Sunday, December 29, 2013

Funny Things Guests Say: The Craziest Question Ever

I began my journey into marine mammal training in January of 2005.  In the elapsed nine years, I've heard a lot of really hilarious and/or confusing questions or comments about the animals.  I've already shared some of those comments here, and I've plenty more to relay to you.

However, there is one moment that I a) will never forget, b) believe is the most insane thing I've ever heard a person say to me while I'm at my job, and c) understand is the most creative myth regarding Coryphaena hippurus.

Weren't there enough words in the English language to make the common name of this dude something OTHER than dolphin?!  Like, Yummyfish?

It was during the off season and I was scheduled to conduct the sole dolphin interaction of the afternoon.  It was the last dolphin program of the day; a shallow water encounter with the option of doing a foot push and dorsal tow.  The program typically lasted 15 to 20 minutes, and involved opportunities to touch, feed, and play with dolphins, all while hearing educational facts about them.  The trainer had a lot of flexibility with what he or she could do within a program; there was freedom to incorporate as much variability as possible.  

And like all interactive programs and shows, the guests' moods make or break your session.  Twenty minutes can seem like the length of the Stone Age when:

               1) You have a kid in your program who would rather snap chat god-awful attempts  
                    at artistic creation than toss a football to a dolphin. 
Snapchat, WTF?  Good thing your logo is really cute.

                2) A know-it-all adult tells you about their weekly illegal encounters with wild 

Internet (and deserved) shame

               3) A guest tells you repeatedly how they don't agree with having dolphins in
                    aquariums, but gets very upset when their kiss pictures don't turn out and tells        
                    you they're just going to go to a "competing business" (yes, this actually


Of course, when I have guests who are rude, annoying, or (worse) apathetic, I try to find what interests the person to an extent.  But at some point, I'll admit I give up, and I just hang out with my animal until the person or people show some infinitesimally small sign of life or politeness.  It might be awkward or frustrating for me to hang out with a bunch of duds, but I don't want that to affect the animal in front of me.

So anyways, on this slow day in south Florida I met my interaction guest.  Let's call him Bartholomew.  He looked like he was in his late twenties/early thirties, and he was very quiet.  I introduced myself and asked him if he was excited to meet our dolphin, Ripley. 

"….." he said.

"Well follow me!" I said, and got into the water.   Bartholomew entered the habitat tentatively, and stood behind me.

"Hey dude," I said.  "You can walk up right next to me if you want to get closer to the dolphin."

"……" he replied.

I figured perhaps ol' Bart was nervous, as some people are before they meet a dolphin up close.  I asked the A-B trainer to send me Ripley, thinking maybe once the man was closer to the dolphin he'd lighten up a little.

Ripley swam slowly over to me, in the way Ripley does best.  In fact, it's worth talking a little bit about this dolphin since it is relevant to this glorious tale.  Ripley at the time was in his late teens and was born at the facility I worked at.  He and I had the following things in common:

1) Our favorite pastime is relaxing

Tra la la, I love to relax!

Ripley was a laid-back dude.  He was (and still is) a perfectly healthy guy.  He interacts with his dolphin pals and plays with his toys, he learns new behaviors, he does shows and interactions.  But Ripley doesn't need to get anywhere real quick.  He does his thing in good time.  Sometimes he preferred to stare at his trainers just below the surface of the water, where he'd sit motionlessly until he decided to take a breath.  That was his thing.

So Ripley comes over and I ask him to wave to Bartholomew, still lurking behind me.  I hand Bart a fish to toss to Ripley, which Barty silently refuses.  I feed Ripley the fish, then bring out the Glorious Football, great Conversation Starter and Catalyst for Good Times For Both Man and Cetacean.   

"Want to toss this ball out for Ripley?" I asked.

"….." Bartholomew declared.

Okay, I thought.  This guy is either cetaphobic or has a terminal case of boredom.  I tried everything.  I went the ultra-education route, I cracked jokes. I asked Ripley to do a few behaviors that showed off some impressive dolphin behaviors.   Alas, nothing worked.  

"Okay Bartholomew," I said.  "I'm going to hang out with Ripley, you just let me know if you want to touch, or feed, or ask for behaviors, or in any way react to anything ever."

"……" he said.

An entire 20 minute program elapsed without a single word uttered from B-Dog's lips, so after I ensured that Bartholomew's eternal silence was not a result of a medical emergency and/or death, I chillaxed with Ripley until I was given the end signal from the A-B trainer.*  

I turned to my muted guest and asked the obligatory, "Well, do you have any other questions before we say goodbye to Ripley?"

