Sunday, September 29, 2013

Panama's Eternal PSA

I'm privileged to know (or have known) a lot of really amazing animals.  One of the themes for this blog was to highlight some of the ones who were extra special to me.  Most of them have made their debut in The Middle Flipper Is… posts, or had entries all to their own.

From the start of this blog in 2011, I intended on writing about a dolphin named Panama for a number of reasons.  First of all, she was the very first dolphin I really got to know.  Secondly, she was deaf.  Thirdly, she was a beggar dolphin in Panama City Beach and wound up on death's door in 2000.  Additionally, she was my main coworker in the filming of Dolphin Tale and she taught me a lot about training.  Mostly because girlfriend didn't do what she didn't want to do, ever.

Panama, on my last day of work at CMA in 2011.

For those of you who are in the marine mammal field, you may already know that Panama passed away a few days ago.  She was likely in her 30s or 40s.   I felt it appropriate to make an entire entry in tribute of Panama.  More importantly, because she taught me so much, there will likely be several entries about her in the future.

But today, I figured we could talk about why Panama was where she was.  We can make a sad situation into a learning experience, and spread the message about why you shouldn't feed wild dolphins.

I first met Panama as an intern at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2005.   The aquarium's animals are all rescued animals, most of whom are deemed unreleasable.   Some of the animals are there only because of human stupidity.  Unfortunately, that is the case with Panama.

Panama and Winter, two dolphins whose injuries are 100% related to human laziness and selfishness

Her back story is interesting, but in a sad way.  As mentioned previously, she was a beggar dolphin in the hot spot for illegal wild dolphin activity: Panama City Beach.  People to this day still openly talk about feeding wild dolphins out there, whether from a boat, a dock, or in some cases, on scuba gear.

So what happened to Panama?  When she stranded, she was 100 pounds underweight.  One hundred.  That's unbelievably serious.   She had third degree burns from the sun due to the amount of time she was out of the water.  She had a life-threatening infection, which may have resulted in her deafness.  In fact, a large percentage of stranded dolphins are found to be deaf: the cause is still being explored (check out David Mann's work on the subject).  

So this poor dolphin is in awful condition, and then is identified as a beggar dolphin.  Long story short, she'd been getting food she shouldn't eat. Here's a Random Bio Fact: Dolphins should NOT eat beer, ice cream, or hot dogs.

Don't give this to a dolphin! GIVE IT TO ME!!!!

"But Cat!" you may say.  "What am I supposed to do with all of this food on my boat??"

If you have any leftover ice cream you intended on feeding to dolphins, let me first express my sincere concern with your mental well-being, because I don't think I've ever had any leftover ice cream in my life.   Don't dismay, I will accept any and all donations of human food you don't want to eat (especially if it is ice cream).  You know, just to save the wild dolphins.

Anyways, in addition to being fed human food, Panama was also served up bait fish (whole or in pieces).  Some of it had been left out in the sun for a good long time.  Dolphins are not scavengers, so like us they cannot eat rotten, bacteria-ified fish.

Sometimes, when I think about Panama (and so many other beggar dolphins' fates), I have this sinister plot that I fantasize about. It goes something like this:

Disclaimer for anyone born without a sense of humor: This is all satirical.

I see a boatload of people tripping over themselves to feed and touch wild dolphins.  They grab their sun fried and freezer burned ballyhoos and their bacteria-laden pieces of mullet (because come on, these humans are not going to feed to the dolphins their catch of the day! THAT'S THEIRS!) and dangle it above the dolphins head, trying to bait it closer to the boat so they can say they communed with a Dolphin In Its Natural Environment.

Wow, what animal lovers.

I saunter over to them (I'm not sure how I manage a saunter while on a boat), acting all friendly-like.

Me: Hey you fellow dolphin-lovers! I'd like to reward you for your noble efforts to stay away from marine parks despite your interest in interacting with dolphins.  It's great to see people go out to the ocean, and help them out by feeding them.

Boat Morons: Thanks! Yeah well, we didn't want this bait to go to waste! Plus, they only tell you you're not supposed to feed the dolphins out here because they're in the marine parks' back pockets.

Me: Well, why don't I take you out to a nice dinner to show my appreciation?

And so, we caravan back to my place.  And I sit them all down and I serve them the human equivalent of the Beggar Dolphin Diet.  It'd be stuff that would really make us feel sick, or things humans couldn't eat.  Here's a sample menu:

Stale bread and 9 month old unrefrigerated butter

Fried rotten tomatoes

A plastic bag

Filet of grouper, raw, sun-dried and aged ten hours

Steamed cardboard boxes

Breast of chicken, rare

A colorful assortment of bottle caps 

Ice-cold seawater

Boat Morons: WTF? We can't eat this stuff?  What are you trying to do, kill us? You could go to jail trying to serve us this!

