Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Look Into Husbandry Training and Cupcakes

I've been reading and thinking a lot about husbandry behaviors. 

For those of you who don't know, husbandry behaviors in the marine mammal training field are synonymous with medical management behaviors*.  You know, the really fun things everyone looks forward to such as: blood draws, injections, x-rays, and pedicures**.

Blood approx with UF vets!

No seriously, who really enjoys going to the doctor?  I HATE IT.  Why? Oh, let me count the ways.

First, there is the doctor.  No offense to doctors, but you guys are sometimes ridiculously robotic.  I'm not judging you.  I might be off-putting too if I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my education, crammed an unbelievably impressive amount of (relevant) information about the human body into my brain, spent countless hours practicing medicine with ungodly hours and then spent 98% of my paycheck on malpractice insurance.

But from a dumb non-doctor like me, going to the doctor is like meeting a stranger for the first time and then saying, "Can you look at me naked and then inflict pain somewhere embarrassing?"

I haven't had a consistent doctor in years.  Maybe I've visited a few times, but it's over 10 years since I've lived in one place for longer than a couple of years.   I've been lucky enough that I don't have to see a doctor regularly enough to really build a relationship with them.

Or is that lucky?  

The fact of the matter is that most humans do not have a rapport with their doctor.  Even if they do, you probably aren't BFFs with them.  You go to their office, exchange small-talk if you're lucky, you get naked, you get some pills or a test taken, you have money removed, and you go home.    I don't know anyone who's like, "Yeah, I had a great weekend! I went to my amazing gynecologist and then we went to lunch and then played Silent Hill for 7 hours straight."

Be my friend.

What's another reason I hate the doctor?  Because it is expensive.  The end.

Another reason?  The medical tests are uncomfortable.  Even the stethoscope is lame, because it's freezing and I always feel like I'm an inadequate at taking deep enough breaths and plus I get so dizzy.  

I don't like needles.  I can deal, but I don't look forward to it by any means.  They hurt, and they cost money.  I know they're helping me in most cases, which is priceless blah blah blah.  I don't think I need to go into more graphic medical tests commonly done on women.  

How can you be so happy?!

Now think about your pet at home going to the vet.  What's that experience like for you?  More importantly, what's that like for your pet?  Is it just the most fun you've ever had?  No? Well D'UH.

Your pet has to deal with all of the stuff I just mentioned except they DON'T SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE.  You can't have a conversation like:

You: Hey Fido, you're pooping lots of blood, so we're going to take you to the vet to save your life.
Fido: You know, I was wondering about that.  I don't feel very well and I'd like to get better.
You: The vet is going to stick you with needles and probably put things up your butt.  But it's to help you
Fido: I really appreciate the heads up.

What really happens is you stuff your terrified animal into a crate, they get poked and prodded by something THEY don't know and the entire time they hear:

Vet: Blah blah blah blah blah
You: Blah blah blah blah blah

What about the dolphins, and sea lions and penguins and all those dudes you see in zoos and aquariums?  What is their vet experience like?

Well, for marine mammal facilities, we try our best to communicate to the animals what is going on.  How do we do that? Through husbandry training.   We take medical tests and procedures and turn them from HOLY SH&% to That Ain't So Bad, to (if you're a really good trainer) I Love This Thing!

The reason why husbandry behaviors are trained, versus cramming an animal into a crate or anesthetizing them (side note: I wouldn't mind whatsoever being knocked out for all future medical and dental visits), are countless.  But here are a few reasons why they are popular with marine mammals:

1) The animals are gigantic.  You try stuffing 390lb sea lion into your car (without letting him drive) for a vet visit.

I wouldn't mind having her hang out with me in my car.

2) The animals are gigantic.  You try holding a 500lb dolphin for a medical procedure.

Unless you have an SUV like this, but then you've unfriended the planet

3) The animals live in the water.  Humans are ridiculously miserable in the water compared to marine mammals.  How exactly do you think you're going to get that dolphin to the vet?


4) Medical behaviors are uncomfortable and/or scary, and cause stress.  Stress skews baseline medical tests results, that's a fact.  

This….looks like it's a stressful way to relieve stress.

5) It's just kinder.  If you have a method of communicating to your animal that they can trust you, that the little bit of discomfort is okay and doesn't mean something awful, that maybe it means they feel better, or that it means they avoid a really stressful experience, why wouldn't you do your very best to make that happen?

(and eat donuts)

6) Many non-domesticated animals mask symptoms of illness until they are really sick.  It's a survival thing, but it's a scary thing for animal caregivers, the animals themselves (I'd imagine), and vets.  So knowing what's normal for each individual animal, as well as being able to detect any problems before they are actually problems is so important I'm sure you don't need further explanation.