"….." he said.

I turned to ask Ripley to swim to the A-B trainer when much to my surprise, Bart spoke.

"Actually," he said.  "I do have one question."

"Oh yeah? What's that?" I asked.

He paused, staring at Ripley, who at this point had sunk beneath the water and was staring at me in the way Ripley did best.

"Do you guys send your dolphins off to be slaughtered, or do you do it here somewhere?"

I was wholly impressed with myself that I did not reply with the first thing that came to my mind:


The best I could parlay was, "Uh."

I stared at Bart, Bart stared at Ripley, Ripley stared into space.  

"I'm sorry, what?" I finally managed.

"Don't you guys sell the meat to restaurants? I saw dolphin on the menu last night and figured they were buying it from here."

Once I had admitted to myself that this conversation was actually happening in real life, I was able to respond cogently.

Me: Oh no!!  The dolphin you saw on the menu is a type of fish.  It's called dolphin fish, but it's not this kind of dolphin, the mammal.

Bartholomew: Oh my god! I am so relieved! This entire time I've been staring at Ripley thinking, 'Oh man, how long do you have left, buddy?'

It all instantly made sense.  Poor Bartelstein spent his entire dolphin program staring at Ripley, who probably looked like he was nearing the end of his tenure (what with his laid-back demeanor and everything), thinking he was staring into the eyes of a creature who would be on a menu in a matter of time.  I told my relieved guest about Ripley's temperament, about how no marine mammal dolphin in this country would be treated in that way, and again, the dolphin on the menu is dolphin FISH.

Bartholomew then wanted to interact with Ripley, which I gladly allowed for only a few additional minutes (because hey, Ripley did his end of the bargain even if Bartypants wasn't into it earlier) so he could at least get a chance to enjoy his encounter.  

To date, I have never heard anything such as I have just relayed to you, dear reader.  The memory stands alone on its pedestal as the Most Insane Guest Encounter Ever.  I hope he remembers this experience as fondly (and bizarrely) as I do.   And in a way, I look forward to a stranger in my future topping this, so I can provide you with another Sunday of Chaos in the marine mammal training world.

* This end signal was, I kid you not, "Are you having a good time?"  "Yes!" I replied.  I can't speak for the other human being involved in this experience, I thought.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Crown Jewel Of Marine Mammal Training, and How I Earned My First Whistle

There are many tangible items that complete the marine mammal trainer look.  

1) The Boots 

Boots: Great Protector from Frightful Fish Boxes and Pinniped Poop

2) The Visor or Baseball Hat 

Hey man, I want sun protection

3) The Wetsuit

Wetsuits are not only great for thermoregulation, but for capturing all the smells of your profession!

4) The Sunglasses


What am I forgetting?  Anyone, regardless of their affiliation (or lack thereof) to the field can answer that.  Why?  Because the crown jewel of the marine mammal field is:


*Insert Chorus Of Angels Here*

Oh, glorious whistle.  How I gazed upon thee as a youngster and wanted so badly to proudly display you around my neck so that I could, without any words at all, declare my profession.  Before I even know what the heck it actually did, I knew it communicated something to the animals.  And communicating with animals was my ultimate dream (well, it still is).

What is so special about The Whistle?  Is it plated in the finest silver, mined from Middle Earth and passed down from the great Elvish Kings of Rivendell?  Does its very sound resonate throughout the universe, speaking to all creatures great and small in all realms of earths and heavens?  

"I want an official ACME 535, silver-plated,  adjustable-frequency dolphin trainer whistle!"

The whistle is such a coveted item in aspiring marine mammal trainers that sometimes it is used in bloodthirsty ego battles at places such as: swim tests and the Internet.  When I was in high school, I remember seething with jealousy when I saw a photo on an online forum of a girl wearing a whistle at a Trainer For A Day program.  

But as I got older and learned what the whistle actually did, it became less of a magical totem.  It transformed into one of many career goals I'd set for myself, because using a whistle bridge correctly is a fundamental skill required to make any progress in this field.  Regardless, while I and several other colleagues gained a more mature understanding of The Whistle, we were still privy to the catty (albeit hilarious) interactions we'd hear or see between prospective intern/job candidates.

For example, at one swim test I was at, two girls started sizing each other up like two Western lowland silver-back gorillas.  Instead of brute strength, they used their Mean Girl Words*.

