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!!!!!!!!!!

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