Me: But I'm interested in interacting with you!!!!!!!! Shouldn't that transcend all of my ethical principles? Federal law?  My ability to empathize with something other than myself?

I assume the people would get wise before they ate any of this stuff.  Of course, I don't want any lasting damage to happen to these people, so I'd have some kind of emergency service ready to go just in case someone really had a hankering for bottle caps. 

So back to Panama: not only did she get extremely sick and almost die from the horrible stuff she was fed, but she gave up hunting.   Like so many of us, dolphins will take the easy way out if given the option.  Humans take the path of least resistance when it comes to food all the time, and I guess in that case there's nothing wrong with that, as long as no one's getting hurt.  I'm totally fine rolling up into a Tijuana Flats and having a burrito made for me, instead of you know, making my own tortilla, harvesting my own black beans, rice, lettuce, blah blah blah.

But shoot, if Tijuana Flats starts putting bits of glass into my burrito, or gives me rotten queso for my chips, I'm going to press charges, and everyone understands why that's wrong.

Alas, dolphins can find other ways of making their lives easier.  They are incredibly smart, and most species display cooperative hunting techniques.  Many coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins (especially in Florida) do not migrate.  Why? Because there are always fish to eat.  They are not starving out there.   Humans do not need to help the dolphins out any.

A photo I took a year ago of a dolphin catching his own fish.  

But what happens when humans feed dolphins?  Even if you went out there with restaurant-quality fish that is perfectly safe and nutritious for dolphins?  Well, you've stripped them and their future offspring of a wild dolphin life.   You've taught them to approach oncoming boats, instead of avoid them.  Don't believe me?  Please, just take a spin on the ol' Google machine and find pictures of dolphins who've been hit by boats.  Check out Don't Feed Wild Dolphins.  

If you see a population of wild dolphins who do NOT have a history for being fed, and you're a giant jerk, you could run your boat straight at a healthy pod of dolphins and not hit a single one.   They dive out of the way.  When you see a pod of dolphins who are used to begging for food, they will not move.  They will stay right where they are, because (sorry to burst anyone's bubble), they are not psychic and cannot tell if you're the boat that's going to feed them or not.* 

It doesn't matter how many healing crystals you have, you'll never make dolphins psychic.

And, as in the case of Panama, beggar dolphins who have calves teach their offspring how to beg, not to hunt.  So you've crippled generations of animals, not just the one or two individuals you're dealing with.   

If none of that convinces you (jerk!), know that dozens of people have been bit, fluked, and rammed by wild dolphins like mobsters coming to collect what's theirs.   What's really crappy about this is you could just be hanging out in the water, being a nice person and following the law, and a beggar dolphin comes up to you and is all like, "WHERE'S THE PROTECTION MONEY?" 

And you're like, "What? I didn't know dolphins could talk? Plus, it's illegal to feed wild dolphins."


Don't turn dolphins into this.  They look ridiculous in suits, anyway.

Come on! THINK! That's what you want to do to these animals just because you want a photo like this:


Or this:

Yeah, that's a beer.  
Or this flattering photo of the female figure:

Panama was a unique ambassador in our field.  She taught thousands of people (maybe more) about the dangers of feeding wild dolphins.  Most people don't even realize it's illegal, and even some of those people don't care until you put them face-to-face with an animal who lost so much just because of our collective selfishness.   Her story has hopefully helped others spread information, call law enforcement when they see people feeding dolphins, or verbally berate them (as I and a few others in my life have done in these circumstances).  I'd throw ice cream at them, but that's a waste.

And now, through the miracle of the internet, Panama's story and message can endure in one more way.   Thanks, lady.

* With that said, if you're the type of person who drives boats over pods of dolphins, you probably eat babies too.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cat Lost, and Cat Found.

A few of you asked me yesterday if you missed the weekly Middle Flipper post.

I feel badly that I let you down.  Work has been crazy (in a good way) and I didn't have time to write a thoughtful post the other day.   Luckily, my missing blog entry for the week is the perfect segue into a story about me, Cat, disappearing.

Disappear? Impossible, you say.

It's very possible if you ask my dad and my dive instructor.

When I was 13, my dad and I got our open water PADI certification in suburban Illinois.  You know, where people come from all over (sometimes from up to 10 miles around!) to dive the beautiful rock quarries.  

Haigh Quarry, where the story begins.

Well, if I'm being totally honest, most of our dives took place in Mitchell Pool, where I took all of my swim lessons as a little kid.  But the actual certification dive happened in a massive quarry built expressly for such dives.   I don't remember why none of our fellow dive students did the same dive, but I recall that on the fateful day, it was just my dad, me, and the instructor.