Goo.  Good thing she never had whistle envy.

It began with quiet prodding, like a shark circling its prey.

Girl 1: So, did you do any internships?

Girl 2: Yes, I did three.  Let me take 28 minutes to explain to you in detail what I did at each place.

Girl 1: Wow, that's like so cool.  I only did two internships.  But I trained a dolphin to spin.


Girl 1: Oh, I'd rather not say. 

Girl 1: WHAT?

It got dirtier then.

Girl 1: Do you think like, because you already had a whistle, maybe you're overqualified for this job?

Girl 2:  No, I think it makes me more qualified.

Girl 1:  How long did you prepare for this swim test?  I hired an Olympian to train me in the Baltic Sea.

Girl 2: I swam the English channel five times without goggles.

Girl 1: Whatever.  Are you seriously going to wear THAT skirt for the interview?

Of course, neither of these two girls got jobs (to my knowledge).  We could reference back to my Facebook post about how to conduct yourself properly both in cyberspace and in real life, but I'll leave that life lesson for another time.

The fact is, the pivotal moment in this vicious exchange was The Whistle:  a plastic or metal object that hangs around your neck, gets really smelly, and sometimes can chip your teeth.  

At most facilities, new trainers do not get a whistle right away.  They may start learning to work with the animals before then, and of course they're learning how to bridge behaviors at that point.  They're just using other bridges, like points, taps, or verbal ones.   

A bridging stimulus is a bridging stimulus: it means criteria has been achieved and reinforcement is coming.  But the Marine Mammal Whistle has such power in our field that it even confuses the seasoned trainer into thinking that the dolphins believe the Whistle is the more "powerful bridge".  No, no, no.  Not unless you make it so.   In an ideal world, all bridging stimuli should hold the same value.  

But I don't want to continue to lead you all to think I was not excited to earn my first whistle at my first paid job.  Oh, I was psyched.  Having a whistle meant I'd accomplished a Career Milestone, having a whistle meant I could start training behaviors with dolphins way more easily than with the other bridges (d'uh, it's easier for a brand new trainer to bridge a tail walk approx with a whistle than it is with a point), and yes, it kind of represented a status symbol that non-trainers could appreciate.

What makes this a marine mammal trainer photo? The whistle.  What makes this photo awkward? Everything else.


She'd be like, "Uh, WTF?"

If I called home and said, "HEY MOM! GUESS WHAT! I GOT MY WHISTLE TODAY!"

She'd  say, "That's so great!"

Why? Because The Whistle = Marine Mammal Trainer.

Each facility is a little different in how it determines an entry-level trainer is ready for a whistle.  At my first facility, each new trainer had to take a Whistle Test.  You were only eligible for the Whistle Test when you'd completed your Safety Test (in which you had to remember, verbatim, the entire packet of safety protocol of the facility in every animal department and you failed if you got less than 80%), a Terminology Test (again, verbatim answers and less than 80% was failing), and a Behavior Scenario Test (80% was failing, but you had a little more wiggle room on the answers).  If you did not pass these tests within your 90 day probation period, you no longer had a job.

Sound tough?  It was.  But I'm very glad for it, because it provided me with a very solid understanding of safety and training basics.  Plus, it developed a sense of camaraderie with the other new trainers.

So when I passed those tests, I knew I was eligible for The Whistle Test.  The goings-on of the Whistle Test were shrouded in deep, gut-churning mystery.  I'd heard rumors about an additional swim test.  I'd heard that The Test was harder than any swim test.   I'd heard that some people failed.

On the day I turned in my Behavior and Terminology tests, I was sitting in my department's office filling out records anxiously waiting to hear from The Boss if I'd passed.  One of the more experienced trainers approached me.

Trainer: Cat, you did really well on both of your tests, good job!
Cat: Phew!
Trainer: Meet us outside in a bathing suit in 4 minutes.
Cat: Durrrr asdliugalsidugasdg

Let me just tell you that being in a bathing suit in front of a bunch of people was not something I was used to at this juncture in my career.  My internship required shorts and a t-shirt tucked in, and at my new job I work khakis, white tennis shoes, and a blue polo.  I was not prepared in the least to display my pale-as-the-driven-snow legs, not to mention my horrid tan lines.  But, they'd told me to be outside in four minutes, so I went.

Two other new trainers were outside in their swimwear.  One was a guy from the sea lion department, the other was a girl who worked at another dolphin department.  They'd both been at the facility for a while and had probably seen or heard about a Whistle Test.  I on the other hand, had only been there two months and was petrified.  

