

Reason For Refusal #1 Distraction

In Reality
Me: Flipper stand!
Sea Lion: stares into the audience
Me: What is he looking at?  It looks like he's looking at someone in the audience.  Oh my god, that woman is wearing the ugliest hat I've ever seen.  Let me either wait until Sea Lion is done staring at that atrocity or maybe I will refocus his attention.  Then I'll make sure I have his full attention before I ask for that behavior again.

If we could talk
Me: Hey Sea Lion, how come when I ask you for a flipper stand, you're just staring at me?
Sea Lion: What? When did you ask me to do that?
Me: Just now.  I gave the hand signal and was all like, "Flipper stand!"
Sea Lion: Oh, wow dude.  I totally missed that.  I was spacing out looking at that chick in the audience with the huge, floppy sun hat.  Do you see that thing?!
Me: That is one ugly hat!  Hey, let's check that out after the flipper stand.
Sea Lion: Yeah yeah, no problem! I got this.

Hey, nice hat.

Reason for Refusal #2 Reinforcement history

In reality
Me: This dolphin isn't breaching.  She's just staring at me like I'm some kind of idiot.  What is going on? I know she can see my hand signal clearly.  I don't see anyone in the audience with a ridiculous hat on, nor is she staring at any of the other dolphins.   How baffling.  I mean, I've been feeding her heavily for this behavior.  In fact, that past ten times I've given her the same reward: fish fish fish.  Wait, maybe I've become too predictable in my reinforcement.  Maybe I'll give her a break for today, but tomorrow I'll ask for her breach and make sure I reward her with a variety of things.  And from now on, I'll make sure I keep it fun and different.

If we could talk
Me: Is there a reason you aren't breaching?
Dolphin: Yeah, you know, I've been meaning to talk to you about that.
Me:  Oh, okay.  What's the problem?
Dolphin: The thing is, I have a really great breach.  The people love it, dolphins are envious of me for it, and frankly, I feel under compensated for the work that goes into it.
Me: Wow, I had no idea.  I thought I gave you a lot of fish for that behavior.
Dolphin: Yeah, I mean, sure.  The fish is great.  But that's all you've been giving me these days.  I breach, you give me a bunch of fish.  But I'm more than just a mouth who does stellar breaches.  I have complicated needs beyond that of food.
Me:  I'd do anything for donuts.  All day.
Dolphin:  Yes, I'd expect that from an animal who has a brain your size.  But focus.  I'd happily breach again if we could work some variety into my pay schedule.  Let's keep the fish, but add the soccer ball and a couple of tail rubs every now and then.
Me: That sounds fair.  Sorry for the misunderstanding.
Dolphin: That's why we're having this conversation.  I take it you're good on your word and that no further corrective action is required.

Yes hi, who do I speak to about changing my reinforcement plan?

Reason for Refusal #3 The animal doesn't really know the behavior

In reality
Me: I just started working at this new place and have been bombarded with all kinds of new information.  Now I'm doing a session with this cute little otter.  I just asked him to spin, but he's just sitting on the ground.  Is my hand signal wrong? I mean, I'm new at this.  No, that hand signal is right.  Maybe, like all otters, he's distracted.  I'll wait until he really looks at me and then I'll ask.  No.  He's just not going to spin.  What is going on?
Another Trainer: That Otter doesn't know that behavior.

If we could talk
Me: Spin!
Otter: What?
Me: Spin?
Otter: You're effing crazy.  I don't do that crap.
Me: Oh, whoops.  I'm new.  I forgot you don't know that.
Otter: Yeah well, don't forget it.
Me: I'm sorry.
Otter: It's okay, new kid.  You'll get it all straight in the end.  Keep up the good work.
Me: You too, Otter.  You too.

I don't understand the signal and I refuse to acknowledge it ever occurred. 

There are a variety of other reasons why animals give their trainers the Middle Flipper on certain behaviors that basically fall into the one of the aforementioned categories.  But the point is, there is a lot of observation and educating guessing happening that all amount to one concept: Figuring out how to set the animal up for success.