Some people mistakenly believe that training equates to food deprivation.  I don't believe in food deprivation, and I don't believe that food should be the only reinforcer.  When possible, food shouldn't always be the main reinforcer.  There should be lots and lots of reinforcers so you can provide variety, and plus no one likes to withhold food from an animal (if you do, go get a job at a bank or something). 

So how do you train husbandry behaviors with marine mammals (well, or any animal)?  Here's a few tips (with human examples to help).

Relationship is critical! And also awesome.

Have a solid and good relationship with the animal
That animal better trust you before you go sticking needles in skin or placing an ultrasound transducer that looks crazy and sounds terrifying at first near their body.

Make sure you take it slow
Don't go from having a dolphin lay his or her flukes in your lap to sticking a needle into a blood vessel. 

Make sure the animal is calm for each step before you move to the next one
If the animal is tense while you're trying to get them to relax by an x-ray machine, you are going to freak them out more if you decide to move the machine closer.  Wait until the animal tells you they can deal before you change a variable.

Make. The. Behavior. Reinforcing.
If your animal LOVES fish, then use fish.  If your animal plays with footballs like it's their job, use footballs.  If your animal is into rubs and fish, use those things.  Don't skimp.  Make each milestone step a huge deal.  Husbandry behaviors aren't "exciting" like the big jumps or the cool cognitive puzzles, but  you better make a blood draw a ton of fun or you won't get a solidly-trained, confident and relaxed animal.   

Make the behavior routine
Don't just ask for a seal's flipper when it's time to trim his or her nails.  Ask for the flipper all the time.  Have the nail clippers out there.  Go through the motions.  Show them that it's not always going to happen.  Ain't no big thang.

How do you equate this to human beings?  I say, why DON'T we do this with people? Humor me and let's go through the aforementioned steps as if they were applied to us.


The Doctor….

…has a solid and good relationship with the patient
You see your doctor regularly in a context that has nothing to do with medical care.  Your doctor treats you to movies, sends you cupcakes at work, listens to your problems.

om nom nom nom nom

…takes it slow
You can expect a timely appointment, but there is no rushing around.  The doctor listens calmly to everything you're saying and explains using laymen's terms what's going on and what will happen in your visit.  And gives you a cupcake.  Then they wipe your arm with alcohol to prep for the first needle stick, and they give you a cupcake in your other hand for being good.  And then they feel for the blood vessel, and give you another cupcake for being so calm.  And then they get ready to stick you with the needle and say "Are you ready?" and they give you another cupcake for being so calm.  And then they stick you with the needle, which you can't even feel at this point because all of those cupcakes have put you into a diabetic coma.  

Life fact.

But you know what I'm getting at.

… makes the behaviors fun/reinforcing
Ding ding ding! You may have to pay for your medical care, but you are still handsomely rewarded for your calm behavior for all medical tests and procedures.   NO, stickers and lollipops are NOT adequate reinforcement for a tetanus shot, are you effing kidding me?  The reinforcers I'm talking about involve you leaving your OB/GYN with a $500 gift card and a box of donuts.  Your dentist gives you a $100 bill right after they scrape your teeth with that evil hook thingy.  Your dermatologist gives you a 3-day vacation to a mountain resort.  

&*(@ lollipops!!!!!!!!!!!! I want more!

It doesn't make the pain or discomfort go away, but it sure makes you look forward to going to see your medical care professional!

 If I ever run for president and/or Grand Master Of the Universe (Planet Earth division), I'd make this my platform and I'm pretty sure I'd win every vote.

Some of the steps we use for animals I didn't include in my human plan.  Why? Because those steps are important only if you can't explain the reasons why you're doing the things you're doing.  As a human, you know going to the doctor is ultimately for your own benefit (how else will you lighten that load in your wallet?).  The animals probably don't know that.   All they know is they're scared and uncomfortable, so you have to have a way to tell them it's okay, that everything will be okay and they can trust you.


A solid husbandry training program can result in animals voluntarily doing things like:

blood samples                     toothbrushing     
chuff samples                      gum treatments
blowhole cultures                nail treatments
gastric samples                   application of eye meds
fecal samples                      eye pressure
temperatures                       wide area excisions
x-rays                                    biopsies and fine needle aspirations
ultrasounds                          IVs
assisted birth                       minor surgeries
phlebotomies                      palpation of any body part

It should go without saying, but some of those things (like excisions and surgeries) are obviously done using local anesthesia.

That's just a small list of things that are actually trained at many marine mammal facilities with many of their animals.  

The last part of this topic that I should include is the question I've addressed in several of my blogs now: What happens when the animal says no?

Well, unless it is a medical emergency, the same thing that happens if a dolphin doesn't want to jump happens if they refuse to do a medical behavior.  Nothing.  Especially with husbandry behaviors, while we don't want to reinforce the refusal (that sends obvious mixed messages), we certainly don't want to force the issue for a number of reasons…but mainly because it doesn't take much to break down a husbandry behavior.

