Sunday, March 30, 2014

Treating Interns Right, Even If You Have To Dumpster Dive

If there were a few adjectives people would use to describe me, here's a short list of what I think they'd be:

1) Talkative
2) Weird
3) Scatter-brained
4) Sugar obsessed

Blah blah blah, I'm even always talking to the animals.

Hopefully, another word people'd use about me is "compassionate".  I'm no saint, but I really do believe in empathy.  There's a sanskrit word ahimsa, which means "non-violent".  I really like the concept of ahimsa, because it essentially means that you should do nothing to cause harm to yourself or others.  This word is clearly open for major interpretation.  Some people assume it means you shouldn't actually hurt anything, which must make their lives extremely complicated because how do they eat?


But the point of ahimsa is that you should never do anything to someone (including yourself) with the intention of hurting them.  You might discipline a child, but you do it from a place of love and well-intention, not because you enjoy watching them cry.  Another example: I may not want to hurt the donut, but I have to eat.  If I don't eat, I die (which we could say is relatively harmful to myself).  Therefore, it is with great reverence that I eat donuts.  

In any job, it's common to watch people become a little crankier as they move up the ranks.  They find themselves in a positional leadership style, AKA the "DO AS I SAY BECAUSE I AM SUPREME RULER" style.  Unfortunately,  we all know who gets the worst of this leadership type....



It's always confused me, the mentality that some people have that interns are at their place of employment (in any field!) to be used and abused.  This is especially true with people who themselves have a history of being hazed during their beginning stages, who then think "Hey, I went through it, now it's my turn to be the bully."  

I'm just not wired like that, I guess (and luckily, most of my mentors and bosses haven't been either!).  Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't have a ton of character flaws, or that I've never been mean to someone.  I'm not saying I'm perfect or above anyone else, I'm just pointing out that I have never felt that interns or junior staff and their goals are less important than me or anyone else.  That belief was something I felt was really important I exuded when I got my first paid position.  And of course, because this is how my life goes, hilarity ensued.

I started my apprentice trainer job at the Seaquarium right in the middle of an internship term.  Even though I was technically a level "higher" than the interns, they knew what they were doing and I didn't.  It was a fast-paced environment, too, especially because my department was in charge of fish delivery to all other departments in the park.  My internship previously had involved sorting fish for three dolphins and four otters.  My new job meant I had to not only sort and weigh out fish for three times as many dolphins, but I had to pull all the fish for all the other marine mammal departments.  I had no idea where anything was, or how to do it.  Luckily, the interns really helped me, and since I spent just as much time as them scrubbing buckets, I never felt any kind of separation between me and them.

So when the next batch of interns started, I knew I'd be the one helping them learn the ropes.  I remember thinking the night before I knew they started that I would have to make sure I was patient, clear, and kind to them.  I knew how hard a first day was at an internship, and I wanted to make sure they saw me as someone they could learn from, but also feel comfortable around.  

Was this amazing intern crying because we were saying goodbye? Or because I carried a random banana with me everywhere I went?

The next day, one of the interns started in my department, which meant she had to learn how to deliver fish.  She was a very nice girl who had done an internship at another facility, so she knew the basics.  Nonetheless, I talked her ear off.  Blah blah blah, I told her every little tidbit.  In my mind, I thought I was being helpful, but I'm sure she wanted to blow her brains out.  

We delivered all the fish, me yapping away in the truck we drove around the park to make fish delivery easier.  I talked about everything:

"Don't worry about this seat, it slides to and fro with wild abandon."

"Backing up into the sea lion department requires depth perception only seen in supernatural creatures, so don't worry if you knock something over once in a while."

"Isn't it cool how smooth mackerel feel blahblahblahblahblah?"


She politely listened and helped me where she could.  I showed her how to check on all the animals to make sure everyone was okay.  I told her what the other interns' jobs were as we were driving the truck around.

"I know it's overwhelming," I said.  "But it'll get easier.  Just don't hesitate to ask questions, that's what I'm here for. Blahblahblahblahblah"

"Thanks," she said. 

