Sunday, August 18, 2013

Live from Rhinelander: FROGS FROGS FROGS

This blog entry comes to you from Rhinelander Wisconsin.  You might remember this place from such stories as How My Dad Lost His Glasses and Attempted to Find Them Under Dangerous Circumstances, as well as The Great Duckling Rescue.

You'll also have to forgive the lack of photos, as I'm in the middle of the Northwoods and I don't have my photo library with me. Also, I'M ON VACATION.

But this blog entry is about the best animals in the entire world.  They are the animals I first fell in love with.  They’re cute, they’re complex, they’re texturally interesting.  They’re...


Oh my GOD.  I love frogs.  Seriously, like I don’t understand how anyone finds themselves in anything other than awe and wonder when they see a frog face.  Their wide mouths, cartoony-eyes and squishy, rolly-polly bellies are the epitome of adorableness.  

I first came to love frogs here in Rhinelander at Holiday Acres resort on Lake Thompson.  The lake is home to two main species of frog: the green frog and the bullfrog.  They are relatively easy to tell apart once you know what you’re looking for.  Green frogs are an olive to yellow/green with yellow bellies.  Some of their bellies are as yellow as a banana.  Their maximum size (at least out here) is just smaller than the palm of your hand.  They make a sound I can really only type as, “GULP GULP. GULP GULP.”

The bullfrog is much larger, reaching sizes that in some cases are larger than an average human hand (with the fingers).  This size is scientifically known as “Otimus squishiness”. Their skin color is a dark green, almost black when wet, and their bellies are a light brown or grey.  Their hip bones are more prominent than the green frog, and they make a sound similar to the sound of the lowest string on a cello being played.

Enough of the technicality, let’s talk about my life with frogs.

The first animal I saw up close as a child was a medium-sized bull frog my father caught right outside of our cabin here (the very cabin I’m sitting in front of right now).  My four year old mind decisively christened this First Frog, “Elizabeth.”  Elizabeth enchanted me with her glistening skin, golden eyes, and strength.  I thought there was nothing more beautiful than a frog, and when we had to let her go at the end of the week, I was very sad.   Elizabeth on the other hand, probably thought she evaded certain death and went on to become a motivational speaker for Amphibian Victims of Human Capture.  

Anyways, I thought seeing a frog up close was so awesome, I resolved that one day, I’d have frogs as pets. 

I didn't have any luck for the next couple of years.   In fact, I saw no frogs anywhere.  I was told there were leeches in the reeds where I supposed there'd be frogs.  But as any child knows, leeches can cause Instant Death Due To Massive Pain And Grossness (and a Little Bit of Blood Loss). 

But I didn't believe this lie for very long.  In fact, I used it to my advantage.  

When I was 8, I got over my fear of leeches and traipsed into the reeds with a butterfly net.  In fact, I did so with a wake of boys roughly my age waiting agape behind me, shouting out the Risks of Peril:

"You're going to get LEECHES!!" 



Despite the danger, I sought the frogs out.  For hours a day, I'd research where they'd hide, how they made their sounds, what time of day they were easier to find.  Once I found them, I'd make their sounds to lure them closer to me.

Let that last sentence sink into your imagination.  Remember what I said the sounds of green and bull frogs are?  Since none of what I'm about to describe every made its way onto any video recording device, you'll have to just picture me standing as still as possible in ankle-deep bog water trying to make the sound of a cello with my 8 year old voice.   It's really amazing that I found someone to marry me, when I think about it.

Once the frogs were in proper capturing range, I honed my technique of safely and calmly coaxing them into my net.  Once they were securely inside, my excitement exploded into whooping cheers and "DAD I CAUGHT ANOTHER FROG!"*

The best part? The boys who stood in defeat as I walked past them with frog after frog after frog.  I'd bring them to my cabin, hold them, measure them (this is the frog we're talking about here, not the boys), and figure out their gender.  If the tympanic membrane behind their eye was the same size or smaller than the eye, it was a girl.  Larger, a boy.  Some of these frogs I'd take home and keep in a large aquarium system.  I had many of these frogs for almost ten years.

I even used my newfound frog-capture prowess and lack of fear of what lay beneath the muddy water to make a few extra bucks.  One year, every night I'd have a line of boys ranging from 5 to 12 line outside my cabin door paying me a quarter to go out and catch them a frog.  They'd let them go at the end of the week, but I got to keep the quarter.

I never outgrew the frog catching excitement.  Although for some reason, I don't know why, people look really freaked out when I ask them if they want me to catch a frog for them for $5 (inflation, duh).    Nowadays I know that handling frogs with my bare hands is not good for them, so I handle them with nitrile gloves.  I take photos of them and place them back where I found them.  I haven't brought a frog home to keep for a long time.  They are an animal in tremendous peril; highly sensitive to pollution in the water, air, and earth.  My visit up here is made great by a booming frog population, and sad when I find none.  I don't know what it's going to be like this year, but with the amount of bald eagles, loons, mallards, insects, and fish I've seen in the last 12 hours, I'm hoping for the best.  The better the frog population, the healthier the lake.

