Sunday, October 27, 2013

How To Actually Help Animals In Need

Animals.  You read this blog because you love them, I write this blog because I love them.  At some point, that common denominator has to count for something.   At some point, a shared passion for understanding, protected, and conserving animals has to result in actual, you know, ACTION for animals.   

The manatee on the right lost most of its paddle thanks to some boaters who didn't feel like following the law.

Sometimes, though, we get lost in the emotion of the moment.  So I'd like to share some helpful hints on how to help animals.  So many times we think we need to be apart of some massive movement, or do something so extraordinary that we forget there are things we can do TODAY that will directly benefit (or save) the life of an animal who has no choice but to hope we aren't lazy morons.


"Oh puh-leez", you say.  "That's such a cop-out answer."

Oh, puh-leez.  Littering kills unfathomably large numbers of animals, directly and indirectly.  What may seem like a simple solution (you know, not throwing your Sun Chips back into the ocean) is what makes me so enraged and sad when I see photos of animals whose stomachs are packed full of human garbage.   How hard is it to place these items securely into a trash can?  

Is it the same psychological phenomenon as I Can't Possibly Push The Shopping Cart 20 Yards To Its Designated Collection Space?  I mean, I get that.  I stand there at my car in agony, knowing that I have to dig deep into my energy reserves to find auxiliary power to get to the spot in the parking lot where I'm supposed to put my cart.   But I hate pulling into a spot and seeing a cart just sitting there, taking up the whole dang space.   So I do my duty and push the cart back, realizing it isn't so bad to use 3 seconds to do my part.   But I digress.


 If you blow off that something like picking up after yourself as a cop-out, easy task that doesn't "really" help, then you need a serious reality check.   Pick up your plastic bag, put it in the trash (or better yet, recycle it).  Know that your simple action of not littering decreases the odds that an animal will eat it or become entangled in it.  The plastic bag you just tossed could've easily been the bag that a loggerhead sea turtle ate.  And if the first thing that can to your head was, "oh come on, stop being so dramatic", then I'd like you to ask yourself if the reason you believe that is because you require immediate, physical proof an animal ingested something you've littered.   Perhaps volunteering at a wildlife rescue facility will change your mind about how often this happens.

One of the most common things I see at my job are people leaving their trash, everywhere.  I live near a beach, and see it there.  Every time I drive to work, I drive past a boat launch to a bay that looks like a dumping ground for beer cans.  I spent some time at a state park the past week, and saw food bags, cups, and random articles of clothing left throughout the park.  And when it's commented on, the general response is one of apathy or irritation.   I've heard countless times people say that their "one piece of trash won't make a difference in the ocean."  I've heard, "They've got people to clean that up", too.   It's a problem, and most people don't care. Or they believe there is a Magical Cleaning Crew who will also Put Your Shopping Cart Away.


When you can't recycle your trash at home (some of our towns are still stuck in 1940), recycle wherever you can.  Zoos, aquariums, office buildings, work places, theme parks, restaurants; most places have committed to a recycling program and you should use it whenever possible.  It DOES matter, beyond not contributing to a giant pile of plastic garbage floating in the ocean, or slowing down the fill rate at landfills.   It reduces the need to make MORE (especially plastics).

And! This is the coolest part of recycling, you can shop at antique stores and thrift shops for the most fun recycling ever.   Finding awesome furniture and clothing means the resources used to create the items you've just bought (e.g. wood or plastic in furniture, textiles for clothing, plastic or glass for cookware/diningware) are, well, recycled.   The larger picture is nuts.  Plus, you save money and get a lot of cool stuff in your house.

Side note: Not totally sure about the historical accuracy of this image.


What are the local wildlife laws in your area?  If you fish, follow the bag/slot limits and seasons.  If you're allowed to take two redfish, don't take three.  Think you're the only one that's going to fudge the rules? Nope.  You're joining the ranks nickel-and-dimers who think the rules don't really apply to them, and meanwhile devastate a breeding population of slow-reproducing fish.  Apply to whatever animal humans are allowed to hunt.

If you're on the boater in a motorized boat, follow the law.  You go slow in manatee areas because your hull can break the ribs of a manatee and cause it to drown in its own blood.   Wait for wildlife to come to you.  Stop your boat and wait.  Don't chase and persue.

Don't feed wildlife, for god's sake.   A simple non-action can save a life, isn't that awesome?

I waited patiently to see deer.  This old gal decided she was comfortable enough to do her business.


