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.


  1. Ah, Cat, you crack me up!
    I can relate to so much of what you say, as I've worked with marine mammals (now with land whales) for such a long time.
    You're blog really actually inspires me. I've meant to start a blog for so long, to add my anecdotal to the world.
    I loved your "How to destroy your career", "Trainer's Whistle", okay, honestly, all of them.
    HOw far fetched would it be to ask you to help poke me a little and encourage me to write my blog? I can't promise it would be as funny or poignant as yours, but it would be mine, and your blog always reminds me that I want to write one.
    Keep them coming! Always enjoy them!
    This one really takes the cake. I love the images with the text!

    1. Thank you so much for those kind words!! I'm so happy you enjoy the blog.

      Your request isn't far-fetched at all. What's the best way to contact you?

  2. I'm so happy I randomly found this blog today! I've been a zookeeper for 3 years (and an intern for awhile before that), and although I've never worked with marine mammals I can still relate to so many of your posts - they are hilarious and insightful! So awesome to read honest, detailed, passionate commentary on our profession.
    Keep up the good work - and love to your dolphins!

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Kristine! This blog is meant for those of us involved with the zoo field, so it means a lot to know that animal trainers and caregivers enjoy reading it :)

  3. Awesome article Cat. My craziest interaction was just standing outside of our pool with the sea lions in it, talking to a woman as they just free-swam. We talked for a while about all the usual stuff, she was very polite. I then asked her if she was interested in doing an interaction with one of them and she said she was nervous. I assumed it was the standard, what if they bite or are they slimy kind of thing. She then gives me the universal, come closer so I can whisper something in your ear sign, and as I stand next to the pool, surrounded by four other female trainers she whispers to me, "I'm on my period, can they smell blood like cats? I think they might bite me like my cats do."

    I had no idea how to handle that one.

    1. Where do people learn this stuff?!?! Sigh.

      Thanks for sharing your story, Coll :)

  4. During my last internship, a woman asked if she could ask me a very serious question and sent her kids away (red flag). I told her we could discuss anything in a professional manner, so she leaned in and, very seriously, asked me how often dolphin rape occurred on people

    1. OMG! Seriously I get that question relatively consistently, usually in waves (like after some stupid meme about it goes viral on Facebook). It's amazing what people will believe.