I felt good, like I was really conveying the message that I didn't see her as lower than pond scum or something.  I thought about this as we drove the truck to one of its final stops: the dumpster.  All the fish boxes from all the fish deliveries were in the truck bed.  And when I say boxes, I don't mean nice and clean cardboard boxes.  No, that's what they once looked like.  But we had opened them up, exposing the plastic bag covering all of the fish.  To dump the fish into their respective sinks, we had to open the plastic bag, dump the fish, and then place the bloody, fish-juicey bags into the boxes, at which point the blood, juice, and oil soaked the cardboard and made our trash pile really disgusting.  

Corrugated calamity

So I drove the truck to the gate house, where the sleepy guards hung out.  

"I'm going inside to ask for the gate key," I told the new intern.  "All you have to do is tell them that's what you want, and they'll give it to you.  Then we go through and dump the trash. Blahblahblahblah."

I hopped out and got the key, a small key on a key chain.  I unlocked the gate, slid it open, then got back into the truck.  I drove the truck out, closed and locked the gate behind me, then drove a few feet over to the  dumpster area.

The dumpster area was a fenced-off section in the back of the parking lot, far away from any animal habitat or guest area.  It contained several dumpsters, all smelling really delicious.  They contained fish boxes, leftover food from the various concession stands/restaurants, and all other janitorial delight from the park.   The dumpsters were all open-faced, so all we had to do was back the truck up to the closed double door gate, stand on the truck bed, withstand the pungent odor, battle flies the size of cannon balls and hurl the boxes/bags into the nearest dumpster.  

Blow flies.  Blow flies everywhere, such as in your soul.

Me and the new intern hopped up onto the truck bed.  

"So you take the boxes and bags and throw them over the gate and into the dumpster.  You have to make sure that all of this goes INTO the dumpster, and that it doesn't fall onto the ground.  Otherwise, you have to get the dumpster key and go in there."

"Going in there" may not sound bad, but even being a few feet closer to these ripe trash piles of horror could bring Thor to his knees*.   And of course, you didn't want any trash on the ground, because raccoons, opossums, and other dirty scavengers such as pelicans would get to it, rip it apart, and spread it all around the parking lot.

Pelicans, did that surprise you?  Let it sink into your brains for a moment, the vision of many pelicans sitting ominously atop the sides of the dumpsters, with the occasional seagull thrown in for good measure.  Pelicans, shooting their projectile poo in massive quantities into the already putrid garbage pile, stood watch as we prepared to throw fish boxes into their smorgasbord. 

I captured this rare image of two brown pelicans flying and NOT pooping.

The intern looked extremely pained as she inhaled the thick, rotten smell and was pelted with blowflies.

"It is pretty disgusting on days leading up to pickup," I said.

"Yes, this is seriously gross," she said.

"That's why it's really important you have good aim," I said.  I stood on the back of the truck and grabbed a fish box.  "So you don't have to Go In There."

I flung the box with all my might.  It was met with either a cross-current or Murphy's deplorable and invisible hand, because it suddenly changed course and flew away from the dumpster, and landed on the ground.  NOOOOOOOO I thought to myself.

"Rats," I said to the intern.


"No, I mean, [insert swear word here]," I said.  "Okay, let's just toss the rest of these boxes more carefully, then I'll get the dumpster key and pick that up."

We both successfully unloaded all but one of the tens of juicy boxes into the dumpster.  The pelicans continued to defecate with delight as they tore into the trash, hoping to find a forgotten fish.

The last box sat lonesomely at my feet.  I reached into my pocket and grabbed the gate key.

"Once I throw this last box in, I'll go unlock the gate and get the dumpster key from the security guard. Wow, it's such a beautiful day outside, blah blah blah blah blah"  

I kept blabbing to this poor intern.  Talk talk talk.  I was talking so much, the only thing I clearly remember was feeling the weight of the key in my left hand, and the soggy box in my right.  I prepared to deposit the last box, cocked my hand back, and threw, still flapping my trap.