For example, if you're at the doctor's office and you refuse to give a blood sample because you are just terrified (and you're sick of friggin' cupcakes), if your doctor says "FINE I WON'T GIVE YOU CUPCAKES", you'll just say, "FINE! I HATE CUPCAKES AND I HATE YOUUUU."

I could never hate you.

But if your doctor says, "Hmm, okay, well, what would you do this behavior for?"

"Look doc," you say.  "I'm just sick of being stuck and I really am sick of cupcakes."

"Why don't we start from the beginning steps and I'll give you $10 for each approximation leading up to the stick, and then once I get the blood sample you get $150?"

"Take as much blood as you need," you reply.

When an animal refuses a behavior, you figure out what's going on.  In husbandry behaviors, it's usually a motivation/desensitization problem.  And it's your job to work WITH the animal, not against them, to help them find the behavior reinforcing again.   It's for their benefit (not your ego), and that's all there is to it.

From stingrays to elephants, trainers have forged incredible relationships with the animals under their care.  They've used this relationship to create and maintain unbelievable husbandry behavior programs that prolong not just the duration of life, but the quality of life as well.   There is no substitute.  

So come on, human doctors.  Get some gift certificates and start training your patients for medical management!  We demand it!
* Husbandry behaviors are technically NOT the same as medical behaviors, but that's just a semantics discussion I'd rather deal with another time, like never.

** Pedicures are sometimes scarier than dental visits

Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Second Swim Test: Miami Edition

Since I've started writing this blog, I've got a lot of questions about how I got started in the marine mammal training realm.  Let's just say it involved an internship, a job training birds, a zillion unanswered resumes/job applications, and a couple of swim tests and interviews.

Me, in college, a few months before my first swim test experience.   I haven't changed much.
I've already written about my first swim test experience at SeaWorld San Diego (you can read about that here).  And as you know, I didn't land the job.  Shocking, I know.  I thought for sure they'd offer me a job after my embarrassingly awful interview.

SeaWorld High Up Person #1: Wow, what did we think about Cat?
SeaWorld High Up Person #2: That was the worst interview ever.
SeaWorld High Up Person #1: You're right.  That was the worst.  I feel bad for her.  Maybe
                                                         she can bring us donuts.
SeaWorld High Up Person #2: Good idea.  Hire her.

No, no, that's not how it worked at all. 

I had another interview at a zoo in Arkansas for an elephant trainer position (more on this in another blog), but I didn't get that job either.   I was really beginning to feel like I'd have more luck landing a job interview if I sent my resume through a buzz saw, lit the shreds of paper on fire, stuffed the ashes into an envelope, addressed it, then flushed it down the toilet. 

Farewell, dreams o' mine!

Then one day, as I walked from my dorm at the University of New Hampshire to one of my classes,  my cell phone rang.  I didn't recognize the number, but I answered anyway.  A kind voice greeted me on the other end and identified herself as a trainer from the Miami Seaquarium.  She said they had my resume on file, and were about to have another round of swim tests and would I be interested in partaking?



"Yes, that'd be great," I replied in real life.

She told me the date of the swim test and told me what to expect.  If I passed, I'd be granted an interview.   Since I hadn't prepared anything proper to wear to my SWC interview, I smartly asked her what she suggested candidates wear after their swim test.  She told me to wear something business casual, but not too fancy.  She suggested a sun dress of some kind, which sent me into a panic because my idea of dressing nice involved wearing jeans with zero to three holes in them.*

Here is a picture of me looking nice.

After the phone call, I alerted my friends and family to this good fortune.  I knew I could pass the swim test, even though the underwater swim was a few feet longer than SWC's was when I took it.  But I figured 130 feet wasn't that much longer than 120 feet; my lungs would still be screaming at me at 60 feet, so what did it matter anyway?

The swim test was in May, the day after I finished school,  and I had three weeks to prepare.  I practiced the swim test in the ol' UNH pool just as I had when I got the news I'd swim test at SWC.  But things came easier this time around, because as I've said before, swim tests are 99.57% mental accomplishments.  And lord knows I'm mental.

Anyhoo, my plan was to go to Miami one night, do the swim test the next day, then get back to New Hampshire because I had to move out of my dorm the next day.  There was no wiggle room.  I was stressed out of my mind, but time marched forwards as it tends to do.  Before I knew it, I was at the airport with my little backpack nervously awaiting my flight to south Florida.

As I sat in the chair doing my word puzzles, I felt a familiar sensation in the back of my throat.   Was it a sneeze?  No.  Was it hunger?  No.  Was it a rhinovirus making its timely debut on the eve of an event that could change my life forever?  No.  Oh wait, sorry.  YES.

