Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cold Weather Is The Master Weapon Of Murphy's Law: A Tale of Trainer Woe

Wow, it's been COLD.

Yeah, check out that sweater!

I'm sure a lot of you are nodding your heads in agreement, because it's been cold in a lot of places around the world, especially in the past few weeks.

Like, where I'm at, our lows were in the teens at night.  When I try to explain how cold it's been here in Florida to some of my family members in much colder climates, I wind up sounding like I'm telling a bad variation of "yo' momma so fat?" joke.  Instead it sounds something like, "Our weather so cold, we bring our penguins inside*."

I found icicles on our outdoor garbage disposal, there were thick ice patches everywhere, and trainers who found every article of clothing they could physically put on without cutting off circulation to major blood vessels necessary for life and/or bucket cleaning.

Look! Real icicles! In Florida!

Every winter in the zoo field, something happens that just strengthens our belief in our variation of Murphy's Law: if it can go wrong, it'll be really friggin' cold outside.

That reminded me of one of the worst experiences I had at work that didn't have to do with anything sad with animals.   

Years ago, one of the facilities I worked at had three dolphins born around the same time.  They were all born within a few weeks of each other, and were all healthy, happy dolphin calves.  They did everything dolphin calves do, which is similar to what a human toddler would do if they didn't have legs and their hands and arms were fused into triangles and they could swim really fast.

A grandma gives her daughter a break and swims with her three month old grand-daughter.

And as I've mentioned in previous posts, one of the most critical behaviors that any animal in any zoo setting needs to learn is to shift from one habitat into another.  If this seems crazy to you, this blog explains why it's so important.

Since the calves were born in the middle of the summer, which happens to be the Busy Season in this industry, we needed to have other habitats available for our dolphins who were not involved in raising the calves to do our interactive programs.  So the calves and their moms spent several months in one of our largest, main habitats and we did not ask them to move from one area to another.

When our Busy Season died down, we knew we had to start teaching the calves to gate.  Sometimes, if all of your target poles are lined up and the moon is in the Seventh House and you wear your lucky socks, the calves will follow their moms through a gate channel and into another habitat. 

But most of the time, one or both parties will decide that this task is the scariest thing ever.

Now, because coastal Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are a) smart, b) 350-500 pounds, and c) live in the water all the time, it can be very tricky coaxing them into a habitat if they've never seen it before, or if they haven't gated before.  And in addition to all of the other serious reasons why we need animals to shift into different living spaces, we wanted all of our dolphins to be able to go into any combination of habitats.  Sometimes, we'd give access to many pools at a time.  But if the calves refused to swim through a gate, they'd get stuck in a habitat which wasn't in their best interest.  You'd think, "Hey! You've got three massive habitats to swim in if you swim through this gate!"  But they're like, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

I googled "scariest thing ever" and this is what I got.  And I approve.

The way we decided to help out our calves was to put in a massive series of panels made out of PVC and shade-cloth.  It essentially acted as a false wall.   We put it in at the opposite end of the habitat and slowly (and I do mean slowly) move the wall closer and closer.  At some point, the calves go through the gate and into another habitat.  It may only take one time, or you may have to repeat the process several times, but eventually the calves realize that going into an unknown habitat is not scary.

Some people who are not in the field get upset when they hear or see this.  We hid nothing from our guests, so they saw how we used the panels to teach the calves to gate.  

"Why don't you just use positive reinforcement? Reward them for going in a little at a time?"

It's a good question, and it seems like the best answer.  But what I will tell you from personal experience, what we think is the best "nicest" option actuality ends to cause a lot more anxiety.  Because what we're forgetting here is that the calves are not going into the new habitat, not for anything.  Their moms may zip in (depending on how independent the calves are, and how lax the moms are in their own parenting styles), but the calves are like, "No way," and the moms come back out to be with their kids. 

Also, depending on calf, he or she may not be coming over reliably to humans for any kind of real training.  If they are coming over and playing with toys and eating ice, you could conceivably train them to go through the gate a little at a time.  But even if this was possible, it does not work very well.  Think of the phrase, "Rip off the band-aid".  Maybe you're someone who likes to slowly remove bandages, enjoying the pain of every little hair getting plucked out, knowing full well there is a less scary option.  If you are one of those people, I hope you're not an animal trainer.