We donned our gear and swam out to a section of the quarry, BCs completely inflated.  There were divers everywhere, their flags and bubbles the only evidence of their activity.  The entire quarry was filled with dive platforms at varying depths, sunken boats, planes, cars, and manmade caves.  When we reached our platform, the instructor told us the following:

1) Deflate the BC and descend to the dive platform below us
2) Wait for further instructions; he would do each of our tasks one at a time.

Easy.  And exciting.  This was the culminating step in achieving my first official goal in qualifying for a marine mammal training job.  You just can't get a job working with marine animals without a scuba certification*.  

Here is me before a dive giving a new trainer her whistle. 

We slid beneath the charming mud-colored water at roughly the same time.  As I slowly dove deeper, I realized I couldn't see inches in front of my face.   Whatever, I thought, I was so excited to be getting certified.  And I figured as long as I kept descending straight down, I'd eventually hit the platform.

So I went down.

And down.

And down.

And down.

Whomp.  I hit the floor.  A large cloud of silt swirled and billowed around me, further reducing my visibility.  But I was told to wait, and wait I did.  The dive platform felt squishy and strange, but what did I know about common materials used in dive platforms?  I just knew I'd sank down until I hit bottom.  I was on the right track.

My view underwater.

I heard the sounds of many people breathing underwater.  It was a calming, mesmerizing experience.  The only visual object(s) my mind could process were the tiny particles swirling 0.0004mm in front of my mask.  It was hypnotic.

I breathed and waited and breathed and waited.  What the hell was taking my dive instructor and my dad so long to do their thing?  I laughed in my head, wondering what misfortune fell upon my father (and for those of you following this blog, you know exactly what I'm talking about).  

Ten minutes passed, and still I waited.

A flash of neon orange shot into my field of vision milliseconds before the dive fin slapped me across the face.  I fell back a few feet, stumbling to get my footing.  BAM.  Another kick in the back of the head.  I turned around to see if it was my dad or teacher attempting to contact me, in much the way I expect a zealous believer in alien abduction waits in the dark for the tractor beam to pull them skyward.    Alas, the fins that flayed me belonged to strangers in the smudge.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Where the hell was everyone?  I remained obediently still, knowing that my turn would come.  I got kicked in the face and head a few more times, and yet I remained loyal to the instructions.

Suddenly, a bluegill appeared in front of my face.  


Awww, I thought to myself. What a cute-




The bluegill slammed its face into my mask right between my eyes.   

Me: WTF?!
Me: WTF?!
Me: FTS!!!!! ***

That did it.  I couldn't sit down at the bottom any longer, not with this completely unmerited, abusive response from the locals.   I rose to the surface, seething in irritation. I'd wait for the slowpoke men in my life where I wouldn't get booted in the face by man or fish.

When my head cleared the surface, I saw my dad and the dive master.  Their faces were locked in expressions of terror and panic.   Ha! I thought to myself, they're pissed about those ridiculous bluegill, too!

I yelled out to them, "Hey guys! Where were you?"

They quickly turned to look at me.  My dad cried out, "OH THANK GOD YOU ARE ALIVE."

The bluegill weren't THAT bad, I thought.

Me: What? I'm fine.
Dad: We've been up here for 15 minutes trying to find where you are!
Me: I was waiting on the dive platform for you.
Dad: We were on the dive platform! We realized you weren't there and started looking for you!
Me: I was down there the whole time.  
Bluegill: I can attest to that! That dirty ape destroyed my home!

Much to the relief of the instructor and my father, I was not floating around the rock quarry unconscious (or worse).  When we went back down to the platform, I realized I had just missed it by roughly 10 inches.  But in the horrendous visibility, I could've been 780 miles away or one inch away, and it'd all look the same.  

And so was the first large step in a long journey towards my current occupation.  A Middle Flipper event (i.e. the disgruntled panfish) was at the start of it all, setting the mold of my experience with animals yet to come.  And, luckily for my father, he found at least one thing he lost in a mysterious, silty body of water.  

* Unless you are able to hold your breath for over 45 minutes while operating heavy machinery

** Official sound effect of bluegill territoriality

*** PG-rated translation: Forget this silliness

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Internship Failz: Airborne Edition

Every so often, something or someone reminds me of a story that immediately rings the MIDDLE FLIPPER CONTENT alarm in my head.  It's like unearthing a rare fossil; as the years* pass, I start to forget some of the hilarious things I've said, done, or have happened to me in this amazing job.

But luckily, such a memory-jogging event occurred at work the other day.

One of our new interns and I chatted over a sinkful of buckets about what it was like to make mistakes as a new intern.  I reassured her that everyone does it, which bridged the final synapses in my brain to bring you The Story Of the Airborne Disaster.