THEY MAKE STUFFED ANIMAL RHINOVIRUSES! Okay, now that's cute.  Here's the website!

I denied that I was getting sick, because that always works right?  By the time I was on the plane, my throat was on fire.  Nothing could keep my mind off of it, except for the 0.0004 seconds it took me to eat the little bag of party mix that is really seriously DELICIOUS but is it really worth putting 5 pieces of food in a bag the size of a thimble leaving you feeling more empty inside than before you ate it? 

The flight from NH to Miami was lengthy and by the time I landed, it was almost nightfall.  I could barely speak my throat hurt so badly and my nose was running.  I found a cab which took me to my hotel, which I'd booked having zero clue how gigantic Miami was.   I chose a hotel in South Beach, because it was the only town I recognized when I looked at a map of the city.  

"How far away is Miami Seaquarium from South Beach?" I asked the cab driver.  The virus I'd contracted stabbed my throat with a zillion hot knives.

"Seaquarium!" he said.  

"Yeah," I said.  "How long of a drive is it from South Beach to the Seaquarium?"  I was pretty sure I was swallowing blood.

There was another "Seaquarium" response followed by rapid fire Spanish, which my collegiate-level Russian minor really prepared me for.

I arrived at the hotel, tipped the cab driver who was still talking and probably thought I was the rudest person ever (even though I did a lot of smiling and nodding), and I walked up to the front desk.  I checked in and then asked the guy working there how far of a drive MSQ was from the hotel.

"It's like 20 minutes from here," he said.  "Why didn't you get a hotel on Key Biscayne?"

"What is that?"  it sounded like some kind of pie.

Key lime (Biscayne?) pie

"….." he stared at me.  "Just come down here and get a cab when you want to go."

I explained my job interview and he told me what time to hail a cab.  I thanked him profusely.  I went upstairs and looked at my throat in the mirror.  I don't know why I did (and still do) that.  I don't know what I'm expecting.  Like maybe I'll see the colonies of the virus or bacteria doing the damage and I'll be able to reason with them?

Me: Oh! Hey! What a surprise meeting you here! 
Illness: Hi! 
Me: Look, I have a job interview/test/big day tomorrow, can you maybe come back another
        time to eat my flesh?
Illness: Oh my, we are so embarrassed.  What's a better day for you?

So when I gazed into my gaping mouth, I saw I had a killer case of tonsillitis on top of a cold, and I thought, This is it, you'll never be able to do the swim test now.   I decided to order a lot of food and eat my feelings.

Bah!!! The "sore throat microbe" plush!! Here's that website again in case you missed it.

The next day, I woke up 3 hours early and worried for 3 additional hours than was necessary.  My cold was in full force and I would've been more comfortable had I been swallowing bits of glass.  I made it down to the lobby and got a cab.   By the time I got to MSQ, I was a complete nervous wreck.  I walked into the main office area where I met the other swim test candidates.

Sizing up swim test candidates is one of the worst parts of a swim test.  You psyche yourself out because there's always Someone Who Looks Like A Dolphin Trainer (hint: I wasn't that person).  There's always Someone With A Lot More Experience Than You.  And there's always Someone Who Likes To One-Up You.  I had all three classes of people well-represented in my group.  But on a cool side note, one of the girls (she was in the "Looks Like A Dolphin Trainer" category) wound up being one of my best friends!  And luckily, she and I had enough hilarious experiences at MSQ for lots of future Middle Flipper blogs.

…I will never be The Girl Who Looks Like A Dolphin Trainer.   Heyyyyyyyy

Anyways, the handful of us taking the swim test sat nervously in the front room, filling in our job applications and wondering when we'd be marched to the Swim Test Arena.  People talked about their internships.  People talked about what part of the test they were most nervous about. I tried not to talk because I thought I might accidentally shoot blood out of my gullet, which I thought might give me a disadvantage.

The supervisor of animal training came to collect us to show us where to change into our bathing suits.  She was very nice and made me feel at ease.  I looked around the park as she walked us around and thought, "Maybe I'll work here one day."  I started to feel more comfortable then.  The swim test at SWC was packed with lots of applicants.  This group only had six or seven people.  I thought I could handle that.

After we changed, we were brought to the sea lion show pool, which is where the test was conducted when I was there almost 8 years ago.   The supervisor addressed all of us, saying we were waiting for one of their interns who was going to take the test with us.  That girl showed up a few minutes later, and then everything got started.  We would do each portion of the test by ourselves.  The only part that wouldn't be watched like a hawk was the 15 pushups.  If we failed a part of the test, we had one more chance to complete it.  Otherwise, we wouldn't get an interview.

The first part was the freestyle swimming.  When I got in the water, I was delighted at the warm temperature.  I can totally do this, I thought.  My tonsils protested, but I completed the freestyle swim without a problem.  And because the water was so comfortably warm, it was much easier for me to maintain my pace.  