Pick a place in your town.  Animal shelters, wildlife rehab centers, nature centers, state parks, county parks, non-profit zoos and aquariums, habitat clean-up crews, colleges/universities, etc. all need help with their animal and environment-related tasks.    What's something that really interests you?  Do you like the idea of picking up trash in a county park, or along the medians of highways (where, by the way, some of the most amazing plant life grows and provides homes to millions of animals, which include insects and hey, they count too).    How about washing towels for dogs and cats in shelters who need them for comfort and warmth?  Do you want to learn how to hand-feed baby squirrels?  Pick what interests you, find out who does that (or something close to it) in your community, and GO!

Exactly!! (why are all of these people in workout gear, btw?)

Here's some more helpful tips, and some of this might be a little upsetting or disillusioning.  But I encourage you to read it and really think about it…because you can make a huge difference to the life and lives of animals.  YOU.  Not someone else.  YOU.

* Clean-up crews are becoming more and more common in most towns and communities.  Schools are a good place to start, because they often get their students involved.  County governments will also have information on those things.   Hey, you may be at the point where you want to organize one.  You'll see some sad things; you'll realize that even though YOU care so much about the environment, lots of people don't.  They just don't.  And they leave evidence of it everywhere.  It's sad and frustrating and seems sometimes like there is no end in sight, but channel those feelings of anger and sadness to do a kickass job of cleaning up.  Then commit to do another clean-up, and another.  And get your friends involved, which brings their level of awareness to yours.  

* Volunteering at an animal shelter is not for everyone.  Why? Because it's sad.  Because it's another scenario where you see how awfully animals are treated by people.  I'm not going to hold anything back here, because I've seen so many people think volunteering at an animal shelter includes snuggling with fuzzy kittens and happy puppies.   Here's what it is: animals who have been abandoned, forgotten, neglected, and/or seized.  Dogs and cats who had a life with a human being who they thought cared for them, and then unceremoniously dumped them in the night drop-off box at a local humane society.  Dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and rodents who became inconvenient.   

But they need dedicated, loving volunteers.  Desperately.

When I volunteered at my local humane society, the volunteer coordinator told me that a man brought in a 8 month old puppy and said he didn't want her anymore.  She whined and cried for days while she was held in quarantine.  Then, the man came back and demanded to see his dog.  Thinking he'd had a change of heart, the humane society staff let him back to see the puppy, who perked up and wagged her tail, excited to see the man.  He opened the kennel door, knelt down to the puppy who was up on her hind legs trying to lick his face.  He took off her collar, pushed her away, and left her there.

I know, that is an awful (TRUE) story.  DON'T put your head in the sand.  The feelings you're having now?  Those awful feelings where you just want to scoop up the little puppy and save her?  

Harness those.  

Go into an animal shelter, and go be of service.  Those animals need as many friendly faces in their lives as they can get.  Why? Well, not only for obvious reasons, but they need people who provide clean towels and blankets to sleep on.  They need people who can look beyond the filth left in kennels by animals ridden with anxiety…which translates to thorough, deep kennel cleaning.   All the while you're providing husbandry care for these animals, you're seeing how non-animal lovers work.  You're seeing their victims pile up in animal shelters.  And you will spread the word to your friends and families.  That's a big deal, that's a HUGE deal.  You're directly helping the animals, and you're getting other people involved, too.  You didn't read about it on the internet, you didn't watch it in a documentary, you're seeing it with your own eyes and you're doing something to help.

And you know what?  You'll see the happy side, too.  You'll see animals get great homes, and sometimes you're the one responsible for that.  That's worth all the sad stuff.

* Wildlife rehabbing is similar in terms of disillusionment as I described above.  If you want to actually get involved in rehabbing wild animals, you'll need a permit and probably rabies shots.  But if it's something you really want to do, you'll put in the time, effort, and money to make a difference.  

And if that's not possible, there are always kennels and habitats to be cleaned, and diets to be prepped, and endless laundry to do.  And you'll see plenty of animals come in with human-related injuries or illnesses.  And the same exact situation will occur as aforementioned; you'll learn, you'll share, you'll directly influence animals' lives.


* Nature centers and county/state parks are always looking for volunteers.  While you may not have any animals to care for, you are assisting in educating visitors who come to the park.    That ranges from the fun stuff, like talking to a group of kids or narrating a wildlife tour, to the not-so-fun but equally-important stuff, like yelling at someone who's feeding the wildlife, or someone who just tossed their garbage in the water.  Nonetheless, you're making a difference, and you're interacting with the general public who, again (have I said this enough yet?) don't really care or understand.