Once the calves get into a new habitat via this paneling process, they realize what they've been missing.  They may take a few laps with mom in there, but sometimes within minutes they are playing and doing their thing in the new pool.

With three calves, it's a little complicated.  These calves played off of each other.  Once they got into a new habitat, I could almost hear the conversation.

Calf 1: WOW! Did you even KNOW this habitat EXISTED?
Calf 2: It's like our fort!
Calf 3: Let's NEVER leave this place!
Calf 2: What about that place we just swam in from?
Calf 1: No, you must never think of that place.  THIS new place is the COOL place now.  

And then the paneling process would begin for that habitat.  

And then one would go when asked without panels, but the other two would be like, "HEY! REMEMBER OUR PACT?" and it would unravel.

Their moms tried their hardest, but the three little calves were their own entities, playing by their own rules.

I play by my own rules.

The only problem was, paneling required many, many people in the water.  Since the panels had to stretch across the entire habitat (which was huge), and reach from surface to floor, the panel wall itself was very heavy and difficult to move in the water.  While we didn't WANT to move fast, we couldn't move quickly if we wanted to.  We needed five to seven scuba divers inching (centimetering, really) the bottom of the panels towards the desired habitat, and twice as many people floating at the surface to make sure the panels stayed at the correct angle. 

And, as you may have deduced, all of our paneling that year happened in the winter. 

Around that time, I took a trip for my birthday throughout Florida.  It was a great road trip where I essentially saw every corner of the state.  I stopped in Miami to visit some friends there and ate at one of my favorite restaurants.  But the next morning, I noticed I had a weird stomach pain.  It felt like I'd eaten too much, but I tried to ignore it so I could enjoy the rest of my vacation.

It was like I'd eaten a bag of sugar free gummy bears (google this if this references makes no sense)

Three days later, I had the same nagging pain but I was ravenous.  Still, I tried not to eat too much because it really made the pain worse.

When I got back to work, it was the coldest day of that year.  The high was 29 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water temperature was 52.  Fifty two.   The dolphins were fine; they were fat and happy and warm. But us humans were ill-equipped to hang out in that kind of cold temperature.

However, we were on the brink of getting the three calves to shift into other habitats on their own.  We had to continue with this momentum, because it was so critical for them (and for the other dolphins who we wanted to be able to have access to the main habitat) to gate.  My boss apologetically announced that we would go full-throttle on our paneling plan, despite the freezing temperatures.  Everyone in the park got involved.

I was assigned as a diver.  As you can imagine, I put on a bunch of wetsuits which amounted to roughly 98mm of neoprene coverage.  I couldn't find a dive hood, so I just sucked it up.  We didn't anticipate having to panel for a long time, because all three calves were gating more quickly.  But the Cold Weather Murphy's Law reared its ugly (albeit consistent) head.  

Murphy: Hey, little dolphins, I have an idea.  It's the coldest day of the year and these bald apes will be miserable in the water.  
Calf 1:  I'm already ahead of you.  We'll totally refuse to gate.
Calf 2: I can't wait to hear their heart rates plummet when they go into the end stages of hypothermia!
Calf 3: That's so mean, Calf 2!  But it will be funny to hear them scream when they jump in the water.
All calves and Murphy: BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

So we asked the calves and their moms to gate.  The moms tried their best, but the calves refused.   We put the panels in.  I remember watching them sink below the depths, my stomach roiling, begging any universal power to convince the calves to gate without us having to get in.

No such luck.

We all got in, and we all paneled.  The entire way.  We repeated it again, and I swear those little calves just sauntered around the habitat.  They swam by the panels and looked at us.  No, I'm pretty sure they looked at me.

"Oh," one of the calves seemed to say.  "That one looks sick.  We should probably gate."
"Nah," they all replied collectively.