The result of the google search "swimming tonsils".   I love the internet.

When it came time for the underwater swim, the supervisor gave us a few tips.  Because we had to swim two lengths of the sea lion show pool, we needed to be careful how we oriented ourselves on the second leg of the journey.  She told us some landmarks to watch for underwater, but I only remember one:

"If you see big black blurry circles," she said.  "You're going to the side of the pool instead of across.  If you come up at the big black blurry circles, you did not complete the 130 foot swim and you fail.  Make sure you look for ---"

And that's where I lost my concentration.  I looked for the black circles so I could understand where I was going.  Sure enough, they were a full 90 degrees away from the start/end point of the swim.  If I wound up there, I'd have a long way back to the finishing point.  

Then I realized I was missing the rest of the supervisor's helpful tip speech.  "Any questions?" she asked.

I looked around frantically.  Should I ask someone what she just said?  No! That would look like I wasn't listening.  I'd have to do my best.

My turn came quickly.  I sank beneath the water and began to swim.  The water was so warm, my throat was so raw, and before I knew it I was at the other end of the pool.

"OMG" I thought.  "I have this in the bag!!!!!!! I barely feel like I need to breathe!"

I kept swimming.  La dee da.  Tra la la.  I thought about how I would answer questions in the interview.  Swim swim swim.  I thought about how I was so happy I was done with college.  Swim swim swim.  Maybe I'd have time to watch a few shows at the park before my flight.  Swim swim swim BLACK CIRCLES!!!!!!!




Womp womp!

I am completely off course.  I swam in a diagonal trajectory instead of straight back.  WHAT DO I DO?

My body had a very dissonant conversation.

Brain: Well, you need to keep swimming.
Brain: If you don't keep swimming and complete this task, you fail and won't get an interview
Brain: You're fine, just keep swimming
Brain: You at least know where you are in the pool, so you know where you need to go to finish
Brain: You are completely fi- SWIM TO SURFACE

That was enough for me.  I pushed past the discomfort and spasming in my throat and screaming in my head that I was out of air and I MADE IT.  I came up, trying not to look out of breath (…I was unsuccessful at this task).   But the supervisor telling me I'd completed the underwater swim was enough to make me forget about all of my bodily woes.

At that point, I thought I was on Easy Street (turns out I was on the Rickenbacker Causeway) in terms of getting an interview.  All I had left was the surface dive to retrieve a weight, and the pushups that were supposed to be done on the honor system.   The relief I felt of having the breath hold behind me was immensely satisfying.  

The supervisor congratulated all of us on our underwater swim (we had all passed!), and explained the surface dive for weight retrieval.  We would not be getting one weight, but two.  No big deal, I thought.  I could handle two puny little weights.   


I watched as she threw in both weights.  They fell in different spots in the habitat, but I could see them clearly from the surface.  I swam confidently over to the first weight and dove down, pointing my toes to show I could handle the task AND look good.   I found the first weight with no problem.  Yeahhhhhhhh, I cheered in my head.  I got an interview fo'sho.  

I looked around for the second weight.   Nothing.  It had disappeared.  I sat at the bottom, holding my breath, clutching the first weight.  I tried to stay in the same orientation I thought second weight was thrown, but I couldn't see it at all.  

Brain: Oh my god, you're screwed

They might look cute, but they sure do freak out easily!

I had to do something! This wasn't supposed to be the hardest part of the test!! That was over now! But here I was, holding my breath again.  Here I was, clueless as to where the second weight was and I COULDN'T SURFACE WITHOUT IT.   I moved slowly along the pool's floor, feeling with my hands.  My eyes bugged out of my skull, hoping it would improve my acuity.  My lungs burned and my brain wailed in lament.   I didn't know which feeling was worse: knowing I'd not get an interview, or knowing that the reason I wouldn't get an interview was because I'd be dead because I WAS NOT GOING TO SURFACE WITHOUT THE WEIGHT.

And then. 

Lo! The blurry blob I knew was the dive weight sat seductively in my viewing range.  It laid there inert, yes, but it teased me all the same.

Weight #2: Oh.  You've found me, have you?  Took you long enough, moron.

I grabbed it triumphantly and shot to the surface, this time not caring that I emerged with an explosion of breath and panic.  I had held my breath longer than during the underwater swim part but I HAD THE TWO WEIGHTS.

Here I am, surfacing.

The pushups were a piece of cake compared to the rest of the test.  And when all was said and done,  and my blood oxygen levels were returning to that of a living person, I felt really, really good.  I even forgot about my sore throat for a moment.  And I'd earned myself an interview.