As we stood there, more and more trainers from the park flooded in to watch.    To watch me…in my bathing suit…. perform some mysterious set of activities.  

When everyone had gathered, a senior trainer announced the day's events.  We had to do an underwater swim nearing the lengths required for my swim test at that facility, but we had to swim through a gate channel twice to pass.  Gulp.

Then we had to haul ourselves out onto a higher catwalk using just our arm strength.   Once we had completed that, we were informed we'd get further instructions.

The three of us greenhorns prepared ourselves to launch into the water.  I felt confident I could complete the underwater swim.  When the signal was given to dive in, I pushed off with all of my might and attempted a high-arching, pretty dive.   I sailed into the air and into a parabolic arch that could render any dolphin envious, my toes expertly pointed, and my trajectory ready to take me into a smooth entry beneath the aquamarine water. 

Me and my expertly pointed toes still crashed clumsily onto the surface, where gravity and my mass allowed me to sink beneath the waves.  So I got zero points for style, but I still completed the underwater swim.

When I resurfaced, I was reminded I needed to haul myself out of the habitat onto the catwalks.   The catwalks were roughly three feet from the surface.  But to me, they might as well been 78,000 feet tall.  I had virtually no upper body strength.   My cohorts had no problem deftly plucking themselves from the pool and landing gently on their feet (one was a dude, the other was a former gymnast).  

An actual photo of the catwalk.

I, on the other hand, successfully got my hands on the catwalk's wooden planks.  I might have even, as I recall, bent my elbows slightly.   Alas, that was all I could do.  At the time, there was no strength in my nerdy, girly arms.  

At this point, other trainers started encouraging me, telling me I Could Do It.  I had to inform them (and not just with my words) that No, I Could Not.   They gave me tips.

"Swing your legs over the side!"

"Just get to your forearms!"

"Go to the gym for like three months and do 100 pushups a day, then try again!"

Okay, so no one said the latter comment.  But the former two proved relatively helpful.  My feet wanted to betray me by bracing themselves on the fencing surrounding the habitat, allowing for the necessarily leverage to get my pale, weak self onto dry land.   I somehow managed to get one of my forearms onto the dock while the other hand held on to dear life, my legs swinging unhelpfully underneath me and under the catwalk.  

After several minutes of struggling, I finally wrenched myself free of the water and dragged my torso, ribs, and eventually my legs onto the catwalk, ripping skin from all of the aforementioned places.   Alas, the abrasions were proof of my success!  Battle scars, indeed.

We were told to go to another department with a larger, colder habitat.  "Run!" said the senior trainer running the rite-of-passage. 

We ran in our bathing suits across the park and into the next and final stage of our Whistle Acquisition. There stood one of the managers, holding in her hand a capsule just large enough for a whistle.   

"I'll put one whistle in this capsule," the manager said.  "Then I'll throw it into the pool.  Once it hits the bottom, the first person in gets the first whistle."  

I knew the water was 50 degrees.  I knew I was going to be in first.  

As the capsule sank to the bottom, I ran and dove into the water.  My chest constricted in the cold and my abrasions burned in the salt water.  But I MUST HAVE THAT WHISTLE.

I dove to the bottom of the habitat, grabbed the capsule, and emerged victorious.

The other two trainers quickly earned their whistles in the same manner.  We were all in a great mood.   After we had changed and dried off, some of the more senior trainers tuned our whistles to the same frequency as everyone else's.  They tied the whistles to lanyards and gave us our Trainer Status Symbol.  The Great Whistle.

When I called my parents that evening to tell them about it, they were ecstatic.  I got at least five cards from different family members congratulating me on the accomplishment.   When I wore the whistle around the park, newer trainers looked upon it with reverence.  Those of us with whistles knew what we had gone through the same exciting experience to get one.

Sure, the whistle I earned is like 5 bucks at PetSmart.  It's just a dog whistle.  Other facilities use plastic or police whistles that you could easily find at places such as: Amazon, Google, or  Oriental Trading Company.  

These whistles would be AWESOME in our job!

But that's not the point.   No matter how your facility doles out whistles (if that's a bridge you use), it is a big deal to complete the toolkit of a new trainer.  It is an experience that should be treated with due respect.  

Whistles.  Making dolphin trainers look good since…never.

Are dolphin trainer whistles magical? No.  Do they automatically make you a trainer?  No.  But they are special in other ways.  