Now, you have to be careful about what happens when a refusal occurs.  You don't want to accidentally reward the animal for the refusal.  That may sound ludicrous, but it happens.  Especially if the mistake is on your end, or the reason the animal refused it may likely be outside of their control.

Simply Ludacris.

For example: you feel bad for the dolphin that didn't breach because you weren't exciting enough in your reward system.  You feel so badly that you just toss the dolphin a soccer ball after she refuses to breach because well, it was your fault she didn't find the breach reinforcing enough.

While your intentions are coming from a good place, you're actually communicating the opposite of what you want.  If you toss the dolphin a soccer ball when she refuses the breach, you've reinforced her for refusing it.

If you could explain to the dolphin what was going on in that moment, it'd be different.

Me: Hey, I'm really sorry for the misunderstanding.  Please enjoy this complimentary soccer ball.  It's a token of friendship and next time when you do your breach, I'll make sure you get everything you desire.
Dolphin: I'm glad we had this chat.

But since we can't talk to the dolphin, this is what happens:

Me: Oh man, I know that it's probably my fault Dolphin doesn't want to breach anymore.  Ugh.  I don't want her to be mad at me.  I'd better give her a soccer ball as a peace offering.
Dolphin: Wait, what is going on right now? Am I to understand that if I DON'T breach, I get what I want?! Humans are so stupid.

So when an animal refuses a behavior, we employ the LRS.  The LRS stands for "Least Reinforcing Scenario", which basically means we don't react at all.  We remain in this neutral position for 3 to 5 seconds, which is all we have to come up with:

1) The likeliest reason(s) why the animal refused the behavior
2) How we troubleshoot the problem
3) How we reinforce a possible correct response
4) At what point do we move on from the behavior

Let me just tell you something.  This is literally the only time in my life where I am capable of thinking quickly.  For any other life decision, I could not possibly come to a conclusion in 3 to 5 seconds.  Nothing about my way of communicating is short and sweet (I submit to you as evidence: this blog post).  I can barely decide between which type of ice cream to have at dinner** with hours allotted to the task.

After hours of debate, I choose you Graham Central Station ice cream flavor!

But when you have a good relationship with an animal and you've been a trainer for a while, you train your brain to zoom through all possibilities and solutions.  And as long as your main goal isn't to abandon basic training theory, or just Get The Animal To Do What You Wanted Because You're The Animal Training Master, you're going to come up with a solution that works.  Well, most of the time.  And when you mess up, you learn from it.

So once the LRS is over, 99.9% of the time we set up the animal for success.  They aren't reinforced for refusing the behavior, but we try to refocus the session on something that can achieve.  If they were distracted and therefore didn't see or hear your signal, then you make sure you have that animal's full attention before you ask again, thereby setting them up for success.

Sometimes, you have to move on.  Is it really important in one session that a dolphin does a breach? Maybe not.  Maybe you've got other priorities going on in the session and there's no need to get into an ego battle over something silly (plus, you'll never win an ego battle with a dolphin).  So you figure out your plan of action for a later time with that behavior, but you move on and have a positive session.

The point is, the animal is always allowed to refuse something.  They are allowed to stare at ugly hats, or try to communicate that the reward for the behavior isn't cutting it.  They're allowed to say, "Hey, I'm not doing this interaction program, because it's spring and I've just met the Love of My Life/Breeding Season."   Our job as a trainers is to make sure that we make all behaviors worth the animals' while, but ultimately we make sure our animals are healthy and safe.   They feel secure and safe enough to say no; they don't have to worry about being hurt, starved, punished.  Positive reinforcement training is set up that way.  In fact, in some way, refusals are the way that animals train the trainers.  We just have to know how to learn from them.


*If you can, I absolve myself of any responsibility for your mental health, unless you figure out a way to make money on my thoughts, in which case I'd like to further discuss this with you and a team of lawyers.

** Mint chocolate chip? Peanut butter chocolate? Graham central station?!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My Incredible Dad Deserves His Own Middle Flipper Post

It's Father's Day.  It's a time to celebrate all of the things that make our fathers and father-figures great.  If I were to enumerate all of the life lessons I've learned from my amazing dad, this blog would approach Biblical length.  So instead, I pay tribute to the Rust I love the best by sharing with all of the skills my dad David taught me so I could become a marine mammal trainer and good person.