* Zoos and aquariums who have a volunteer program need volunteers for education, habitat and area maintenance, diet prep, and, in some rare cases, assisting directly with the animals.   The education element is critical; you will hear some incredibly crazy questions and assumptions.  And it's your job to correct them.  And then shudder to think what those people would've continued to think/do had they NOT visited your facility.

Had a guest the other day insist he could have an alligator as a pet.  After we discussed why that was an awful idea, he changed his mind.  I'm glad he visited my workplace and I could help prevent an exotic animal disaster.

Go to google.
Search for your local zoo or aquarium.
Go to its website.
Scroll through the list of animals and find one (shouldn't be hard) you know virtually nothing about.  Better yet, find one you never even knew existed.

Or, if you can, visit the zoo or aquarium. Those are great places to see and learn about animals who are not popular for whatever reason.  Does that make them less deserving of conservation?  No, but we as animal lovers (hopefully) already know that.  Joe Shmo does not.  Most zoos and aquariums at least have information if not directly involved in conservation efforts for some of their animals.  They are a great resource for one-stop shopping;  you see and learn about an animal you knew little to nothing about, you contributed financially to their care and in some cases, their conservation, and you can get information on how to support conservation efforts.

Regardless, I want you to somehow find an animal you never knew existed.  Preferably not one of your favorites.  Pick an animal that doesn't have eyelids.  Or, if you're a herp-lover, pick a mammal.  Or, if you love all vertebrates, go invert.

Now LEARN about them.  What is their deal? What do they do with their time on a daily basis?  What sorts of dangers do they deal with?  How influenced are they by human activity?  LEARN.

The gelada.  I didn't know this guy existed until just now.  And look at all the info I found on Bronx Zoo's website:


Look at this list I've created.  Take items 1-4.  Talk about them with people.  Tell them what you see and hear and the beach/forest/highway clean-up, the animal shelter, the nature center, the wildlife rescue.  Tell them about this cool animal you never knew shared the planet with you.  

And to the animal caretakers reading this blog: Pour yourself into education, if you don't already.  Not everyone adores talking to the public, especially if you've encountered a lot of people who really seem to not care, but you can't let that stop you.   Share your passion with each and every guest that walks through your facility.  Tell them about your animals individually, tell them about the things that plague their counterparts in the wild.  Don't skimp on the education; it's the reason the animals are there in the first place.   Your main two jobs are to provide exceptional care to the animals you love, and make the people who see them care if only a fraction more than when they pulled into the parking lot.  Don't roll your eyes or get annoyed when you're scheduled to do a keeper chat, or narrate a show, or spend time answering questions.  Look at it as an opportunity to help save the animals you care so much about.


Other than donating your time… 

Towels, blankets, food are the three main things animal shelters, wildlife centers, and rehabbers need.  But you can get a list of items that these places need, and you might be surprised at some of the things they need.  Instead of throwing things away, check to make sure someone else doesn't need them (whoa, look at how recycling keeps rearing its head!).  

Worth their weight in gold in the animal care field!

And if you want to donate money, make sure you KNOW what you're donating to.  Don't assume a fancy website and a household name mean your money is going to a good cause.  Make sure your money isn't being wasted (and, sad to say, there are causes where that is the case).  Example?  Want to donate money to your local humane society?  Make sure you donate it to your local humane society.  Don't donate it The Humane Society of the United States, because that has NOTHING to do with humane societies in your home towns.

Call the facility, visit it.  Find out where their money goes.  Does it go directly to the animals? Do providing an adequate staff to care for them?  To maintenance?   If you don't know where your money is going, then donate goods to that facility.  They are just as helpful as dollar bills. 


If there is a topic about animal conservation that just really grinds your gears, and you really want to get involved and Make A Difference, DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

Recently, in light of the Blackfish movie, I read a comment posted on CNN's website.  It said that we should not just stop at freeing the orcas, but the elephants as well.

Now, let's side aside our personal feelings about animals in human care for a second, okay?  Because the point of this blog is that, well, it shouldn't matter how you feel about that topic because there are a ton of things you can do to help animals.  So focus on that.

If you believe that elephants do not belong in zoos, then before you make claims (or documentaries) about that topic, do your research.  Don't talk to people who already agree with your point of view.  Talk to people who actually work with those animals in all settings: zoos, sanctuaries, their natural habitat.   