I did my internship at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which started on January 20th, 2005.  Why do I remember this?  Because it was four days after my 21st birthday in which I really let loose and ushered in my newfound drinking privileges with eating key lime pie for the first time and drinking glass after glass of….water.**

I know how to party.  Sober.  Yes, I'm serious.

To give myself some credit before I well, discredit myself, I did have the general notion of what a marine mammal internship would probably be like.  I knew I'd be cleaning a lot, and sorting fish, and of course I knew what I'd read on the sheet sent to me about what to expect in the internship.  I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work and and smells.

But I really had no clue how to distinguish myself, since this was My First Step Towards My Dream Job.  I wanted to Make An Impression.  Be careful what you wish for, right?

My first day, I put on the required clothing and showed up with a bellyful of butterflies at CMA.  Wait wait wait, let's backtrack.  What did I do after I put on my black quick-dry pants, tevas, and random crappy shirt?  Oh, I put on makeup.

Apologies to trainers/zookeepers everywhere who put on makeup for their job.  I'm sure yours is waterproof and expertly applied.  Well done!  This is not the experience I am describing for myself.  I've had spurts of makeup-wearing periods, especially around that time in my life.  But I didn't know what I was doing.  I had the cheapest stuff you could find because, uh, it was cheap.  Furthermore, I have never felt comfortable in makeup because it makes my eyelids feel heavy and I always feel like it's running down my face and making me look all heroin-addicty.

This is much later in my internship, sans makeup.

But how else was I supposed to look presentable and professional my first day on the job?  Certainly not by the way I dressed!  Makeup was the answer.

I was directed into the fish kitchen, which was crammed full of People Who Knew What They Were Doing.  And it was there that I realized I had made a huge mistake in wearing makeup.   In fact, one of the volunteers even commented on it, "Wow, you look awfully nice to be down here."  

Now that I remember this, I'm like dude, that's no big deal.  But at the time, I was convinced it meant my job as a dolphin trainer would never happen, because I'd already made myself look totally stupid in the first 23 minutes of my internship.

So that sets the stage.

My next few days were very stressful.  I didn't know what anyone was talking about (WTF is an SD? How can they really tell these otters apart? How can they keep track of food each day? Where the hell are the bathrooms?!), everyone was so focused and passionate that I felt like I'd be bothering them with really, really dumb questions to help me learn how to do different tasks, and I just felt like I wasn't cut out for the field.  I was defeated, disillusioned…and most of all, self-conscious. 

This ain't the place to get sick.

With the stress and cold weather, I found myself starting to get sick.

Oh NO, I thought! I can't be sick during my internship! I can't call out sick so early in a job!

That day, I did my duties feeling pretty crappy.  I still couldn't remember everyone's name, and was just yearning for the moment when I felt like I belonged there.  When lunchtime rolled around, I sat quietly at a desk in the marine mammal office.  One of the trainers asked me what was wrong, I told her I was fine, just felt like I was coming down with a cold.

"Have you heard of Airborne?" she asked.
"Yes, but I've never had it."
"Oh, I have some in my purse! Take it! I swear by it!"
"Thanks," I said. 
"It tastes like Orange Crush," she said.

Herbal cold-fighter, or harbinger of horror?

She handed me the tube of Airborne and went back to her conversation with the other trainers and volunteers in the office.  I was touched by the trainer's kindness, but my insecure mind made me feel embarrassed that I'd admitted I was getting sick (I showed a sign of weakness! Now I'll NEVER get a job!). My stress and impending illness may or may not have affected what transpired.

I thought I'd read the bottle carefully.  I thought it directed me to take one tablet with a glass of water.

I popped the top of the tube open, unleashing the characteristic citrusy smell.  I slid one tablet into my hand and peered around the office.  Everyone was engaged in conversation, so I could take my Airborne in peace.  Thinking back, I had unbelievably low self-esteem during that time.

I looked at the flat, orange wafer in my hand, hoping it didn't taste like well, every other chewable med out there (Chalk and some perverted version of "Flavor").  But I couldn't afford to get sick, I didn't want to be rude to the trainer who'd lent me her personal rhinovirus-fighting stash, so I bucked up and popped the tablet into my mouth.

Easy-to-chew tablets?

And then it exploded.

Foam, saliva, orange chalk flavor, filled up my mouth and burned my tongue as the effervescent tablet tried to figure out what the eff just happened.

Airborne Tablet: Where the hell am I?
My mouth: Uh, this is a mouth.
Airborne Tablet: What am I doing in here?!
My mouth: I don't know, Brain isn't thinking.

Meanwhile, I am more and more closely resembling a rabid dog as I struggled to maintain composure in a room full of people who could Make My Career Happen.  My tongue on fire, I tried to take a sip of water to flush the sensation away.  But as I tried to open my mouth, Airborne foam poured out of my face.  