My dad always does things just a little differently

1) Don't just learn how to swim, LOVE to swim.  So much that you make questionable decisions when in or around large bodies of water.

Swan Lake?

Not only did my father encourage me to take every swim lesson available below the Navy Seal level, he set an excellent example for me as a young child to stay physically fit.  Since I can remember, my dad has swam laps four to five days a week every week (even on vacation).  But that isn't enough.  He swims in all bodies of water, which may or may not have included a little face-plant into the Dead Sea.

But probably the best dad-swim story - the one that inspires me on a daily basis to always put basic safety first - is when my dad lost his glasses for the 903,582th time.  

My family and I had taken a boat ride around Lake Thompson on one of our annual Rhinelander trips.  We stopped the boat in a quiet bay to read and enjoy the breathtaking surroundings.  It wasn't surprising that my dad slipped away into peaceful slumber amidst the sound of a gentle breeze brushing through the trees, the songbirds singing their lilting, melodic tunes, and the lake water gently lapping against the hull of the boat.   

Not a bad place for a nap

We sat in the middle of this placid bay for half an hour before they found us.  They knew how long to wait.  They knew that the calming nature sounds placed my dad into such deep sleep that it rendered him completely helpless to defend himself against them.

They flew towards us, their evil laughter cloaked by the high-pitched sound of their wings beating.  They wanted to drink our blood and make us suffer.

By the time I realized what was happening, a deer fly the size of a quarter had landed on my sleeping dad and began to bore a hole into his flesh.  The shock of this painful bite jerked my dad awake so violently that his $600 glasses he'd perched on his chest flew into the air….and into the murky lake water.

After several loudly-delivered choice expletives (which, in my ethological expertise, frightens away most parasitic insects), my dad declared he would get into the water to get his glasses.

"Dad," I said.  "There is no way you're going to find your glasses.  You have no mask or goggles.  The water has essentially zero visibility, and it's so deep there will hardly be any light.  Not to mention, the bottom could be silt.  It's way too dangerous for you to even try it."

My dad then recanted with a plan.  He could ascertain the general vicinity of the glasses by simply paying attention to the subtle cross currents at different points in the water column. He'd assist himself down by using the anchor line, then feel around in the silt for his glasses and emerge victorious.  

Despite the rest of our protests, my dad dove into the water from the bow of the boat.  As expected in physics, the boat floated away in the opposite direction of my dad's dive.  This event did not alarm my sister, me, or my mom.  We focused on dad to make sure he didn't drown.

But the sound of the deer flies returned.  This time, in greater numbers.  In fact, the amount of flies buzzing around our heads seemed unusually high for us being in the middle of a lake.  When we looked around to figure out what was going on, my sister said, "We're floating into shore."

"That's impossible," I said.  "We're anchored to the bottom."

My mom crawled up to the bow of the boat. 

"Oh my god," she said.  "The anchor line is gone."

We all looked out to the middle of the lake, where my dad still had not resurfaced.  Immediately I thought, my dad's drowned.  And the three of us are floating into Death-By-Exsanguination on the Shores of Deerfly.

My dad suddenly popped up and looked around.  He was too far away for me to gauge his facial expression.  "Why are you guys over there?" he yelled.

"Because there is no anchor line!" we all replied.

My dad swam over to us and got himself back in the boat.  He explained he must've forgotten to tie the anchor line onto the boat.  The force of his dive sent the boat floating away from the line, eventually letting it fall into the water.

"Don't worry though," he said.  "I'll go back down and find the anchor."

A resounding NO was all he got, despite his various schemes to find the anchor (and maybe his glasses?).   But of course, the most important thing was that we were all safe.  And somewhere in Lake Thompson, one lucky creature gets a pair of really nice glasses.

My dad showing his son-in-law Chris where his glasses likely are.  Lake Thompson in mid-February. 