And if you did your research on African elephants, you'd know there is no place to 'set them free'.   You'd learn via the facts, that African elephants can either be in "the wild" in unprotected areas where they are systematically exterminated in government-sanctioned culls, because they are considered agricultural pests.  Or, they can go to the protected areas, essentially like giant sanctuaries, where the people who patrol the areas work diligently to protect their animals but are ultimately out-numbered by poachers.  And you can end up with tens of elephants shot or poisoned on protected grounds.  Don't believe me?  Google "African elephant cull" and look at the news items.

So, what are you going to do about it?  See how now it really doesn't matter if you agree with animals in zoos or not?  Because your opinion on that matter doesn't save a single soul.   Do. Your. Research. Thoroughly.  Poor research and misinformation leads to distracting people from the actual issue at hand, which means, again, the animals you think you're helping get ZERO help at all.

Look, this is not a blog intended to upset anyone.  It is intended to make a point that keeps getting forgotten:


Stop trolling the internetzzzz.  Don't pretend to know something you've never experienced or seen.  Why? Because you're wasting time.  There are animals out there who need YOU.  RIGHT NOW.  They don't need you to sit at a computer screen.  They don't need you to make a documentary.  They are sitting, alone, in a kennel waiting for someone to give them a warm towel.  They are waiting for someone to realize that they are in trouble and need help.  They aren't on a movie screen. They are all in your own backyard.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Middle Flipper Is … (Part 8)

… a dolphin who lets herself into whatever habitat she pleases.

Talk to any animal caregiver.  One of the first behaviors an animal learns is how to move from one part of their habitat to another.  The same goes for humans in many cultures, I suppose.  You learn that certain rooms or areas of your abode are for specific things.  For example, my parents taught me that if I wanted food, I had to shift into the kitchen.  When it was time to go to bed, I gated into my bedroom.  If I had to go to the bathroom, well, there was a specific section of the habitat for that business.*

As we get older, we learn how to coexist with conspecifics such as roommates or dorm-mates.  There are Rules when you Live With Others, especially at the adult level.  For example, your roommate's room is usually off-limit to you during certain adult activities**.  


You aren't allowed to go in there.  It's not usually a mean-spirited Rule.  We'd say it's just polite to give our roommate space and time to themselves.

The same goes for those of us who lived in a dorm setting.  The dorm building is one big habitat with many different habitats inside.  You may congregate with other humans, maybe you'll even hang out in one of their rooms, but it is all under stimulus control.  You knock before entering another dorm room.  You do not attempt to barge in to another person's private space.  You have free access to common areas such as the bathroom.  However, this is college, so you may experience poop on the floor.  The parallels to zoos are endless!

Johnny, maybe you shoulda knocked.

So when us zookeepers talk about shifting or gating animals from one habitat to another, some people have a very difficult time understanding why we don't just let all the animals hang out in all the habitats everywhere all the time.  I'm not sure what they think the animals would do when they all get mixed together in a situation that is unnatural to their social behavior.   Massive games of mahjongg? Peaceful political protest about the latest hot button issue?  

Dolphins would probably be awful Mahjongg players, what with no fingers or whatever.

Some animal species are not necessarily found in giant social groups, while others are.  For example, our penguins are in one big habitat.  It's natural for them to be found in large flocks.  Our Asian small-clawed otters are all sisters, so they live together.  But if we ever got more ASCOs, you can bet all of your money, future offspring (and let's throw some donuts in there because this is getting serious) that we would not just mix together the new otters with our current ones.  We would separate them into different habitats.  Why? Because the natural social behavior of these particular type of otters does not allow for outsiders to be thrown into established territory without some really unfortunate consequences.  Some animals work better in a setting that is more familiar to a culture most humans are used to: limited social interactions with different conspecifics, and physical spaces for individual or smaller groups.

Other reasons for limiting or granting access to different parts of a habitat involve husbandry and medical needs.  Some of the dolphins with whom I've worked don't ever bother me when I put my maid hat on and clean their habitat on scuba gear.   Other dolphins see it as their personal mission to see how high they can get my heart rate as they grab the hydraulic scrubber line and pull it (and by association, me) around the habitat, leaving a squiggly - albeit algae-free - line in its path.   Those dolphins are usually gated out of the habitat that needs cleaning so we can accomplish the task in less time with less squiggles.  

Sometimes, we have to make a repair to a habitat and that requires tools and little objects that dolphins love to take from us.  One of the dolphins I know will use these things as bargaining tools, because she'll bring them up to us for some kind of exchange (usually fish in her case).  So she's got her eyes peeled for any bartering fodder.  That isn't a good problem to have when you're trying to make repairs to a habitat, so you must close off a habitat.