Now I look back at all of the whistles I've had, and the ones I've managed to keep.  They hold a lot of sentimental value to me, even though they are worn and smell weird.  The silver whistles are dull and chipped.  My plastic whistles have teeth marks in them.  But they are still special to me.   They helped me communicate moments in an animals' life that meant excitement, learning, and relationship-building.  Yes, I can do that without it, but that was the method I used (and still use) to tell an animal I love and respect, "Perfect job!"   

So now I want to know: how did you guys land your first whistle (or clicker, or whatever other tangible bridge you may use)?

* According to medical experts, Mean Girl Words are 35 bajillion times more powerful than any silverback gorilla

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How To Destroy Your Career In One Easy, Facebooky Step

Here is a quick-reference list of six things you can do to destroy your career as a marine mammal trainer, even before it starts:

1) Committing (and being convicted of) a felony offense
2) Using drugs or alcohol, especially on the job
3) Punching someone in the face
4) Animal abuse
5) Being dishonest
6) Revealing negative or contrary personal opinions or feelings on social media

The first five things on the list seem to make sense to the majority of people.  But number 6 proves to be the most difficult no-no current and prospective animal trainers to grasp.   I've witnessed a number of people slaughter their careers thanks to a misuse of Facebook (and I'm sure it's happened on Twitter, but that thing is confusing and I just refuse to figure it out).  

Facebook, best waste of time or best career-waster.

You might think me a hypocrite, what with this entire blog revealing my opinions and experiences as a marine mammal trainer.  You'd be correct if I were breaking some kind of social media policy at work (I'm not).   I also never, ever vent on the interwebz about individual coworkers or friends, past or present.

If your next response to my last sentence is, "Why not?", then this blog entry is for you.

Let's clear up a few misconceptions.  Remember, I'm doing this to help you.

Misconception Number 1:  The Internet Is Private

Diaries: they're completely private (unless you have a younger sibling.)

Okay, please understand that this isn't a matter of opinion.  The FACT is that the internet is public, no matter how many security measures you take to hide what you're publishing.

Publishing.  Like, think about that word for a second.  You are publishing your opinions, feelings, favorite quotes, photos.  You are not writing them in a personal journal and stuffing it under your bed.   You're releasing your words and images into the realm of cyberspace, where they will exist until dolphins and/or fire ants take over the universe, look at all of our stuff on the internet before they destroy it, laugh, and create their own version of social media (where each fire ant would have 10,000,000,000 friends).

Fireant Google+

For every human being you allow to see your Facebook status or blog, that's one more person who interprets what you mean by what you write.   Saying the internet is public isn't just saying that every Tom, Dick, and Harry (and people of other names as well) can access the site on which you're publishing these things.  It's saying in ADDITION to that, your network of cyber friends who can access your page can allow others to see it as well.  How does this work?  Here is a hypothetical example of this extremely complicated concept:

Me: Hey, Harry, are you friend with Tom on Facebook?  He totally blocked me.
Harry: Yes.  Want to see his page?
Me: I'd love to!  Wow, look at all of those scathing things he said about me.  Tom's a total dick.
Dick: What?

Misconception Number 2:  Your Need For Privacy Is The Most Important Thing On The Internet

Hello, would you like to know all my feelings?

Like most U.S. senators, the internet has no feelings, no consciousness,  nor does it have any morals.   So the mere fact that you desire a private place to publish your opinions does not mean you are entitled to that in cyberspace.   If you'd like to write a Facebook status about how much you hate your job, be prepared that you'll deal with the repercussions of that (hint: it will not be a promotion).   You can choose to be upset that Someone Sold You Out, but let's keep circling back to Misconception Number 1.  It's no one else's fault that you chose to publicly announce something that got you into trouble.

Misconception Number 3: Prospective Employers Do Not Facebook-Stalk Applicants

Human (not dolphin) bosses will see your Facebook page

Your future boss is going to see your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or blog. The end.  It doesn't matter if you think it's unfair.  It happens.  Accept this and set yourself up for success, get upset and scream how ridiculous it is and never get hired (and wonder why).  Your choice!

Misconception Number 4: Not Posting Every Feeling About Everything Ever Stifles Your Creativity, Makes You Lesser Of A Human Being, and Goes Against The First Amendment

Post happy things!

I want to see people's creativity.  I love the ease of which it is to stay in touch with old friends. I love looking at photography and fine art, listening to music, watching videos that people I know create.  I love hearing about someone's great day.  I empathize with people who announce tragic news about loved ones, should they choose to do so on the internet.  It's a great tool to keep up with friends to know who's getting married, who had a kid, who got a new dog, who was promoted, whose cancer is in remission.  Those are things you'd mention to people in conversation, especially to your friends and family.  