2) Network, network, network.   And you can't be good at networking if you're a gigantic a-hole
My dad knows everyone's story.  He is the most socially-intelligent person I know.  He genuinely cares about other people and wants them to feel comfortable around him.  It's a quality I've loved about him since I was a little kid.   I've tried to emulate his friendly, warm demeanor and I think it's responsible for a lot of my success.  Being friendly with people not only makes someone else's day great, it sets you up to learn about experiences and ideas you'd never be exposed to otherwise.  It helps you network.  There are boundless benefits to treating other people with respect and kindness for everyone involved.

Look at that life of the party!

My dad taught me to network at a young age by setting up meetings with people in the marine mammal field.  The very first time I met someone who actually worked at an aquarium was when I was doing a news story for my junior high school paper.  My dad's journalism background and publishing profession made him the perfect ally when it came to any scholarly writing task.  He set up an interview with a young man in the education department at the Shedd Aquarium.   A couple years later, he met someone who knew someone who was a trainer at the Brookfield Zoo.  I got to interview her as well.  

My dad is now such a master at networking and Getting To Know People that it is now at the Transcendental Meditation Level.  He loses focus on all other external stimuli when he talks to you, which is why you instantly start liking him.  It is also why he's lost his cell phone more than any human being on the planet.  Here are the best two ways this has occurred (a result of his deep conversations):

1) Forgets it in a cab (subsequently is stolen and sold to a person who called my mom to demand she turn the phone off so they could use it)

2) Places it inside a to-go food container at a restaurant (subsequently sits in the fridge for a week; is discovered after my dad bought a new phone and felt a little hungry)

3) Napping is important
Deep Sleep Thy Name Is David.  I realize this is likely genetic.  Nonetheless, I am eternally in his debt for this most precious gift.   My dad and I could sleep through everything*.

Sweet, sweet slumber.

My dad has done nothing but support me and my sister in all of our interests.  He's the most selfless, caring person I've ever met, and he's my father.  I know every day how lucky I am, and how lucky the people in his life are.  He makes a mean spaghetti sauce (and is in general, a great cook; a skill I completely lack).  He is one of the leading experts in educational publishing (so much so that National Geographic contracts him) and owns his own company.  He has to be successful, though.  How else could he afford to replace all of his lost cell phones, glasses, anchors?

To boldly lose glasses, where no man has lost them before.

*Obviously, this does not include deer fly bites

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Portraits of Red-Spotted Sunfish: Dexter and St. John

I currently have more fish than my place of employment.

How is that possible, you ask?

I have a native Florida freshwater fish tank.  It's 75 gallons of non-stop drama and cuteness.  You may think it's weird to ascribe "cute" as an adjective to a fish, so I thought I'd write this blog post about them to educate you.  I've got six of these glorious Florida panfish, and today we will talk about the red-spotted sunfish Lepomis miniatus*.  And yesterday, they spawned.  For the third time.

The subjects of this blog are named Dexter (the boy) and St. John (the girl, obviously).  They were so christened because I liked the idea of having a Florida bodies-of-water-themed fish tank**.  They were collected from a roadside park that allowed fishing using a teeny tiny hook and lots and lots of bread balls. 

"Bread balls?" you may ask.  "Fish don't eat bread balls!"

WRONG.  It is a commonly accepted zoological fact that red-spotted sunfish eat anything with mass.

Hence, it didn't take long before Dexter and St. John came into my life, as well as a male bluegill I named Homosassa.  

Homosassa on the left, St. John on the right

While I could tell Dexter and St. John apart as individuals, they weren't large enough to be sexually dimorphic.  Everything I'd read about red spotted sunfish gave very vague descriptions of gender differences.   Here are some of the things I read:

"The lower two-thirds of a male’s body has reddish-orange dots arranged one to a scale. Female’s spots are confined mostly to the belly and are lighter in color. The colorful spots on the male give it a brick-red appearance at first glance. Females are more dominated by a dark-green body color, similar to that on the backs of males."

"Females may have stripes."

I'd kind of like to see the aforementioned authors describe differences in human males and females:  

"The lower two-thirds of the male's body has two legs.  Female legs are shapelier, unless they have eaten too many gummy worms for years at time.  Males have shorter hair, although some females can too."

"Females have fingernails." 