The gate key sailed through the air, forming a perfect parabolic arch, its metallic finish glistening in the Florida sun, as if winking at me as a gesture of farewell as it disappeared into the dumpster.  The pelicans jumped after it, curiously staring at it and pooling more poo.


I stood in place, the fish box still in my right hand.   I had to Go In There, in the worst way.  How. Could. This. *(&#%. HAPPEN?!  Well, I'll have you refer to the list at the beginning of this post: I distracted myself with nonstop babble.  This paired with my innate scatter-brainedness created a moment I'll never forget.

The intern stood at my side, frozen, her eyes wide and looking at me.

It was then I realized that she was not empathizing with my really dumb mistake.  Yes, of course throwing the key in meant someone had to go in and get it out of that rancid place.  But as I stared at her ashen face, I realized that she thought that she was going to be the one to retrieve the wayward key.

I looked back at the dumpster, wanting to puke just thinking about what it'd take for me to FIND the key, much less get it out.  

But there was no way I'd make the intern do that task for me.  I was the one that threw the key in, not her.  So I told her, "Hang out here, I need to get the dumpster key."

And she replied, "Are you sure? I can get it.

"Yes, I'm sure.  I'm the moron who threw it in there, it's my job to get it out."

"At my other internship," she said. "The trainers would make me do stuff like this all the time."

That made me more disgusted than the idea of crawling through pelican feces-iced, week-old fish garbage.  Me "making" her do that task would come from a place more rotten than any garbage.   


So I got the dumpster key and opened the gate.  I backed the truck as close as I could to the correct dumpster and peered in.  Maybe it was karma, but the key was just resting on top of a pile of pelican leavings, versus being deeply wedged in the abyss.  I collected the key, threw up in my mouth a little bit, then closed everything up.  When we went to clean and heavily disinfect the truck, I think I poured an entire bottle of Roccal on my hands and hoped for the best.

Effective against 10 viruses, 23 bacteria, 3 fungi, and 1 pelican poop

It's important to remember that no matter what level your team members are, they are human beings, too.  There is really no need for mean-spiritedness.  Yes, it might mean you end up doing something disgusting.  Yes, you may have to ask a junior staff member to do something gross, difficult, or unglamorous.  But if you're asking them to do it just because you don't want to, because you'll enjoy watching them be miserable, or because you think they are somehow "below" you, ask yourself if that's the kind of person you want to be.  I'll bet it isn't.    Hold yourself accountable for your own mistakes and responsibilities.  Just don't throw any keys into dumpsters.

* Yes, please

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Only Awful Reality About The Marine Mammal Training Controversy

There's a blog floating around the internet some of you might have heard of: "6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld."   Or maybe you've seen some "documentary" about the topic.

Haven't read it? Take a peek

Let me first say that I do not, nor have I ever worked at any SeaWorld park or any of its affiliates.  I've spent my career working at smaller facilities, most of which are owned privately or are a non for profit business.  

So why am I addressing a blog about a facility I've never worked at? Well, there were a few reasons I initially wanted to dedicate this week's Middle Flipper to it.  But when it came down to it, my fundamental issue deals with a myth many anti-zoo people out there believe.  What is that myth?  Well, here it is:

Marine mammal trainers are "in it" for their ego.

I know which side I want to be on. (P.S. Who made this graphic? I want to know so I can credit them!)

I can't tell you how many people, ranging from close friends to complete strangers have, since the release of Blackfish, told me in some fashion that I am selfish. While on the surface I may love the animals and think I'm doing good in the world, the "real" reason I'm doing what I'm doing is because I'm so deluded by my selfishness to be a marine mammal trainer.  And furthermore, that selfish ego prevents me from seeing the "truth" about what I'm supporting or doing.  Sigh.

I've sat back and heard people's asinine assumptions about my and my colleagues' alleged egomaniacal reasons for wearing a whistle around our necks.  I've stayed quiet about it, because I figured everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  But after I read yet another ridiculous internet contribution to this idea that marine mammal trainers are essentially selfish people trapped in childish notions of self worth, I had to say something.