Hey, I need something to sell on Ebay.

Of course, medical needs mean we need to shift animals into a med pool or holding area designed for medical procedures.   Animals are way better off if you teach them to go in their voluntarily, because it significantly reduces anxiety which is the name of the game in training, especially if your animal is under the weather and doesn't need to be stressed out more by being scared of a medical habitat.   Does that sound strange?  Well, of course it does.  No one teaches us humans to look forward to going to the doctor!  We are punished with needles, paper gowns, and horrendous medical bills.  There is nothing to look forward to when we go to the doctor's office.  

"But Cat," you say.  "What if your doctor is hot and single?"

"Well," I reply.  "This hot and single doctor is about to look at your warts."

I'm here to closely examine your most horrific medical problem on the most embarrassing place you can fathom.

Not. Reinforcing.

Side note: when I run for President of the Universe, I'm mandating that all human beings are paid $500 per doctor's visit in cash or gift cards until such time we find doctor's offices reinforcing (and then we can go on a variable schedule of variable reinforcement).

Now that I've addressed the reasons behind shifting and gating animals from one habitat to the other, let's talk about what happens when the animals decide to break the rules.

Everyone wonders why dolphins don't just jump over their low separating barriers and let themselves in to habitats to which they have no access.  I don't know the answer, because I haven't actually conversed with a dolphin.  But the best explanation I've heard is that while dolphins are more than physically capable of jumping from one habitat to the other, they are not inclined to do so because it is not something they typically DO as dolphins.  Hurdling forward and over long distances is not something dolphins naturally have in their frame of reference.

This leaping over little boys on jetties thing does not happen in real life.

Look at their eyes; they're on either side of the dolphin's head, meaning most of their lines of sight do not have the best spatial reasoning in terms of judging distance.  Maybe they look at a floating dock and see it as vast as the Saharan Desert.   

But every so often, one dolphin figures it out.

Star, one of the dolphins I used to work with, was just such a dolphin.

Now, I don't know how it happens at other facilities.  I've heard that some dolphins just hop over a gate, catwalk, or dock like they suddenly realized it's possible.  Other times, it's totally by accident. And in Star's case, that's exactly what happened.

All the dolphins had been seeped out of a particular habitat so my coworker could get in and power scrub the habitat at the end of the day.  I was the dive spotter, so I was able to see the entire habitat as well as my pal's bubbles. 

The dolphins began to engage in adult activities in the adjacent habitat.  Nothing about it alarmed me, because dolphins spend a lot of their past time uh, in said activities.   I couldn't take my eyes off of the diver, but I could tell from the corner of my eye that the dolphins had started rolling over each other, vocalizing, and creating a lot of white water.  

Then it escalated.  They started speed swimming around the habitat.  My first thought was something had happened underwater with the diver, like the tank hitting something that caused the dolphins to freak out.  But none of them craned their head to look at the diver as they usually do with an offending sound or sight.  They were pursuing Star, who deftly played hard to get.  She out-maneuvered them, then slowed down as if to tease them, then picked up speed again as they got closer.  

She swam and swam and swam and finally, the other dolphins caught up with her.  She was right next to one of the catwalks which separated each habitat.  The catwalks were just at the water's surface, but none of the dolphins had shown any interest in sliding or jumping over.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.  Because as Star attempted to evade her pals again, she could not.  And then, I see a bunch of whitewater against the catwalk.  I look over to the dolphins just in time to see Star's rear half sliding over the catwalk and into the empty pool.

I froze.  She froze.  The other dolphins chirped and clicked on the other side.

Dolphin group: OMFG DID YOU JUST SEE THAT?!?!?!

I quickly recovered my diver, who too had frozen when she realized that there was suddenly a dolphin in the habitat with her.  Star appeared shell-shocked as well, or maybe she was reveling in her incredible dolphin feat.   Nonetheless, we pulled out the gates that separated each habitat and all the dolphins had access to their habitats for the night.   The dolphins rejoined Star and they resumed normal dolphin activity, but I'd imagine they had a lot of questions for her.

So what happens when a dolphin figures out they can jump from one habitat to the other?  Let's explore that for a second.  

Usually, this is the dolphin attitude towards this topic:

Dolphin 1: Dude, ain't no way over that dock.
Dolphin 2: I know.  It's just too risky.  No one could survive that!

Sound familiar?  

Human 1: Wow, that Mount Everest is a big mountain.  Ain't no way over that thing.
Human 2: I know.  It's just too risky.  No one could survive that!