I changed into my Nice Clothes, which I had bought especially for this moment.  I even bought Nice Shoes, which I only wore once (at Miami Seaquarium).  Why?  They were these white strappy high heels that looked awesome on someone who knew how to walk in them.  I hadn't worn heels in 4 years, and flip flops are still challenging pieces of footwear for a person with my remedial level of ambulatory activity.   But I didn't want to look like a homeless person as I did during my SWC interview, so the heels seemed necessary.  But as my group walked to the area where we'd be interviewed, I realized what a stupid mistake I'd made.  

Are you %*&#ing kidding me?!

I hobbled several feet behind the group.  Are you okay? they'd ask me.  I wanted to reply, "No.  I am the dumbest person alive because I thought I could wear high heels but it turns out I'm still a 10 year old kid who needs to wear velcro shoes, can I have a wheelchair please?"  But instead I said I was fine, just "enjoying the view".  

I baby-giraffe-walked to the Top Deck area where we were told our interview times.  The supervisor asked us if anybody had to leave for a flight that day.  I told her yes, I had to be leaving at one.  She said that was no problem, they could accommodate that.  She left with the first candidate for the interview.

"Wow," another girl said.  "That was brave of you."

I assumed she was talking about my shoes.  As I was about to say, "Not really, I would've been more comfortable had someone used a nail gun to fix stilts to my feet", she continued her thought.


"Like it was really brave of you to make a flight on the day of your interview.  Don't you think that looks bad?"

WTF? I thought.  Why is this chick so worried about how I look to the rest of the Seaquarium?  At this point, if they are looking at how well I can walk in heels, I'll be lucky to sell arepas on the side of the causeway.

"It's okay,"I said.  "The supervisor didn't seem upset.  I didn't have a choice, anyway.  I have to be out of my dorm tomorrow morning."

"But it's your job," the girl said.  "Why wouldn't you make your flight earlier?  They probably think you don't care."

Mean Girls 2: Swim Test.

At this point, I can only remember what was going on in my head, which was a collection of four-letter words that bring immense catharsis and a dash of humor to any situation, but those words are also not very professional and while I'm not known for my high level of professionalism, I am also not a complete idiot.  I'd venture to guess that I replied with some quippy phrase and changed the subject to something everyone likes to talk about: themselves.   But all the while I kept thinking, why would someone in that situation go out of their way to make another person feel bad?  Especially if one day we end up working together?

Regardless, my interview went well.  It was very laid-back and I felt comfortable with both of the people involved.  When it was all over, I walked outside, ripped off my shoes and put on my flip flops. I hailed a cab and caught my flight no problem.   I moved out of my dorm in NH and back in with my parents who now lived in New York City.

I waited eagerly to hear from the Seaquarium.  In the meantime, I had to get a job in NYC in case I didn't get the job in Miami.  So I wound up working for a family friend's dermatology practice, which meant I had to wear Nice Clothes again AND heels.  Luckily, my job duties included: sending reminder cards to about 500 patients, and being cold in the ridiculous air conditioning.

I'd work in an office setting if I got to be near this stud.

It didn't take but a week to feel totally miserable at a desk job.  There's nothing wrong with desk jobs, but they're just not my thing.  Some other Things that aren't My Things are: heels, and being cold.  So you can see, this was not an ideal situation.  So when my phone rang and I saw the 305 area code, I put down my reminder cards and ran out of the office to take the call.  

It was the supervisor.

I got the job.

"Are you interested in accepting?"

I remembered what my mom said.  She said it's okay to take a few days to think about an offer.  But then I looked at the doctor's office door.  I looked at my shoes.  I looked out the window to the street, but the garbage bag tower ubiquitous on every NYC sidewalk blocked my view of the urban delight below me.


My dream had come true.  I called my parents and alerted them to the good news.  I told my doctor friend the good news ("Good job," he said. "You weren't cut out for heels anyway").

Thanks to this entire experience, I landed my first paid marine mammal training job.  Something I'd been told by so many people was impossible or pointless.   It was one of the best feelings in the world, and it took me over a year to experience it.

One of these people plays basketball for a living

So for those of you still trying to land your first job, don't give up.  Learn something from every unsuccessful swim test or interview.  Be nice to your swim test candidates, there's no need to compare yourself to the others in a way that makes them look bad and you look good.   That's just good common sense for being a human being, anyway.   And know that it's normal to send out 159 resumes and only hear back from one.  Keep going.  Keep learning, keep improving.   Most of us career trainers went through the same thing.  

I'd also like to point out that I took this swim test in 2006.  I know so many people scour the internet for information on their swim test to be Best Prepared.  What I've just written about is 8 years old; I have no clue if the test has changed, what habitat(s) they have the test in, or what the interview process is like now.  But the general principles are the same: swim hard, prepare yourself, be positive, and don't be a jerk.   You can do it!

* I didn't even dress up for my elopement.  I had a bloody toe from fish prep that day, and I wore jeans and a sweat shirt.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Around The World with Peter Giljam (special guest writer)!