My brain: You're gonna have to just deal with it! Ain't no way you're gonna spit this out and RUIN YOUR CHANCE AT YOUR DREAM JOB.  NO ONE WILL HIRE SOMEONE WITH RABIES!

I suffered in silence until trainer who had given me the pills turned around and saw me.

"What is going on?" she asked.
I couldn't answer because, well, my mouth was full of foam and I was 86% certain my tongue had burned away.

"Did you just put the Airborne in your mouth?" she asked.  At this point, everyone in the office stared at me.

I nodded, cheeks full.

Everyone laughed.  Not the meangirl laugh, it was a genuine, "Oh god this is hilarious" laugh.  It actually made me feel a little better.

"You're supposed to put it in a glass of water first! Like alka-seltzer!"

And then I started laughing, and drooled orange-flavored foam all over myself.  This action freed me to drink copious amounts of water, diluting the awful flavor and sensation burning my cheeks and tongue.

I looked at the Airborne container again.  Indeed, I had somehow misinterpreted the directions.  More importantly, I'd missed the word "effervescent". 

….and/or Airborne inappropriately.

At that point, the ice had been broken.  From that day forward, I felt more comfortable around my bosses and coworkers.  They'd seen the Real Me and thought it was hilarious.  I could be myself around them and be accepted, because they were all good people.  

And the best part? My immune system gave me a pity pass on the illness. 

My mouth: Hey, Immune System, give her a break.  She just put an Airborne directly into her mouth.
Immune System: What?! Didn't she read the directions?!
My mouth: Not thoroughly.  But she's under a lot of stress.  Cut her some slack on this cold she picked up.
Immune System: Sigh. Just this once.

Alas, I've seen many interns come and go in my career, and expect to see many more.  Half of those interns have an experience similar to mine (although I've never seen or heard of anyone eating Airborne directly, which makes me feel really unique).  And while they field feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness, I can relate to them this story to tell them it's okay, it happens.  That perhaps it's more important how you react to the mistake, no matter how bizarre or bad, than the mistake itself.

"…so I was like, I didn't even realize I had to dissolve it first!"

Now I'm curious about you all, dear readers.  Share with me your stories of internship disaster!

* Haha, yeah, more like "as the seconds pass, I can't remember where I put that bag of M&Ms, much less everything that's happened in the last eight or nine years."

** And I regret not a moment of my sobriety or nerdiness

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Holy Grail of the Animal Keeper and Trainer Profession

Being in the animal care profession is, for most of us, not a lucrative job.  

Maybe if you're some kind of fancy animal trainer who teaches animals to play roles in movies or commercials, you've got a bigger paycheck.  So really, this blog isn't for you.

I'm talking about the rest of us in the zoo world, raking poo, pressure-washing habitats, sorting fish, and training elephants for voluntary blood samples.   We make about $0 (after taxes).  Do we care?  Not really.  I mean, not unless our car is totaled, or a pet needs an expensive medical procedure, or we have no more money for donuts.   When that tragic stuff happens, we scrounge together enough pennies to see us through, but we live without cable TV, fancy homes and/or safe neighborhoods, big vacations, nice cars, or high end clothes.   Some really hardcore savers even forgo internet (but their sanity is in question).    We find roommates to help pay the rent, we find the cheapest auto insurance, we buy discount donuts (oh, how sad are the Walmart donuts? I mean, really).

I'll eat you, but I won't like it.

But there are so many there ways in which our jobs make us rich.  Our experiences with the animals is a massively broad and intrinsically rewarding.  We work with like-minded people with a similar value system; no animal haters or apathetic people in sight.  In many cases, we work in or near amazing cities, beaches, mountains, backwaters, or interesting countries, so we can do a lot of cool staycationing.   We have incredible team-bonding moments, like Orphan Potluck Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter no matter what religion (or even if you're religious at all) dinners because well, we work all those holidays.  

With a life as fulfilling and rich as the one we lead as animal caretakers, there is but one thing I have failed to mention.  It is the Holy Grail of zookeepers and animal trainers alike.   

Here a pop-quiz to test your understanding of the world of animal care.

Question:  What is the Holy Grail of Zookeepers and Animal Trainers?
Answer:   a) Winning the lottery
                b) Marrying a rich person
                c) Making a friend outside of work
                d) Finding six French silk pies in your refrigerator one day

If I found six of these in my fridge, I'd give one to charity and eat the rest.

Ha! I bet I really stumped you there, right?  I mean, of COURSE we want to find six pies in our fridges*.  But I know that's something every Tom, Dick, and Harry would want (and possibly people with other names as well).   I'm talking something unique to the field of animal care.

Did you guess C?   DING DING DING.

Wow, I get goosebumps just thinking about it.  A friend.  That doesn't work with me.  Whoa. 