By the time we were finished, we were all frozen solid.  Our toes, fingers, hands, faces, were numb. All humans shivered uncontrollably as we got out.  We rushed to the locker rooms and tried to warm ourselves, but we couldn't change out of our wetsuits because we were going to do another round of this paneling again after lunch.

As I stood in the steaming stream of hot water, I detected a smell.  My most favorite smell in the world.



All trainers picked up the scent and ran like madmen into the main office, where we saw heaping boxes of Domino's pizza.  My amazing boss had bought us pizza for lunch.

"No no," my stomach said.

"EAT IT" my brain said.  "IT WILL WARM YOU!"

I didn't need anymore convincing.

I ignored the searing stomach pains and HOUSED half of a pizza.  It tasted so wonderful and warmed me up from the inside out.  

"Why are you doing this to me?" my stomach said.
"STFU!" My brain screamed.   I ate more.

We set up for more paneling, but the calves took pity on us and gated much quicker.  I felt relieved in my mind, which quieted my brain down enough for my stomach's messages to get through.

"GET THEE TO A BATHROOM!" it screamed.

I ran, knowing at any moment all hell would break loose.  Everyone else was in the trainer locker room taking off their wetsuits, so I went to an empty guest locker room for privacy…..

…..and realized I was hermetically sealed in three (yes, three) wetsuits.  A 3mm shortie, a 3mm full suit, and a 5mm full suit.  Booties tucked into the legs.  I might've well be Han Solo carbon frozen.  

An actual photo of me (my hair is longer now)

"OH MY [censored] GOD!" I said out loud.  "I [censored]  AM [censored]  STUCK [censored] IN [censored] THIS [censored] WETSUIT. [censored]  [censored]  [censored]  [censored] !!!!!!!"

My stomach begged for mercy, for release.  But I couldn't give it that.  It was physically impossible for anything to happen so long as I was in the wetsuit prison.   I moved as fast as my frozen, useless hands would let me, tears streaming down my face because of the pain, frustration and embarrassment.

It was a while before I came out of the bathroom.

I came out in one full 3mm suit, because I didn't want to walk back in my bathing suit (no one wanted to see those tan lines).  I felt weak and dizzy, like you do after a G.I. failure.  But my stomach still hurt, and I felt like I was going to die.

Luckily, it was at the end of the day so there was just a lot of cleaning up left to do.  My boss asked me where I went, but I didn't want to look like a bad worker (plus, I didn't necessarily want to describe the biological terror that had been unleashed) so I made up some excuse.  

I went home with a fever, stomach pain, and the belief that I would probably never wake up the next morning.  

Well, this awfulness continued.  Even after the calves were gating fine, I still had to seal myself in  neoprene to do my job.  I'd put on my wetsuit, do a program, them peel it all off and weep in the bathroom thinking, "WHY! WHY COULDN'T HAVE THIS HAPPENED IN THE SUMMER WHEN I'D AT LEAST BE WARM AND NOT HAVE 87 LAYERS ON?!"  And then I'd put on my cold, wet wetsuits back on and repeat this awful cycle.

And after five days of not being able to keep down food or water, I woke up with the overwhelming feeling that someone had packed my mouth full of cotton balls.  I realized quickly thereafter I wasn't able to make any saliva, tears, or sweat (in that order), so I wound up in the ER where I was treated for severe dehydration.  The doctor told me I had a little parasite friend who was living with me and maliciously controlling everything about me and didn't  even offer to do the dishes.  A few rounds of intensive atomic-bomb level anti-microbial drugs and I was back to normal in two weeks.  

I'm pretty sure this is what was living in my intestines.

We could blame the food I ate in Miami.  We could blame unfortunate luck.  But of all the times this parasite decided to rear its ugly head, it was on the coldest days of the year when I needed to wear the most wetsuits.  So I'll tell you who I blame it on.  That arch nemesis of zookeepers everywhere: Murphy and his no-good, ridiculous law!

* Of course, our penguins are warm weather penguins.


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  2. Too funny! I really enjoyed reading about the dolphins and your, uh, mishap. You have a great sense of humor. Thanks for sharing!

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