I could never cut it as a good marine mammal caregiver if I was in it for selfish reasons.

Who's the greatest? This guyyyyy

Luckily for me, the author of "6 Awful Realities Behind the Scenes at SeaWorld" beautifully portrays what happens to someone who tries to get into the field with selfish notions.  By selfish notions I mean the Look At Me, I'm A Dolphin Trainer! mentality.  You don't last very long in the animal care field if that's your primary motivation. 

First of all, this job requires a TON of grunt work.  This means you're cleaning habitats, getting good and intimate with poop.  As a marine mammal trainer, you're handling tens to hundreds of pounds of fish a day.  Raw fish.  And you're covered in fish slime, skin, scales, and guts for several hours.  You spend hours a day hunched over a sink looking at each individual fish, making sure it meets legal requirements for your animals, not because you don't want to get in trouble with APHIS, but because you want to make sure your animals get the best quality food as possible, because they are relying on you to be on your A-game with their food every single day without fail.

Capelin, the trainer's fragrance of choice

And then you spend an hour or two cleaning up after yourself, which means using a detergent and a disinfectant to sanitize every object that touched fish.  The entire fish kitchen, from floor to ceiling, is cleaned, scale-checked, disinfected, and scale-checked again.  The refrigerator is restocked, because you gotta do it all again tomorrow, with the same level of thoroughness, passion, and dedication.  Oh, are you too tired from your second job?  Did you only get three hours of sleep because you needed to afford your car payment?  Too bad, you can't let that affect how you sort fish at 6am.  Because the animals depend on you; suck it up.

So when I read the part about how being a trainer "ruins" your body, and that we use "harsh compounds" in fish kitchen, I laughed out loud.  What kind of chemicals does this person think humans use in restaurants?  How about a lot of Dawn soap?  How about a diluted bleach or vinegar spray to disinfect buckets, sinks, walls, floors, etc?  Does that seem like a harsh compound?  

Oh no, look at the otter whose life is being saved by a harsh cleaning compound!

Does cleaning all day take its toll on you?  Sure.  Some people's skin dries out (that's what detergent does, no matter how natural the compound is).  We don't use cleaning agents that are so harsh that they a) can't be used on food supplies and b) would hurt our skin or eyes because…why would we use them around the animals? 

Second, there are a lot of sacrifices when it comes to caring for these animals.  Aside from the actual physical labor it takes to keep habitats clean and food properly prepared, there is a massive time commitment.  If an animal falls ill, or is pregnant, or is just born, guess what?  Your weekend and vacation plans are out the window.  You want to be home for Christmas and Thanksgiving?  Too bad.  The animals still need to eat, they still need your full attention.  If I came in on Christmas day and decided that I just had to cut corners with cleaning, food prep, or enrichment because I wanted to be with my family who I never see, guess who pays the price? The animals.  And who exactly am I trying to care for in this job?  The animals.  Not my ego.  So I give up the family time, because that's what I signed up for.

Me at Christmas with some awesome penguins.  Did I miss being with my relatives? Yes.  But my other family lives here.

There are a lot of financial sacrifices, too.  Of the places I worked, I've only been in an corporate environment for a couple of years.  And guess what? Each job I've had paid me barely enough for me to afford electric and water bills, and rent.  Until I moved in with my boyfriend, I was living paycheck to paycheck.  Could I have gotten a job that paid better somewhere else?  Yes.  But I love the animals, and believe in what I help contribute to, so I stayed with it.   This is a common sacrifice with marine mammal trainers.  I've seen trainers driven into debt over things that my other friends with higher paying careers wouldn't bat an eyelash at.  The people who are in it to brag about being a dolphin trainer don't have the necessary drive to stick out the times of extreme financial stress. 

Third, you deal with guests/customers from all walks of life.  I've spent a lot of my career in an interactive or educational setting.  Even though right now I work at a facility where I do dolphin and sea lion shows, there is a heavy emphasis placed on interaction and education.   We get a lot of face time with our park guests, even just walking through the facility to start a session with another group of animals.  