You have to be careful when you meet a person you want to be friends with that doesn't work at your zoo or aquarium.  Because once your coworkers get a clue what you've found, they'll want to be his or her friend too.  Don't take your Non-Work Friend (NWF) to too many work group dinners.  Definitely don't take them to a house party.

Why are these NWFs so coveted?  Because we spend more time with our coworkers than our own family.  I feel so close to my coworkers (past and present), I consider them family.  They are amazing people who love the same things I love.  We share the highest highs and lowest lows.  But we all need to have outlets outside of our workplace.  So an NWF is the perfect answer.

Wait, let me back up.  There's a lot to say about this topic, and I also don't want to leave you with the impression that like, all NWF are the same.    There are three levels of NWFs, listed in order of rarity.

Level One NWF: The Former Work Friend Who Now Works Somewhere Else

This friend used to work with you, but now they are trainers elsewhere, or maybe they left the field.  They know all the same people, they still keep in touch with some of your coworkers, and they know the animals and politics of the facility.  Nonetheless, the great thing about this Level 1 NWF is they are relatively easy to come by if you're in the field long enough.  Also, the more that time passes between when they left and the present moment, the less they really know what's going on at work…but they at least still know what you're talking about.

And, most importantly, they can tell you about new stuff they're up to.  You don't have to live entirely within your work world.  You can have conversations like this:

You: Wow, it's so good to hear from you.  Let me tell you what Noel did during show.  He totally anticipated the bridge on his third position spinner, and LW was all flustered and did that thing she did when something goes wrong.
Level 1 NWF: OMG good ol' Noel.  I can't believe LW still works there!  Let me tell you about my elephants.

Or this:

You: One of our otters escaped today.
Level 1 NWF: Which one?!
You: Garth.
Level 1 NWF: Not again! Did you have to herd him into a crate?
You: Yeah, it worked this time though!

Level Two NWF: The Fellow Animal Keeper/Trainer Who Does Not, Nor Has Ever, Worked At Your Facility

This is one of the coolest friendships to make, for both social and professional reasons.  Some could call this networking, but I'm not just talking about making a professional connection.  I'm talking about something like an experience that happened to me last week, where I met a lead keeper at a zoo not far from where I live.  She was doing a Keeper Chat on red-tail hawks and was obviously well-learned and very passionate about her job.  As we talked further, we both decided it was probably a good idea to take advantage of the NWF opportunity presented to us.  I don't know her animals or her coworkers and vice-versa, so we can sit and talk about our favorite thing (animals), get exposed to different methods of animal training and care, and not worry about well, the things one worries about when developing friendships of varying levels with your own coworkers.

The best part about the Level Two NWF is that forging this friendship requires a Social Intelligence Level of about 0.0004.  Watching two animal keepers befriend one another is similar to watching two five year old strangers start playing together.  At some point, one of the five year olds will blurt out, "WANNA BE FRIENDS?"  to which the other child replies, "YES. I'M FIVE YEARS OLD HOW OLD ARE YOU?" 

In animal care professionals, the conversation goes something like this:

You: Yeah, so, I work in the field too, with harbor seals.
Level 2 NWF: No way! Where?
You: At Local Aquarium.  So, you obviously love your job.
Level 2 NWF: Yeah, it's my life.  Are you on Facebook?
You: YES.  

There is so much excitement in this exchange that, in addition to being stoked you're about to have a NWF friend, you're overwhelmed with the thought of, "OMFG AM I BEING CREEPY RIGHT NOW" when you start to broach the topic of friendship.  So often times, it just comes flying right out of your mouth if you don't use the standard, Facebook Casual Inquiry.

You can also have conversations like this:

You: So one of the otters escaped today.
Level 2 NWF: OMG that sucks!! What did you do?
You: Well, luckily he was crate trained and so we just brought the crate out and sort of herded him in there.
Level 2 NWF: Wow, that's nuts.  The last time that happened to us, one of the keepers got bit.

Level Three NWF: The Bonafied Not An Animal Trainer/Keeper Friend, Like A Banker or Something


Oh wow, these NWFs are pure gold.  Why? 

Because you can have an outside-of-work life.  100%.

You don't have to worry about sounding weird explaining your training decisions.  You don't have to go into vivid detail about the fecal leavings of your favorite animal, just to feel like you're giving the whole story to a fellow animal person.

No, you can keep it simple.  You can talk about movies, and music, and books, and favorite types of desserts.  That's it.  You'll think about your animals seven times a second, but it's a healthy thing to let your mind focus on other aspects of being a person. Your conversations are like this:

You: OMG I have to tell you what Noel did today.
Level 3 NWF:  Who's Noel? Your boss?
You: Uh, well, in a way, yes.  He's a dolphin.