And what happened in the Mount Everest case?  Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were like, hey, we got this, and they climbed to the top.  Fifteen minutes later, they turned around and ask they climbed down saw one of their pals in their expedition and casually said, "Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off."

They figured out how to climb Mount Everest.  Now e'rybody wanna try.

Tenzing and Edmund set the precedent for what was for centuries deemed impossible.  Other humans scrambled (and still scramble) to do the same.  Not every human wants to climb it obviously, but anyone with a remote interest in mountain climbing does.  I have about as much interest in climbing Mount Everest as I do in stapling a rattlesnake to my face, unless Mount Everest has an elevator installed.

The point is, once someone actually accomplished the "impossible", all of the other humans with the slightest inkling to do the same were not-so-shy to try the same task.  And the same exact situation happens with dolphins.  Sort of monkey-see, monkey-do.

Star's ungraceful slide into a closed-off habitat was the catalyst that created endless possibilities for Middle Flipper events in her group of dolphins.  The next day, Star slid over the catwalk again.

And then, the other dolphins started doing it.  In session, out of session.  This got very disruptive during interactive programs, when we only wanted certain dolphins doing the program at a time (you know, so the entire group of animals didn't do every single program or show).    They'd visit us uninvited while we cleaned their habitats.  They'd interrupt training sessions.  It was a mess, and there was nothing we could do about it.

Do you think I'm some kind of killjoy now?  "Ohhhh Cat," you say.  "The dolphins were just trying to be together!"

Well, yes.  But if I'm sitting in here, writing this Middle Flipper, deep in concentration, and my best friend in the entire universe opens my office door without knocking and starts telling me all about her day, I'm going to be annoyed.  It's not that I don't want to hang out with her, or that I'm not interested in the goings-on of her day, but I'm just not in the mood right now.  I'd consider it rude if someone just barged in on me like that.  Or if I'm having a meeting with my boss, and my family shows up unannounced and interrupts, that's rude too.   And the same essential thing occurred with the dolphins sliding over catwalks into other dolphins' sessions. The dolphins trying to focus did not appear to appreciate the interruption by their pals.


So we had to do something, and we tried everything.  What ended up working was putting large boat buoys along the length of the catwalk to create another visual barrier (like increasing Mount Everest's height by another 1,000 feet).  But you know this is just temporary.  It could take months, years, decades, but at some point, a dolphin is going to figure out how to jump over the buoy line.  And then all the others will have an epiphany, and start doing it too.

It's an intellectual arms race, and a neat one at that.  While you've got to fix the problem, the underlying principle is really amazing.  We as humans are animals who build.  We are spatial, we can figure out how to contain and organize ourselves, materials, animals, objects, information.  Despite our best efforts at it, another animal from a completely different environment with arguably zero concept of construction can devise a way to outsmart and overcome what we humans collectively have spent tens of thousands of years doing.    And then, we use our big engineering brains to solve the problem.  And then, another animal finds a chink in the armor.   And so on and so forth.   Yet again, the Middle Flipper event proves valuable and awe-inspiring.


* My sister's side of the room

** Such as Candy Crush

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Where The Trained Dolphins Go?

When you get into the marine mammal training field, there are some questions and myths you sort of already anticipate getting as a trainer.  These are questions/misconceptions that you had, and/or you encountered to some degree in your internship.   

Without delving too deeply into these topics (you know, I gotta keep material for other Middle Flipper posts!), here is a short list of things you expect the laymen to ask or think:

1) The job is really glamorous.  Like you totally play with animals all day, la la la la!

2) The dolphins/sea lions/seals swim in giant tunnels underneath the park from one habitat to the other

3) Algae is dirt

Algae.  In the ocean.  You call it "seaweed".  It therefore doesn't mean the ocean is dirty. Google it if you don't believe me. 

When you see a habitat like this, it's like looking at someone's lawn that's just been mowed.  It's just algae we don't allow to grow long and seaweed like.

4) Dolphins have the patience and ethical compass of Buddhist monks.  If the dolphins ever have a conspecific conflict, they resolve it the way all intelligent animals (such as humans) do, by discussing both sides of the issue calmly and respectfully until a mutual understanding is reached, at which time they enjoy a canon round of Kumbaya over some kind of underwater campfire.*
Once all of the dolphins' chakras are aligned, they are like, super peaceful.

But I have to say, as many ridiculously hilarious as well as totally mind-numbingly incorrect and infuriating things people have said or asked me, there is one thing that just simply baffles me.

The question I've gotten at every facility I've worked at:

Are the dolphins being trained to go to SeaWorld?