Okay, maybe I'm too cynical.  Well, let me just tell you that Dexter did not appear brick red.  Both fish had spots on each scale.  And both of them had light stripes.   So I named them boyish names knowing that, possibly, one or both could turn out to be female.  Eventually, when Dexter started acting frisky, that's when I knew he was a dude.

Let's talk about Dexter.  He is definitely the biggest jerk in the tank.  Don't get me wrong, I love him.   But I'd never want to to date him, or work with him, or stand next in line to him at Starbucks.  

If Dexter were a human being, he'd be the guy that wears obnoxiously expensive clothing that he spent seven hours ironing.  He speaks with an affected, made-up quasi-British accent to prove his high level of education.  He treats people in the service industry like they are slugs (side note: Dexter loves to eat slugs).  The only time he talks to anyone else is when he wants something from them, and he usually condescends to them.  But because he is just so attractive, everyone wants to be his friend.  And because he really thinks his superior genes should be expressed in great numbers in the next generation, he fathers a lot of children.  He prepares his lavish abode for hours in anticipation of his children.  He tries to be Father of The Year, and judges other parents for their comparatively poor parenting skills.  Then he realizes his kids'  care eats into his Me Time, so he eats them (maybe this is where the comparison ends?).  

This is the kind of fish who'd order a triple vent sugar free, non-fat, no foam, extra caramel with whip caramel macchiato, the pour regular coffee down the side and two and a half slugs on the side.   

Then there's poor, sweet St. John.  She has an unfortunate name and is a mild, tender little fish.  She spends most of her days looking at interesting things outside of her tank.  Sometimes she watches snails crawl around.   She eats everything she sees, but I've never once seen her attack another fish for her space or food.  

Look at that sweet face!  She was really interested in my phone, as you can see.

I imagine the first time she fell in love with Dexter, she felt like she'd really landed a keeper.  He spent a couple of days fanning out a spawning nest for her, and kept all of the other fish away.  When the time came for them to consummate their relationship, this is the conversation that likely ensued:

Dexter: Hello, Female Fish of Interest.  It is time for you to lay your eggs for beautiful, perfect me.
St. John:  I always knew this day would come, when I'd find the man of my dreams and have children with him.
Dexter: You're the only fish in this tank for me
St. John: Oh, Dexter! You're so thoughtful
Dexter: What? I was talking to myself
St. John: That hurt my feelings
Dexter: You have feelings?
Rated M for Mature

After some ham-handed (finned?) courtship, St. John laid her eggs and was rudely chased away by Dexter.  For days, Dexter claimed over half of his roomy 75 gallon tank to himself.  The other panfish stayed away.  Only St. John occasionally tried to visit her only love.  

St. John: Oh Dexter, I know we are meant to be together!
Dexter: STAY AWAY FISHFACE!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
Side note: Sometimes I wonder if fish would be more compassionate towards each other if they had facial expressions instead of using body color to communicate emotional and reproductive states. 

The Many Faces of St. John




Anyways, I digrees.

Eventually, about 9 zillion baby sunfish hatched and hovered motionlessly in every part of the water column.  Dexter spent about five days guarding them from the Perils of the Universe, and then ate them.

He's repeated this cycle now three times; his last batch of children hatched yesterday.   The tiny, tadpole-like spotted sunfish infants float eerily about the tank.  They sit on one of the submerged clay pots in their father's territory, watching his every move.  I'm pretty sure they stare at him all day and say, "Hey dad, hey dad, dad, dad, dad, hey dad" until one day it drives him insane and he eats them.

Dexter again, hogging the camera.  I was trying to get a shot of the babies (you can see them in the background).

When Dexter and St. John are childless again, Dexter will allow the other fish to swim over to his side. But his life philosophy remains unchanged: I'm owed all the food, all the ladies, all the glory.

* Latin for "Gigantic personalities stuffed into tiny bodies"

** I think that bumps me up to Nerd Level 19,000

Monday, June 3, 2013

My First Swim Test: Lifting the Shroud of Mystery

Swim Tests.  

The two little words strike fear into the hearts of many aspiring marine mammal trainers.

They represent the first major hurdle in landing a job in the field.  And before you actually take one, they are cloaked in as much mystery, fear, and intrigue as: Having Surgery for the First Time, Life After Death, and Indiana Jones movies* .