Or this:

You: I'm sorry I'm late to dinner.  One of the otters escaped.
Level 3 NWF: Weird.  So I ordered us a bottle of red wine if that's okay.

How do you land these friends?  Most of us moved far away from our childhood homes, but some animal keepers/trainers live in an area where they've got childhood or college friends.  The rest of us meet them on accident.  Maybe they're a coworker of a spouse.  Perhaps they take the same yoga class you do.  Maybe you accidentally spilled a hot beverage on them and they filed a lawsuit against you, but you're pretty sure when it's all over, they'll see you're a pretty okay person.

These friends are the rarest of the NWFs by far.  Why?

1) Our jobs are our lives for a reason.  The animals require a lot of time….and frankly, we want to give them as much time as we have.

2) We really do love our human coworkers in most cases.  Or at least, in the case where you don't really get along that well, you still have the same basic passion for the animals.

3) By the time we get home from our jobs, we are ready for bed.

4) We talk about animals all the time, not thinking for a nanosecond that the person we're talking to may not like animals**

5) We smell god awful.  All the time.  Forever.

Well, it's me.

As you likely understand by this point, the Level 3 NWF is kept a secret.  If you have scored such a friend, you may choose to dangle it in front of your coworkers all nonchalant like. You know, like if you landed a date with Chris Hemsworth.  Like, hey sorry I can't go to dinner tonight, I'm going bowling with my NON WORK FRIEND FROM ANOTHER UNIVERSEEEEEE.

Before I wrap up this entry, I don't want anyone to misunderstand what I'm saying here.  I'm not in any way objectifying any NWF friends of any levels.  I'm objectifying the idea, but not the people themselves.  The people are human beings to whom I can only hope I provide the same support, non judgment, and compassion as they give me.

I am also extremely lucky to have so many wonderful Animal Keeper/Trainer friends no matter who they are, because who else can I talk to about seal whiskers for hours on end?  And know that the conversation is as enthralling and enchanting to me as it is to them?  The fact is, my work friends are just as dear to me as my NWF friends.  Us animal trainers and zookeepers spent years and years listening to people telling us, "You can't do that as a living, it doesn't pay well" or "That's just a summer job, that's not a real job", or "They're just animals."  We earned our coworker friends, who have been through the same thing, and now we are all together working towards what we think is the most important thing in the world.

One (of a few) of the best group of people I know  and have worked with!

But, every now and then, we just want to talk about how cute a random person's butt looks.

This is, as always, just yet another window into my world for your reading pleasure. 

* Because 1) it's free food we don't have to budget for, and 2) they're French silk pies for god's sake

** Don't gasp!! Those people exist!!! In real life!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dolphins Versus Sea Lions: What Everyone Should Know

For the majority of my career, I've worked with dolphins.  Since January 2005 I've worked primarily with common bottlenose dolphins, mostly the coastal Atlantic variety.  Of course, as you've read in other posts, I've also had the pleasure of working with Pacific white-sided dolphins, one very spunky Atlantic spotted dolphin, nurse sharks, a cow-nosed stingray, North American river otters, and Clark's nutcrackers. 

Bottlenose dolphins are awesome

However, over the past nine months I've had the pleasure of working alongside animals of the pinniped variety.   I'm by no means declaring myself an expert, and in fact this may make this blog even funnier to people who really know pinnipeds.  

But California sea lions are pretty awesome, too!

There is a theme I've heard throughout my career about Dolphin Trainers versus Sea Lion Trainers.  Most of my coworkers past and present who have worked at a variety of facilities and have experienced both animals swear by this distinction.  There is a Dolphin Trainer Type and there is a Sea Lion Trainer Type. 

The more research I do* on this topic, the more I find that the  "Dolphin Trainer" is more of a type A personality, and the Sea Lion Trainer is more type B.  Now, I can't speak for anyone else.  I can tell you with certainty that despite being a dolphin trainer for 8 years, I do not identify with a type A personality.  Perhaps my bizarre brain activity can't be catalogued into the simple Dolphin versus Sea Lion trainer dichotomy.   I may be categorized as something like "Hyena Trainer" or "Partially Lobotomized Spider Monkey Trainer."   


But that is neither here nor there.  The difference between the two trainer types is really impossible to understand unless we look at the difference between the animals themselves.  I never felt qualified to make this blog post come to life before, simply because I hadn't worked with sea lions in my life.

But now I feel I've observed enough to share with you the major differences between dolphins and sea lions.  And then you can draw your own conclusions about the types of people who work with them :)

Difference #1:  POOP

Dolphin poop.  Is it ever really there?  Like the green flash at the horizon as the sun sets over calm waters, dolphin excrement is over before it begins.  It is washed away into the healing, blue water and is never acknowledged, nor smelled.   