This puzzles me, because even though I had some really crazy, wrong notions of what this field is like when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that SeaWorld's dolphins were trained somewhere else.

SeaWorld can train their own animals just fine.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten was that if I encounter an idea I simply do not understand, it's beneficial to put yourself in the other person's shoes to get another perspective.  That advice has never led me astray, so I'm going to try it here.  Publicly, on the internet.  You know, so you can benefit from it, too.

It's as though these guests think SeaWorld is like a professional athlete organization, like the NBA.  I suppose we could call it the NDAA, which of course stands for National Dolphin Athlete Association.  Perhaps the laymen believes that the NDAA selects dolphins in the following manner:

1) All dolphins must have at least four years of basic training

2) All dolphins must be in shows at a farm league facility, such as all of the places I've worked

3) The strongest, fastest, highest-jumping dolphins audition for SeaWorld talent scouts who visit each Farm League Facility

4) SeaWorld Talent Scouts select their desired candidates amidst heavy anticipation and competition between the Farm Leagues.  Not to mention, the dolphins are just beside themselves with stress in hopes that they will be selected to go to the NDAA West, Central, or East**.

This jump's good enough for any NDAA team!

The Farm Leagues spend their time training dolphins in hopes that their little facility will be recognized by the Talent Scouts and hopefully at least one dolphin will go Pro.  

Sound ridiculous?  Yes, I agree, but I get that question pretty regularly from people.  So why is it that we're asked that, really?

Is it because they see smaller facilities actively training more?  I doubt it.  SeaWorld has a killer series of shows from a training and showmanship standpoint.  But that doesn't mean they don't whip out the target pole.  They'll answer questions after the shows sometimes, too.  So they're not secretive about their training.  And they're good at their training, so they don't need to take animals trained from elsewhere.

Photo evidence of SeaWorld training their dolphins.

Is it that the behaviors the dolphins do at smaller facilities are less impressive than the ones at SeaWorld?  While we could argue this point, I'm 100% positive that all facilities have animals who can do some pretty amazing things.   You don't have to be at one particular place in order to have some really well-conditioned critters.  But what about the guests' perspective?  I'm not sure.  But I will say that most of the time I am asked if the dolphins are being trained to go to SeaWorld, it's after one of the dolphins did a really impressive behavior.  Here's an example:

Dolphin does impressive spin bow
Guest: WOW! That is AMAZING!
Me: They are amazing animals!
Guest: So what, is that one being trained for SeaWorld?
Me: Uh, no, she is staying right here.
Guest: Really? But that jump was so cool.  It's simply too cool for this place.  Give that dolphin a $100,000,000 5-year NDAA contract, is what I say!

My best guess for the reason behind this unusual perception is that the laymen relates to the SeaWorld brand.  It has lots of shows, it's popular, its parks have a lot of cool animals.  Everyone knows SeaWorld, even if they've never been there.  That's not necessarily the same situation for…well, almost any of the facilities I've worked at.  So that's gotta be it.

I'll take it as a compliment if people feel that SeaWorld is the Ultimate Mecca for Talented Dolphins and that the dolphins with whom I work have what it takes to be NDAA all-stars.   But I'll also gladly tell these imaginative folk that as trainers, our main reason for being at our place of employment is to give the best possible life to the animals in our care.  It's not about having dolphins that jump the highest, even if a show has some amazing dolphin aerialists.  It's about being able to answer the question, "Am I making these animals' quality of life the best it can be, every day?"  with a resounding YES.  Behind the scenes or out in front, each trainer at each facility cares deeply for their animals beyond just a show.  And that's exactly how it oughta' be!

* I know, I know.  That's ridiculous.  Underwater campfires fires are more likely than calm conflict-resolution in intelligent species.

** SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld San Antonio, or SeaWorld Orlando.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lies I'd Tell My Sister

There's something you should all know about me, if you don't know me.  Or rather, if you do know me and don't know this already, you're probably going to question everything I've ever said to you that may have seem bizarre.

Bizarre? No.  It can't be true.

While I'm not by any means dishonest, I do like to play pranks on people.  The good news is, I tend to surround myself with people who can give it back to me as much as I can dish it out.  Essentially, no good prank goes unpunished (and so it should be).

This interest in pulling peoples' legs is not a learned trait.  I'm convinced I have a genotype that forces me to act on impulses to pull a fast one on people.  The skill itself has many elements of learning, but the desire is innate.  And who was my first victim? My sister, Sara.