Sometimes, it is the most refreshing thing in the entire world to talk to guests about the animals.  There are always people who care very much about the living world.  Even the people who show up and are clearly not in favor of zoos or aquariums, but have a deep love and passion for the animals, give us all a breath of fresh air when we see that we are not alone in trying to make a difference for the interface between humans and the rest of the natural world.  We also have interactions with people who maybe didn't care or know very much about animals, but who become inspired because they have someone to answer their questions, or give them a cool random biofact about one of the animals.  People light up when we tell them that yes, stingrays are trainable and have individual personalities.  They wow over the fact that alligators aren't mindless machines, that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror, that a sea lion can create her own series of behaviors without batting an eye.  That is amazing.

If I help people see how incredible the animals as a species AND as individuals are, then I've earned my paycheck.

But then there are the really infuriating, trying interactions with people.  The people who tell trainers they think their dolphin show was awful, because there weren't enough jumps.  The people who can't understand why you have to cancel an interaction, because the animals are not participating.  "I paid for this," they scream.  "What kind of animal trainers are you?"

We deal with a lot of people who really don't care about animals.  So why do they show up to a zoo or aquarium?  Sometimes there is no answer! We ask ourselves the same question.  But other times they are there with children, grandchildren, or friends.  Sometimes, the animals can break through to those people, at which point they come to the trainers with questions. And sometimes, the relationship the guests see between the animals and the trainers is what breaks through.  It's NOT just us, the humans.  Our show hair, our wetsuits, our whistles, our narrator voice doesn't inspire people to care about animals.  But I'll tell you what does: 

1) Seeing that the animals are not just mindless creatures: the relationships the animals have with the trainers shows people who don't CARE that wait a second, maybe there is something going on inside that dolphin/sea lion/stingray's head

2) Seeing the animals up close and personal in a safe (and legal) manner

3) Having access to animal care professionals who can answer their questions!

So anyone who gets into this field solely to show off their waterwork skills and has no understanding or interest in the benefit of education will not last long in this job.  

Does that mean marine mammal trainers at show facilities don't care about education?  No way!  Show trainers do a great job with waterwork, but they will answer questions.  They will talk to the general public about what they do and why they do it.  They create a venue in which the animals can show off their incredible power.  And while I am more of a public presentation-type gal myself (just a personal preference, not a judgment call), I will be the first to say that many of the people who don't really care about animals in general will often be reached by the shows you'll see at show facilities. 

So, in reference to the Awful Reality #2 ("The Guests Are Drunken Lunatics"), that's what's going to scare the author away from a career in this field?  Did they think everyone who showed up at SeaWorld was going to understand animals the way they thought they did?  Or care about them the way they do?  No!  That's the problem, of course.  But a major part of the author's job as an animal care professional is to educate, and try to reach the people who seem unreachable. 

No comment.

Fourth, and I'll only touch briefly on this because I've addressed it in this blog (and will continue to in future posts): this job is extremely emotional.  You experience the highest highs and lowest lows.  You cannot be in this field for a long time and not experience the death of an animal, because many facilities have at least a few old residents.  Or, you work at a rehab facility where you see a lot of pain and death.  You can't get through that on any level if you are only in it to pat yourself on the back for playing with dolphins.  You. Can't.

Last, if you are really in this for the animals, then you are always looking for ways to improve the system.  What does this mean?  Well, it's different depending on what level you're at in the field.  As an intern or entry-level trainer, your job is to learn as much as possible about working with animals.  It's to cultivate a strong work ethic, to see as much as possible, and to talk to as many people as possible to give yourself a strong foundation.  Why?  Not so that you become the Best Trainer Ever (because uh, that doesn't exist).  But so every day you can become a better trainer, so you can improve the quality of life for each animal you care for, no matter how big their brain is. 