My first official swim test was at SeaWorld of California.  I sent in my resume with (presumably) 59,305 other equally-qualified applicants and was lucky enough to be one of a few hundred to get a swim test invitation.  When I received the good news via email, my momentary elation quickly morphed into sheer terror.  

In order to accurately convey my reaction to the swim test requirements to you, let's have a little "Here is How Cat Imagined the Swim Test" photo essay.

"Carry two 30lb buckets of ice water"

"Dive off a 6 foot bridge"

"Swim 250 feet freestyle in under 80 seconds."

"Swim 125 feet underwater in one breath"

"Surface dive 26 feet and retrieve a 5 lb weight"

"Pull yourself out of the water onto the stage, landing on your knee or foot"

Then, I read that there was a small script I had to memorize and present on microphone.  I don't remember it now, but it had to do with Dolly the dolphin (keep in mind, this was before the Blue Horizons show).  I figured that'd be the easy part; I've never had a problem flapping my trap on a microphone.

So what did I do?  Well, I worried a lot.  But most importantly, I practice all the elements of the swim test.  This was a little difficult, as I was going to school in New Hampshire.  But luckily the university had a swimming pool and it was just about a mile walk away (in the snow, uphill, yes for real).  

Now, I wasn't  just going to show up and swim some laps.  No, I had to make sure I was Prepared for the Swim Test.  The Impossible Distance Swimming and the Perilous Underwater Journey could not be left to sloppy strokes in a swimming pool lane.  No, it took imagination and intelligence to attempt to recreate the conditions I'd be asked to swim in.   Saltwater is less dense than freshwater, so I'd have to fight my way through the underwater swim portion.  I wouldn't be allowed to wear goggles, so I couldn't wear a mask in the pool.  I had to be able to hold my breath longer in training than I'd have to at SeaWorld. 

What this immense anxiety-driven preparation birthed was a nerdy college chick showing up to the open-swim time in a 3mm wetsuit and no goggles.  Everyone stared at me as I walked to the lane furthest away from the stands.  One guy commented on my curious attire, concerned about my mental welfare.  I explained I was practicing for a Swim Test in Saltwater, and rattled off the requirements.  Satisfied with my explanation, I got into the water and started my Swim Test Training journey…

…only to have my eyeballs burn out of my skull after 20 minutes of opening them in a heavily chlorinated pool. (I opted to use goggles for the rest of my training.)

Where I did my training and ruined my corneas

I can't totally remember what month my swim test was in.  I think it was February, because it was ridiculously freezing.  By the time my swim test came around, I felt prepared.

I stayed with my uncle and his family who lived near San Diego at the time.  On the day of the Swim Test, I was just about ready to throw up most of my internal organs and shrivel into a small corpse.  A million questions raced through my mind:

Will the 65 degree water be too cold?
Will I be able to see underwater okay without my goggles?
How much adrenaline can my body inject into my blood stream before I'm considered hazardous waste?

My uncle drove me to SeaWorld where I seriously don't even remember what I did until the test itself began.  So in my mind, me and the rest of the swim testers are suddenly sitting in the Whale and Dolphin stadium seating getting a demonstration of the swim test from start to finish from some of the current trainers.  They made it look so effortless and easy, and they were in thick wetsuits which made it more difficult to dive to the bottom of the pool.  If they can do it, I thought, then so should I!

The first obstacle was carrying buckets of ice water up and down some stairs.  As I recall, we went one at a time, and this is not something I prepared for.  Carrying the ice water was tough, but definitely not a big deal.  The big deal was doing it in front of your competition.  And I suddenly felt like it was my first day in high school freshman year in the cafeteria.  Luckily (and unlike in high school), I completed the task without falling on my face in front of everyone.

The next part involved stripping down to our bathing suits and standing in the frigid February air while we waited for the actual Swim Test to start.  The trainers in charge gave us the option of jumping into the water to "get used" to the temperature.  Half of the group hurled themselves in.  I didn't want to be left behind, so I followed suit.  