If I find some cuties, I'll make sure to post the pics on here.  Stay tuned!

* My mother was not the happiest about my animal collection adventures, so we just left her out of it

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Funny Things Guests Say: What Dolphins Feel Like

One of the best parts of my job is the people I meet on a daily basis.  For most of my career, I've worked in an interactive facility, or I've been assigned to a department that does animal interactions.  I love it.  Not only is it fun to meet interesting people, but I get a shot at giving them some information that hopefully will benefit animals, the ocean, the world someday.  I know that a handful of marine mammal trainers, zookeepers, and ethologists are responsible for my passion for animals and the environment.  Their passion for their job (life's work, really) inspired me, so I try to pay to forward to the guests I talk to.  Talk to any of my human coworkers, and they'll tell you the same thing.

You know you're having fun when dolphin toys go flying.

Not every interaction with guests is the same, thankfully.  Most of the time, the exchanges are pleasant. They ask questions, we answer.  If they're doing an interaction program, they follow directions well and enjoy their time with the animals.  They are polite and friendly.  Occasionally, we get people who are not in a great mood for a variety of reasons.  And then, every so often, we get Guests Who Say The Funniest Things.

If I wrote here all of the hilarious stuff I've heard guests say since I started in this field in 2005, this blog entry would reach lengths rivaling a Proust novel.  So I'm going to divide it up into categories, and today's category is:


Dolphins feel like……...

I ask this question all the time.  I don't remember why I started asking it, though.  Maybe a mentor suggested it as a good conversation starter when I first started learning how to do dolphin interactions.  Sometimes it's hard to engage guests in conversation when you're first learning, so it helps to have little key phrases to get people talking.  One of the more awkward periods of time in a trainer's new career is when you're setting up for your encounter guests to touch the dolphins.   You'd think this would be the easiest scenario in which to have a chat about dolphin conservation, or physiology, or behavior.  But it's not usually like that.  Why?

Well, I want to let you all in on a little secret about dolphin interactions: most guests don't want to touch the dolphins that much.

"What???" you ask.  "You're crazy, that's crazy, you are dumb."

Okay, I'm not saying all people get bored of touching dolphins.  The people who are nuts about dolphins (and let's face it, most of you reading this blog are of that ilk) want to interact with the dolphins as much as possible.  They love the animals, and our idea of showing affection towards animals in our culture is to give them a good rubdown.  When us animal nuts meet someone's pet for the first time, we're going to want to pet them and play with them for a long time (unless, of course, they are venomous and/or are fire ants*).  

But here's the thing, while many people who come to do interactions like dolphins, I'd say at least 50% of them are not animal lovers (but most of them leave with a greater appreciation for animals that they wouldn't have had without the animal encounter). In addition to that, many of our interaction guests are kids.  Here is a short list of what kids would rather do than pet a dolphin:

1) Play in the water, as though there is no dolphin there
2) Give a couple of hand signals to see if the dolphin responds
3) Toss a toy around for a dolphin to play with
4) Tell you about their weird uncle who eats wood chips

That's not to say people aren't curious about how dolphin skin feels.  But once they've had a couple of seconds of touching the dolphin, they usually stop themselves.  Since our interactions are mostly with the animal needs in mind first, and then the guests', it can be tricky to figure out how to tailor a program to an individual person's interests.  For example, if I have a dolphin who is gaga for tactile, and a guest who would really rather just see what the dolphin can do, I have some mitigating to do to keep that dolphin's interest.  The same goes for the reverse scenario.

So anyways, because not everyone a) wants to touch a dolphin for 15 minutes and b) has an interest in animals, I began to get some interesting reactions to how the dolphins felt.  There were so many interesting reactions, that I make it a point to ask every guest I have what they think the dolphins feel like.  

And so, on this day the 4th of August, two thousand and thirteen, I present to you the Top Ten Answers To The Question "What Do Dolphins Feel Like"?

10) A wet hot dog


9) An eggplant 

The grossest vegetable around

8) A giant olive

Now THAT'S a giant olive!

7) "Exactly like a shark"
Ah yes, the rubber shark.  Its primary prey is the money of Florida tourists.

6) A liver (three guests who were doctors have said this)

Sure, clean it up, maybe dry it off a little.

5) "My wife's legs"

The product that can turn your skin into dolphin skin

4) A dinner plate


3) Ice cubes covered in vaseline

No google search could handle these keywords.  Nor do I think you want to see Ice Cube in vaseline.

2) A sink that has been drained for one hour

Try it!

1) ….. The reproductive erm, area, of the guest's girlfriend

Not even Mr. Cage could deal with this answer

Now it's your time to share, animal trainers!  What are some of the best responses you've gotten to this question (with any animal)?

* If you know someone who has pet fire ants, please contact your nearest Psychiatric Hospital for immediate action