When you get a little more experience and clout, then you can start implementing changes you think are important.  Also, when you get experience, you can more easily move around in the field.  While it's very difficult to get your foot in the door, it's much easier to pick and choose your next job if you've gained enough experience and a good reputation at your first one.  

So what I'm getting at here, is at some point, you need to figure out what you are about ethically speaking.  Does the facility you work at share the same values of animal care as you do?  While I realize this is a sticky subject, we can agree that not all zoos and aquariums are created equally*.  And there are a lot of different opinions about animal care and training.  Some people prefer to work in a rehabilitation setting, because that aligns more closely to their moral compass.  Some people prefer interactive settings, others like corporate environments , while others like mom-and-pop shops.  

Everyone is different!

But it's up to YOU to first, LEARN your trade at your first job.  Then, after a year or so, you can decide if it's the right culture for you.   For those of you reading this who believe that dolphin trainers are just in it for the ego, can  you try to appreciate what it's like to develop relationships with animals and then leave them, because you want to stick to your values?  Do you think someone who just wants to run around in a wetsuit and brag at a bar that they play with magical sea creatures has the inner strength to make a change?

The author of 6 Awful Realties says that he/she volunteered in zoos for five years, then was an intern at SeaWorld.  An intern.  Really? How much credibility can we assume this person has as an intern?

While I can't comment on all facets of the blog (since I haven't worked at SeaWorld and didn't see what was described in some of the "realities"), I can tell you that when I was an intern, there was a lot I saw that I thought I understood, only to find out that I was completely wrong.  

In fact, as an intern there was a particular situation where I naively thought there was a problem with the way a rehabilitated dolphin was being dealt with, because I got caught up with a rumor mill among the volunteers.  When word got around to my boss at the time (who remains one of the most selfless, incredible animal caregivers and trainers I have ever known), she sat me down and rightfully reamed me for my stupidity.  She gave me a perspective I couldn't POSSIBLY have had as an intern.  My four months versus her almost ten years of experience at the time could not have the perspective needed to understand what was going on.  After she explained it all to me, I felt really dumb, because I realized how wrong I was: there was no actual problem.  Not only that, the worst part was had I continued blabbing my opinions about the matter I so poorly understood, it could've resulted in the animals paying the price.  THAT was totally what did it for me; to think that even though I had the best of intentions, my ignorance might have affected the life of an animal made me promise myself that I'd always ask questions and take time to learn the situation before I reacted.

Wow, that dude is flexible.

So again, an intern writing an article about what they perceived at SeaWorld makes me skeptical.  But more importantly, I wonder why that person never asked about the things that horrified them?  Were they afraid of getting fired?  If they were, I want to know about their priorities.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the article:

"But I didn't care. Living that life was utterly intoxicating: People wanted to take pictures with me and asked for my autograph, and little kids acted like I was a superhero. I worked with the most incredible animals in the world." 

Read more:

Pairing the above quote with the fact that the author had to be around "gross" animals, that they had to clean all the time with "harsh compounds", that they had to "deal" with obnoxious guests appears to indicate that the author was really only in it for his or herself.  And if they had such a major issue with the way things were done, what did they do about it?  Again I ask, did they ask their supervisors what was going on to get another perspective, one that involved experience that they didn't have?  Can the author tell his/her readership how long the move for the sharks and rays had been planned?  Can the author perhaps share a photo of what actually happened at the park, instead of a stock image of a bloody cow-nosed stingray from an unknown source? 

If they asked all the questions and voiced your concerns, why didn't they leave and find a place that did things more the way they preferred?  Did they take all that negative energy and channel it into a way of inspiring people to work towards countless marine mammal conservation efforts?  No.  They just wrote a blog article to piss off a bunch of internet trolls.  Congratulations, author of 6 Awful Realities.  You've officially helped 0 animals.  But you've really given the ignorant, vocal minority something to get excited about while the rest of us try to actually do work.

I can speak for myself and many of my colleagues when I say that none of us look at ourselves like we are some kind of celebrity, or feel intoxicated by the attention we get from other people.  What is intoxicating is the feeling of an animal putting his/her trust in you, seeing a child light up when they see their favorite animal, hearing an adult learn something new about an animal that maybe now they'll care about.  