My sister is two and a half years younger than me.  She's very intelligent, worldly, wonderful person.  And while she is still gorgeous nowadays (d'uh, she's related to me), she was cuter than I was when I was her age.

My sister is cuter than me, and she's wailing.

As if a photo of my cute little sister wasn't enough, she also had an utterly adorable speech problem, and some funny favorite unusual phrases.  Here are a few examples:

"Lellow yeggings" for yellow leggings.

"IAYA STINK!!!" (which I presume meant, "I stink", although I don't know why she said that*)

"More diamonds gweez" ("More diamonds, please").

Yes, my sister mispronounced "please" as "gweez".  See? Sickeningly cute.

So I couldn't make fun of her brains (because she is smart), and I couldn't make fun of her looks (because she was cute), and I couldn't even make fun of how she talked, because I wanted to talk like that, but I sounded totally ridiculous when I tried.  So what was left?


Lies to tell my sweet, cute sister.

See that baby on the left? COULD SHE GET ANY MORE ADORABLE?!

I don't remember all of them, although if you spent any time at all with my sister you'd probably hear a few examples.  She recalls them well, which makes sense since I'm sure at this point in her life, she'd require therapy and/or nuclear warfare to wipe them from her memory.

One of the lies I'd often tell my sister was that there were dead men in various parts of our house.  It worked well, because I could find virtually any part of our suburban home to imagine dead men.   From whence did this idea spring?  You can thank my dear father for this, because he once mentioned the phrase, "…had a skeleton in the closet".  Despite the lengthy explanation of this colloquial expression, my seven year old mind only pictured a skeleton sitting in a closet, which seemed cool and useful.

Oh hey, Sara! 

Hence, as my sister sat at the kitchen table, I blurted out, "WATCH OUT SARA.  IF YOU DON'T FINISH YOUR DINNER, THE SKELETON IN THE DISHWASHER WILL GET YOU."

Or, when my sister tried to sleep in our room but I wasn't done talking**, I'd force her awake with, "Hey Sara, there's a dead man in your bed."

At this point, anyone who is an older sibling is probably nodding their head along while they read this blog, thinking, "You know, I've got a couple of stories like that."  And the younger siblings are uniting now, gathering their forces to take down the Siblings Elder Front.   "How could she DO that?!" they say!  And for the rest of you, the Only-Child clan, you sit on the fence (but I implore you to see my perspective).  Well, if you think I'm a bad sister now, wait until you read the rest of this.


The absolute best lie I told my sister is still something brought up at holiday dinners.  It's not that I'm proud to have tortured Sara by any means.  But nowadays it's hilarious how obnoxious I was, and that Sara didn't murder me in my sleep (and then say, "HA! THERE'S A DEAD CAT IN YOUR BED!")

One day, 6 year old Cat decided to tell 3.5 year old Sara the following:

It is hereby declared illegal for one's dentition to contact any substance in liquid form.

Yes, I told Sara that she would get arrested if she get her teeth wet.


No! She did not believe me at first.  But thanks to my lack of solid ethics (you know, only being six years old and all) and Sara's even younger age, it didn't take long to convince her that yes, her older sister knew U.S. legislation better than she.  And that yes, she must keep her teeth from contacting any liquid (with the exception, I presume now, of saliva).

And so my sister spent the day carefully figuring out methods of drinking juice boxes and glasses of milk and water sans teeth-wettage.

By the time my father returned home from work***, my sister sat in tears of fear and frustration on the steps in our garage.  She had attempted to drink a glass of (something? could've been gin at this point in the story) with a straw halfway down her gullet.   Alas, she had gotten her teeth wet.  She wept as she thought about the inevitable arrest.

Dad: Sara? What's wrong? Why are you crying?
Dad: What?! Who told you that?
Sara: Cat!

My dad probably punished me, and rightly so.  Because I never told a lie of that caliber to Sara afterwards.  But the relationship between my sister and me was volatile and wonderful at the same time.  We had a lot of fun together, we had a lot of fights together.  She accepts me for the crazy person I am, and I have since stopped playing jokes on her.  She's earned the reprieve.

But don't go feeling too bad for her.  She had her own way of getting me.

Why don't I remember what happened after my dad found out the awful thing I told Sara?  Because several months later Sara got her revenge by clocking me in the face with a wooden baseball bat.

End scene.
* My sense of smell doesn't often produce normal neural results; once, I thought a flat of capelin smelled like the inside of a pumpkin.  So it is well within the realm of reason that my sister was malodorous.

** Am I ever done?

*** There might've been a dead Cat had my mom gotten home from work first and saw this.