But the topics you are too nervous about to discuss with family, friends, coworkers, and bosses?  Those aren't for the internet.  Leave them off of Facebook.  It has zero to do with you as a person.  Just because it's a bad idea to publish how much you hate your coworker (no matter how sly you think you're being), doesn't mean that your feelings about the topic are invalid.  It just means you're showing social tact.     

Now that these misconceptions are cleared up, here are some tips to help you stay on the right course or, if you've noticed you've fallen into some of the ruts I've just mentioned, how to get back on track.

1) If you wouldn't say it in a job interview, don't put it on the internet

Need I say more?

    Let's look at it in context.

    Interviewer: Tell us about a time you had a conflict with a coworker
    You:  She was totally judgmental and I wish she'd just quit already!

    Interviewer: Tell us about a time you had a conflict with a coworker
    You:  Ugh, she is so awful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Interviewer: I don't think that is an appropriate way to answer that question

    Interviewer: Tell us about a time you had a conflict with a coworker
    You: It's just….whatever…never mind….
    Interviewer:  Could you please elaborate?
    You: No, I don't want to talk about it on here.

Would you ever say any of those things in job interviews?  God, I hope your answer was NO.  So don't put those kinds of things on Facebook.  

2) Posting negative feelings about: current/former/prospective workplaces and coworkers makes you look like a jerk.

Tell 'em, George!

I'm not going to sugarcoat it.  It's not to say you are really a jerk, but you sure do look like one on the internet if you trash talk a facility just because they didn't give you an interview.  If you had a rough time at one of your jobs or internships, and you decide to make a big scene about it on the internet….you look like a jerk.  

Roll your eyes, tell me I'm old-fashioned, tell me that it's not fair that you are being persecuted for your right to feel, think, and express whatever you want to.  Good news is, you DO have the right to express your opinions on Facebook.  You won't be arrested for it, and you won't get a job offer.

There are plenty of people who have dealt with major coworker conflict, had fallings-out with their bosses, left their job disgruntled, or were majorly disappointed in not landing a job.  In fact, I'd say the vast majority of people have dealt with most or all of those things.  And yet, they do not all vent on Facebook.  They keep it classy.  What does that show?  Maturity, both socially and emotionally.

Let's take a quiz.  Who would you rather work with?

Person A

"Hey you, how's it going?  Hey listen, I wanted to talk to you about something you said to me the other day.  It sort of hurt my feelings.  Can we talk about it privately?"

"Man, I didn't get the job I really wanted.  I felt like I was really well-qualified for it too.  I even think they made a mistake not hiring me.  So I'm really bummed, but I just have to keep applying at other places.  The more professionally and optimistically I deal with this crappy news, the better the outcome will be for me."

Person B

"Hey, jerk.  Want to know how I felt about that ridiculous crap you said to me?  Check my Facebook status.  Oh SORRYYYYYYYYYY you can't see it because I BLOCKED YOUR *(&%!"


Don't do something that makes you look like a jerk!

3) "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Look, if a rabbit can do it, so can you.

Had a god-awful day?  Sick of someone at work?  Frustrated that you can't catch a break?  Shut down your computer and go do something productive, or sit on your couch and get lost in Netflix, call your best friend (who is not a coworker) or family member and vent to them, eat donuts by the dozen.   If you have compulsive FacebookStatusItis, take a picture of what you're eating for dinner or something.  Just don't post your negative nonsense unless you really want to pay some hefty prices.

As always, let's bring this back around to the animals.  Does your immaturity on Facebook mean you won't take excellent care of the animals?  Not necessarily, but in some cases it can.  Regardless, it's the understanding that perception is reality.  If I'm  hiring a trainer, what qualities do I look for? 

1) Compassion

2) Social maturity
3) Fast learner
4) Honesty
5) Introspection
6) The ability to consume a lot of sugary foods in mere seconds*

Someone who loses their mind on the internet does not show social maturity.  They do not show compassion.  They may be compassionate people, but that's not what they're advertising in public.  If they're sweet in an interview or at work, then vile on the internet, that shows major two-facedness.   Is that someone you want to have around animals?  No.  