The Middle Flipper celebrates all things outside of status quo.   As many of you know, animal training knowledge grows exponentially when you keep your mind open to new ideas, new facilities, new people and new animals.   Providing the best possible care beyond the basics in husbandry and medical realm relies on this steady flow of new information, constructive feedback, and your ability to adapt to changing situations.  What destroys an animal trainer?  Egomania.  

Today's guest writer embodies all the qualities I admire most in successful animal trainers.  He's been in the field for over 12 years and has worked at five different facilities all over the world.  He won first place for People's Choice Awards at this year's IMATA conference, and second place for behavioral training.  He uses his experience to help others (you can rely on him to help you out with any problem if you post it in the IMATA forum), but he still remains open to new ideas.   He is a shining example of what every marine mammal trainer should aspire to, no matter our experience level.

So without further ado, here is Peter's Middle Flipper entry on the hilarious challenges of changing facilities and countries.

First place for People's Choice Awards at the 2013 IMATA conference!

Goedemiddag, bonjour, Buenos diaz, good afternoon

As a passionate trainer I was always looking for the great oppurtunities that this career has to offer me. I went to different conferences and from there working in different countrys with an amazing variety of species. From seals to walruses and from dolphins to killer whales. I worked in the Netherlands to overseas in Canada to the Canarian islands ending up as right now in the French Riviera. So far I met the best people in the world the greatest animals and the nicest teams. I visited many places from San Diego to Orlando and Buffalo to Miami. I learned many things on my way, to think of various cultures, languages and food specialities. 

We have a very special work field that is not very usual for a lot of people. The career paths we choose are very different compared to somebody who likes to work in a bar in his hometown, what could be very amazing to.  A lot of us went away from their hometowns just because there wasn’t any aquarium around to be the person you want to be, so the choice you make is going to another city, state or country. Now of course this has their challenges. 

The magic of talking

Probably now you read this first part you already know that English is not my first language. I was the lucky guy who could combine my passion of working with animals and traveling to various places together. Till the moment where I am now where I have to speak the beautiful romantic French language.  “Bonjour, Ca’va?” Is now part of my vocabulary

I had to do the same with English and with Spanish and the fact that I’m Dutch myself, so the dialect that I speak is almost a mixture of all 4. What brings now and then very funny conversations.  I started to make up my own words if I didn’t know the English words. 

As I remember when I was in Canada I used to say meatcake for meatloaf, or a cakespoon for well you probably guessed it already and so on. When I arrived in Spain I had to learn the language to. Nobody except my team was speaking English. So here we go, in Spain I started to say Buenos diaz in the evening and “vamos” to every person I saw, but this doesn’t work very well. People start to look funny at you and so on. Now the new team always has this crack up, the team you will work with will give you the most amazing first lessons in the language you need to learn. They will have the funniest times in the world and you will embarrass yourself in public by using them. Till today they still do that to me.  

At one point I went for some food and I needed for my dessert a small spoon, so I ask my co-worker how you say this in French, with as answer he says “chat” so I look at him and say ok thanks and he started laughing out loud. When you translate the word “chat” from French to English you will understand what it actually means. 

Le chat
In Spain the first things they asked me was: "Tu es maricong?" Of course they were waiting for an answer but I didn't know what to say and just laughed… but what they asked me was… google translate it haha. Then they made me sing a song “mi hermana tienes pelo peludo” they couldn’t stop laughing anymore because apperantly I was singing my sister has a lot of hair. 

“I’m sorry to say it this way, I’m still European” Now we are in France… so far my answer to Ca’va what means how are you is always "tranquil" which means "relaxed" because I can’t explain myself any other way. So the fun part of this is for trainers that if you live in another country you have some fun enrichment for your brain. Especially when they also try to teach you the fun words at first. 

Now there are also the hard parts of this language barrier. I mean coming in a new place and trying to understand is harder then you think. A lot of times after a while you don’t absorb the language anymore. Especially when you decide “what's a great decision” to do some classes after your new job, the problem will be, it will get in on the left side and gets out on the right side. Absorption of the language isn’t too easy after a while. If you hear a language over and over again without understanding it you won’t get it anymore after a while. Languages are very challenging, but useful for your career. 

Language barriers are ok, we can learn this trick. Now we all work with hand signals, so understanding one another with sD’s is fairly easy but now to think about cultures, foods, religions and ways of thinking. I’m a very outgoing and open minded person what sometimes goes against myself by saying the wrong things at the moment. We all had it before but there are more awkward moments when you think your jokes are very funny but the whole team looks at you if you would tell them that tulips aren’t from the Netherlands. Well they are! 