Dolphin poop should be neither seen nor heard

Sea lion poop is like well, a big dog poo.  Not only that, but they leave them all over the place.  It is a little known fact that sea lions can sense where humans are (this does not apply just to animal trainers: think of San Francisco) and they Number Two in the precise downwind location, so the aroma is delivered straight to the "OH GOD GROSS" part of your brain.   Sea lion poop is excellent for such sea lion activities as: smearing it on the ground with your flippers.

As you've likely deduced, sea lions require a lot more habitat cleaning.  So you've gotta have a pretty strong stomach and just not care.  I mean let's face it, everybody poops**.  It's natural, it's a sign of good health, and it provides excellent bonding fodder when there's a really extra crappy day (ha ha). 

Plus, the worst experience with animal poo I've had to date was a dolphin.  Yes, a dolphin!  In the 0.00003rd of a second dolphins feces is a solid in the water, it attached to the end of my whistle unbeknownst to me.  Alas, when I went to blow my whistle…..



Dolphins have saliva, but the water washes it away.  In fact, it's like they live in a giant bath.  Their skin is clean, their poop dissolves, and even when they are a little drooly, that washes right away too.  The mucus coating on their eyes is transparent, and well….washes away.   The blowhole leads only to the lungs, the mouth to the stomach.  There are very few body fluids that can make it from dolphin to trainer. Oh, how clean are they, the dolphins!

Sea lions have a natural and beneficial bacterial coating on their teeth, which turns their teeth dark brown or black.  It turns the inside of their mouths and their saliva black as well.  Let's put it this way, sea lions basically have a stockpile of molasses-like mouth fun that they can choose to share with you with great verve.  If a sea lion needs to sneeze or is a little miffed, he or she will shoot small to medium-sized Globs of Healthy Oral Hygiene on your face and clothes.  Don't worry, it'll come off with steel wool and a blow torch.

Oh, look at that deliciousness


Dolphins swim gracefully in undulating strokes through the water (that cleans them of all their grossness), whistling lilting melodies.  Their rhythmic clicks are gentle on human ears.  

Unless you're in the water with them, the dolphins are a world away when you're in session with them.  They can leave you and you can leave them very easily.  This makes it easy when the dolphins start to give you the Middle Flipper.  You simply stand up and walk away, giving them the time they need to do be majestical Angels of the Sea. 

Sea lions may be graceful in the water.  But on land, they walk like bear with giant swim fins surgically fused to their hands and feet.  They skitter, stomp, slide, or inchworm their way hither and thither, making a SLAP SLAP SLAP SLAP sound.  And, since they are just fine getting around on land, they are in your dance space.  They may not look that spry, but they can out swim you AND outrun you (not fair)!

Their vocalizations can best be described as: Large Carnivorous Dinosaur In Moderate Distress.  There is no lovely-sounded sea lion song.  The best you can hope for is the Long Burp.

What's that sound? A pterodactyl? No, it's a sea lion.  

Let's put it all together in an imaginary conversation between trainer and animal, shall we?


Trainer: Alright, Flipper.  Let's do your daily visual exam.
Dolphin: That sounds satisfactory, provided the payoff is what we previously discussed.
Trainer: Of course.  And how was your evening last night?
Dolphin: It was quite satisfactory, thank you.  I appreciated the thorough scrubbing of my habitat.  May we appeal to your good nature to procure some time with basketballs between our performances?
Trainer: My pleasure!  I very much look forward to our interactions together.
Dolphin: As do I, human.  As do I.


Sea Lion: OMG TRAINER WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL NIGHT? I've been waiting here and waiting here just hoping that you'd come back so I can show you what I did to my room last night!
Trainer: Wow, that is a really nice painting.  Very abstract and modern.  What medium did you use?
Sea Lion: Poop, always poop.  SO WHAT ARE WE DOING TODAY?
Trainer: Oh, we're going to have so much fun.  We're going to do a training session, and then a show, and then a training session, and then a show, and then another show!
Sea Lion: YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE.
Trainer: Well, I gotta go now.
Trainer: Not now, but I'll be back, I promise.  Here, have some ice cubes.
Sea Lion: OKAY! Okay! Bye!!! I'LL BE RIGHT HERE WHEN YOU GET BACK!!!!!!!!!!!

So as you can see, there are very many differences between two of the more popular of marine mammals.  But I can tell you (proudly), that I love working with both equally.  Really.  Of course I've exaggerated (just slightly) some of the things sea lions and dolphins do or don't do.  There are some pretty disgusting things dolphins can do, and some very beautiful and graceful things sea lions do.  I don't know how you could pick a favorite animal if you work with multiple species.  They all have their merits.  And of course, no one is perfect (just don't tell the dolphins I said that).

* Highly scientific research using such techniques as Facebook messaging

** Except girls