If you identify with this post and realize that you're a culprit of using Facebook as a sounding board, it's not too late for you.  Follow the tips provided and when it doubt, don't post it (unless it's a picture of a cat wearing human clothes).   It's okay to make mistakes,  just learn for the future.  And if you're angry and offended by what I've said, you should probably go get some chocolate, hug something cute, then revisit this blog in a calmer frame of mind.   And if you are using Facebook in the appropriate manner, such as stalking your ex boyfriend from eighth grade, good for you.  Keep it up.


* Okay, maybe that's not true.  I'd rather hire someone who CAN'T eat all my snacks.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tails From The Heart (Part Three): Leaving The Animals You Love

It should come as no surprise to those of you not in the zoological industry that the animals with whom we trainers and keepers work on a daily basis really become part of your family.   

I've spent some of my proudest, happiest, saddest, most anxious, and embarrassing moments among my animal coworkers.  I've seen them in their own highs and lows, too.  We've had disagreements, frustrations, amazing connections, hilarious mishaps, and synchronicity.    If you're doing your job right, you forge a deep and meaningful relationship with each animal under your care.

How can you not love an old man dolphin?

Now, that's not to say that your relationship with every animal is exactly the same.  Because each animal has his or her own personality, and it's pretty unusual to spend exactly the same amount of time with each animal, you'll have a few animals you know better.  Some people call them "favorites", which just means that the trainer feels more compatible with that animal, not that the animals' life is more valuable or better than another's. 

If you're really passionate about your job in the zoo field, it's inevitable that you'll develop these incredible bonds with your animal coworkers.  And in many cases, you'll find the same thing happens with your human cohorts as well (and you'll have "favorites" among them, too). 

But at some point for many of us, the time comes when we have to say goodbye.  And that is arguably one of the worst milestones in a zookeeper or animal trainer's life.  

One, obvious reason why this is so awful?  The relationships you have and the routine you develop seeing the loves of your life more than you see your loved ones at home suddenly come to end.   You will miss the familiar faces and antics of both your human and non-human work family. 

What kills me is not being able to explain to the animals why I'm not going to be in their lives anymore.  Do I know that they realize I'm missing? No.  Do I know that they care? Nope.  I can't possibly know that, so I'm not going to try to speculate beyond generalities.  Those generalities are that the animals with whom I and so many of us work are social creatures whose survival to some extent pivots around social skills and the ability to recognize and remember individuals as they pertain to that animal's needs.   Is it out of the question that a dolphin could recognize that a trainer they've seen consistently for five years is suddenly gone?  Absolutely not; that's a biologically plausible statement.   So even though I don't know if I'm missed, or if my absence is noted, or if the animal has zero clue, it still doesn't take this thought out of my head: If they do know I'm gone, do they know why?

And beyond that is the last reason why it is so dreadful to leave your job.  Once you leave that family and for as long as you no longer work there, your relationships with the animals (and to some extent, your coworkers) are forever changed.  

That last fact is one of the most difficult concepts for me.  I mean, I've had a lot of pets.  But there were a few with whom I had very strong relationships.  When I graduated high school and left for college, it was extremely difficult to leave my cat Andi back at home while I went off to school.  I felt indescribably sad thinking about leaving an animal with whom I'd spent 10 years.  We had a very, very strong relationship.  So the day that I packed up and left for school in a completely different part of the country, it was one of the worst days of my life.   

After college, Andi moved in with me!

But the difference was that I knew I'd come back, and that things would eventually return to normal.  My relationship with my cat could be maintained, or at least restored.   I'd come home for holidays and breaks, and that was enough to remind her that I was still around.  The ten-year history we had certainly helped.  

But when you work with animals in a zoo or aquarium setting, that is not the case.  They are not pets.  Yes, you can develop an equally close relationship with those animals as you do your animals at home, but there is a difference.  They are at your workplace, not your house.  There is no option to maintain your relationship with those animals once you leave; it is over the moment you walk out the door for the last time. 

"Then why on earth would you ever leave your job?!" you ask.

Well, even though it is an extremely sad thing to leave the animals, there are some very important reasons why.

Of course, some people leave because they are done working in the field.  Maintaining and cleaning habitats, working long hours/weekends/holidays, and very low pay are big reasons for a number of trainers and zookeepers moving on to other occupations.   It's challenging for some people to raise a family with a trainer's lifestyle, especially as you move up the chain of command and work longer hours and gain more responsibility.   Some people's spouses leave, or they long to be closer to family, so they move to a facility that's closer.

While all of those things are perfectly normal, understandable reasons to leave your job, that's not the critical reason why we have to say goodbye at some point. 