Now in my experience there are many various cultures. This is challenging and amazing at the same time because now I know that French wine is great and the Spanish kitchen is very awesome. If we project this at the work floor, we all have our own training styles with one better as the other but if you go to another country you will see a much bigger difference. This is great for your learning ability because of the new ideas you will have.

But at the other hand you have to change your style into theirs to introduce yours after. This is sometimes tricky. What I discovered is that being very patient but very patient is one of the keys to success. 

Now the opposite of that is when they give you the chance you have to rock the moment. Like what they say first impression is an important one. So getting the respect from others is very nice to have. In every country I worked I had to be careful to not put pressure on the new team with telling them what ideas I have. Some of them like it but some of them feel challenged and sometimes even worse pressured to the negative. Now knowing the cultures before you go somewhere will help you to understand a little bit how the people are. I mean not everybody is open minded or as outgoing as yourself and for everybody there is a way to understand them to. At the end you want to be the best team player around. 

In the last years I made up some strategies. One better as the other but at the end it made me a better trainer and team player overall. I made mistakes and I had successes. Everywhere there are various ways of bringing the ideas to the team you are working for. 

When I was in Canada I had to do this way different as in France right now. You start to understand knowledge about people psycology. I started to understand that there is no “right” way to do certain things. Of course one way is better then another, but it's great how you can do it different too. I mean how they train the whales in Spain is very different then in France but both have their amazing ideas that works great for them.

So before we say it doesn’t work we have to open our box and see the successes each person had in their own thoughts. Everybody is successful in their own ways. I very much learned that if I do what I love to do its going to work and it pays of. Its just a matter of time. This is not 1 month, half a year, this can take a year so be patient things will be good. As long as you believe in yourself.

Blond, brunette, big, small, temperament….

If you work at different places you deal with a lot of various things. Like various people cultures and greetings. I’m from the Netherlands and with this way of thinking it was very hard to be in Canada at first. Not because it wasn’t great but just because I was a little bit to open for canadiens. I made jokes that I thought were very funny and they were like “Peter! You can’t say that” . 

At one point I saw this co-worker wearing her wetsuit and had her back it started to crack (and then I mean the area between her back and her legs) so I made the comment “what do you think when you have such a big …."

Now we laugh about those jokes in holland but I learned a valuable lesson that this is harassment in Canada. Although my supervisor couldn’t stop laughing and understood where I was from. He told me nicely “Peter in Canada you can’t do this” So I had to think a little more about what I could say. 

In Spain it was very different, the people are harsh and you can say really whatever you want. They think it's very funny to make a person smaller and smaller so you need to be strong in your shoes. They had many shower jokes, it was always a struggle to get away without whatever on your back. So shower time wasn’t 5 minutes, it took forever… closing lights, soap fights, pushing, throwing wet clothes, you name it they did it. Very different then Canada. 

What I remember too is the restaurants. In Canada and in the US to you give a good tip. The first time I went to a restaurant, and as Dutch as I can be, I gave this person a dollar tip. Well after my friends explained very nicely “Peter you can’t do that”. In Spain you basically don’t give tips unless its very very good. 

Another funny thing is the way people great each other. In Canada you shake hands, In Spain you give the ladies 2 kisses. In France you kiss everybody, boys boys, girl girls, boys girls it doesn’t matter. Now I've worked there for 4 months and I still don’t kiss guys. It's different for me. In Canada they are very sensitive, in Spain they are very harse and in France very full of temperament. All challenges that you need to know before you go. 

Private life

Passion is not just about work. If you have great work and your private life isn’t too well you're still not too happy. Now I’m a very outgoing person that talks easy and does new things very quickly. It took me time to make a private life. 

In the Netherlands I worked, danced and had good times. Nothing to compare with when I went to Canada. It took me a while and what happened to me next… of course I fell in love. Not a little bit, but till today I can’t think about anybody else. This is the hardest part ever happened especially when I live overseas like today. She took me through everything! 

Now I started to play ice hockey and well let me tell you the guys I played with were always very excited when I was there again, not because I was good or I could drink beer good, no I was from the Netherlands never played hockey in my life and then put a person like this in a hockey ring with a stick and a puck. Yes very funny.. because it looks like a giraffe that tries to walk for the first time. 

After 2 years I left and went to Spain. In Spain after a while “6 months” I found this big breakdance group. 20 people at least! I started to train with them and my language went all of a sudden from shitty Spanish to very well! I loved it. It takes time and effort. Eventually these guys became very good friends and I even did some competitions with them. Here in France, I don’t have anything yet so I’m very busy building up my private life. It’s almost a 50-50 balance. If one isn’t good the balance is gone. 

At the end we become better in everything we do. We start to have bigger visions then the tunnel you’ve seen non stop. Better ideas, better solutions, more variety. Most important a better person overall!

Tot ziens, Hasta luego, Chau, Auf wiedersehn, have a good day.