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.  

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