One of the absolute best things you can do for your career as a trainer or zookeeper is to experience a way of caring for and training your animals that is different than where you currently work.  This is especially true for people who have only worked or interned at one facility.   I do know some extremely talented, open-minded trainers who have spent their entire career at one place.   The trainers I know who are the most well-rounded are those who have at least learned their trade under different management, if not working at completely different facilities. 

Your relationship with the animals is so critical to your success as an animal trainer, not to mention is rewarding to both parties.  But staying in one facility without any fresh ideas or experiences can be in some cases crippling.  The care you give your animals depends not only on your relationship and dedication, but your ability to open your mind up to different, and sometimes better ways of doing things.  It's easy to fall into ruts, preconceived notions, pigeon-holing, and other bad habits that limit what your animals are capable of doing, or the quality of care your animals receive.   But when you experience learning different training methodologies, learning different collections of animals, different taxa, different management styles and seeing different people work, you allow yourself to provide the best care for the animals in the zoo or aquarium you decide to settle down in.

I've now worked at four facilities under six different management teams.  I'm not alone in my decision to move from one facility to another; it's relatively common for trainers to move at least once in their career.  Other people stick to the same facility, but make sure to stay on at least for a while when a changing of the guard occurs, or when consultants come in for a lengthy period of time.  Still other facilities send their trainers on trainer exchanges, or encourage their employees to work for a period of time at a sister facility.  

So the heart-wrenching goodbye to the animals is, in my opinion, a necessary sadness in many cases.  While I have a tremendous amount to still learn about animal training, care, and management, I would not be where I am today had I not worked at so many places with so many different animals.  While each animal is special to me, had I remained at my first facility, I'd have never seen dolphin births, I'd never have trained stingrays, I'd never work at a show facility, or an interactive facility, or worked with Pacific white-sided dolphins, or sea lions, or seals, or penguins, or Asian small-clawed otters, or worked with extremely geriatric dolphins, or large numbers of animals, etc. etc.  Had I stayed at the first facility I got a paid job at, I'd never have been in charge of working with a deaf dolphin, or have the opportunity to be a critical role in training animals for a major motion picture.  At each facility, I've worked with some of the most incredible big names in the field who continue to inspire me every day.

Had I stayed in one place, I'd never have learned what it's like to go from one facility to another and learn a completely different group of animals, even if they are the same species as the place from which I'd just worked.  I'd never have directly watched and learned from over 50 trainers how they work with animals.  And I'm sure some of you have similar stories to tell, too.

That doesn't mean I don't miss the animals I've left.  Karen Pryor wrote in her book Lads Before The Wind that she didn't miss the dolphins she worked with, which I cannot relate to.  I do miss them, especially when I see photos of them or hear stories about them.  One day, a former coworker sent me an incredibly thoughtful gift: the first painting ever made by a dolphin with whom I had a very close relationship.  While I don't cry very often (unless all the snacks are gone), I sobbed for hours!  

But before we really go off into a pit of despair, we have to remember that saying: It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.   We can't shut ourselves down because we don't want to feel sad when we leave a zoo or aquarium.  Yes, it is painful to say goodbye.  But giving emotional selves to our animals is part of what makes us great at our jobs.  It improves the quality of life of the animals; better relationships mean better holistic* care.   You shouldn't deny yourself and your animals that, especially not because you don't want to deal with heartache.  

Now what about the animals we leave behind?  We've already established we don't really know how they feel or what they think in this situation.  So let's for argument sake say they do know to an extent that someone has stopped showing up in their lives.  Obviously, the animals' lives don't completely revolve around their human caretakers.  They have their own relationships and social lives happening in their world.  Additionally, the beautiful thing about this field and the people who work in it is that there is a never-ending stream of human beings ready and willing to give their heart to the animals.   I know without a doubt that the animals I miss most are loved as much as when I was there; there is no deficit in affection, respect, and care.   If the animals are sad or miss their pals who have left, they still have others to care for them, and new relationships to build with our replacements.  

So keep on loving your animals, even if you know one day you'll have to say goodbye.  It's all finite, isn't it?  Not just this job, but all aspects of life.  So live fully, love fully.  Relish the great times, power through the bad.   Find comfort and in a way, happiness in the times when we mourn the loss of a special friendship, a love, a connection with an animal or human.  We are lucky to have those relationships we miss when they are gone.

* Not hippy-dippy holistic, I mean medical, physical, and mental care.