I unceremoniously crawled out of the water, trying to catch my breath and shivering in the cold.  When I dove in to do the freestyle swim (in under 80 seconds), my lungs felt paralyzed and I thought there was no way I could finish in time.  But I pushed through, and finished under the allotted amount of time.  That was when I started to gain confidence that I could complete the test.

The underwater part came after everyone else did their freestyle swim.  We were all shivering and miserable, but I remained determined.  When I began the underwater swim, I realized that I had so much excited energy and it was so peaceful underwater (the sounds of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins also helped) that it ended up being the easiest part of the test.  I completed it with no problems.  The surface dive and diving in from a 6 foot bridge was no problem either.  I can't explain how happy and relieved I was when I swam to the main stage and prepared to get out.

But I couldn't.  I had weak, girly noodle arms that were frozen stiff from the cold water.  I tried to pull myself up onto the slipper stage, but my arms collapsed under me.  Using a move that can only be described as "Stroked Out Harbor Seal", I emerged from the water and ran to the locker room to change.  

After that, we were informed who passed the test and who did not.  Despite my anti-climactic finish, I'd passed the swim test and would move on to the next phase before the interview.  I assumed this meant reciting the memorized script, and thought nothing of the instruction for us to get into something comfortable (e.g. not our interview clothes).  I put on some black dance pants that I realized were way too big and long for me.  Oh well, I thought.  

Those of us who passed the swim test filed into the Pets Ahoy area and were met by a slough of people from SeaWorld's entertainment department.  The excitedly informed us that part of a trainer's job is showmanship, and so they'd like us to learn and perform a choreographed dance (WHAT?!).  They added not to worry if we missed a step, they just wanted to make sure we looked like we were having a good time.

I wanted to shout, "NO! No! I'll do the underwater swim again! I'll shove hot needles under my fingernails! JUST DON'T MAKE ME DANCE IN PUBLIC!"  I was really only looking out for the wellbeing of the people who'd have to actually witness my attempt at dancing.

I am a terrible dancer, and I hate dancing.  So none of the moves felt normal to me, and my pants kept falling down.  So my audition dance involved a lot of seizure-like movements while one (or both) of my hands hiked up my pants, all the while I managed to plaster what I thought was a smile on my face.  My attempts at jovial laughter sounded too similar to a hyena, which I'm pretty sure was why all the dogs in the back area started barking.

This is my attempt at dancing.  No, really.

Once the "dancing" was over, we recited our scripts on mic and then played improv games.  That was really fun.  In fact, I got so into it, it essentially sealed my fate to never work at SeaWorld.  The improv games are there to see who can think on their feet quickly, because as we all know, not every show will go as planned.  If you're narrating or announcing a show, you'd better be able to deal with changes out of left field without sounding unprofessional.  

And for those of you who know me well, you can already guess why I didn't do so great at the improvisation games.  It wasn't that I couldn't think on my feet, it was the oddball, weird responses I gave in attempt at humor.  For example, when we had to go around in a circle and tell a story by adding one sentence to the previous person's:

Person A: I went to the store one day
Person B: and ran into an old friend
Person C: so I said hello and then
Cat: I punched him in the face

"I punched him in the face"?? How about I just hide in this egg until the embarrassment passes?

By the time the interview was over, I knew I probably didn't get the job.  All of the trainers, curators, and entertainment folks at SeaWorld were very kind and made me feel comfortable in spite of a very nerve-wracking experience.  I didn't feel angry or sad when I got the letter a few weeks later saying I hadn't gotten the job, but I felt confident that after going through that experience, I could pass another swim test somewhere else.  And maybe filter my answers on any other improv audition tests (maybe).

Nowadays, swim tests don't scare me anymore.  They are really more of a mental game than anything else.  If you're comfortable swimming, you'll pass a swim test.   But it's certainly a rite of passage to do your first one, if only to realize that they aren't a huge deal if you have determination and perseverance.   And as a great bonus, they often leave you with funny stories to tell.  

An extremely attractive photo of my in my favorite element

So I'm curious fellow marine mammal trainers, what are some of your hilarious moments from your swim tests?

* Not the last one, unless the mystery is dealing with, "Why was this movie actually made?"