The other stuff is nice, but it isn't what drives us through the sacrifice, the hard work, and the challenges of working in this field.  The animals are truly what inspires us, what makes the sacrifices all worth it.  The idea that maybe just one person who entered our facility with no interest in animals could leave with the desire to help the environment is what gets a lot of us up in the morning.  

Am I proud of my profession? Yes.  I worked (and work) hard to do this.  But I'm prouder of the animals I know and love, and what they accomplish as individuals, in training scenarios, and the people they inspire everyday.  I am just their humble custodian, who is happy to be part of it all.

So what's the actual awful reality here?  Ignorance fueled by unbridled emotion, with a dash of internet sensationalism.  And while the humans fight over whose opinion is correct, the animals wait for us to finish.

* Now this is a blog worth reading:
Thanks for the Controversy: What Anti-Zoo People Have Taught Me

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Losing an Elder Loved One

Today's topic may seem dreary.  Ha! Who am I kidding when I say "seem dreary"?  Death is sad in and  of itself.  But it's worth discussing because we all face it, especially as animal trainers.  

I've been meaning to discuss what the death of an animal is like from the perspective of a marine mammal trainer.  I've shied away from it because most of my blog entries are light-hearted and I just never felt it was the "right time".  But like death itself, there is never a right time.   

Last Monday, my maternal grandmother passed away.  At 89 years old, she lived a long, rich life packed full of people she loved and people who loved her back.   I just got back from her funeral and as you can imagine, death has been on my mind a lot. 

My grandma (on the left) at my sister's wedding shower 

As human beings, we experience the death of our loved ones to varying degrees.  But on the topic of death after a long life, we experience a strange dissonance.  We are sad when an elderly relative or friend passes away from old age, but we don't describe it as tragic, because it's a natural occurrence.  It doesn't make the loss less sad or vacuous, though.  

What of our old animal companions, both domestic and in a zoological setting?  Animal trainers don't tend to talk about the death of animals they care for.  Sometimes it's because of their facility's rules about sharing that kind of information.  But for the most part, we have trouble relating with our non animal-lover friends and family when we experience the loss of an animal, especially an old one.   Why? Because for many of us (myself included) there is no difference in emotion when you lose a beloved elderly companion with whom you had a strong and long relationship, no matter what the taxa.

One of the worst things us trainers hear from people (albeit usually well-meaning people) when they find out an old animal has died is, "Well, they were old," or "I know you're sad, but that animal was old."  

While I appreciate what's being said here - that losing a loved one (animal or human) at a young age due to trauma or illness is a different feeling than an old personal or animal succumbing to time - it isn't sensitive, or appropriate.  We wouldn't say the same thing about an older person dying, right?  Just because the animal is old doesn't mean the loss is any less.   Aging animals are not old bottles of milk, just waiting to expire in the fridge only to be replaced by new ones.  Their lives are, especially to us animal trainers and caregivers, important and meaningful.  They have personalities, likes, fears, and relationships.  They touch others' lives; our own and their own kind.  And we spent our lives and careers trying to understand them and care for them, because we feel they deserve it.  

I've had the privilege of knowing many animals in their twilight years.  Most of them are dolphins and sea lions.  This includes Nellie, who at the age of 61 (and counting) is the oldest dolphin born in human care.  Working with and coming to know older animals is starkly different than the younger ones, in much the way we relate to older members of our own species.  

Nellie just turned 61!

Of course, there is no verbal language information exchanged in animal rapports.  This challenge sets the stage for a uniquely intimate understanding (and misunderstandings!) between you and the animal, if you're doing your job correctly.  

Unsurprisingly, older animals' behavior tends to be less malleable than that of their younger counterparts.  This is especially true these days since training has changed so drastically over the past several decades. 

I worked with a dolphin seemingly stuck in the glory show days when she'd make up incredible twisting and high-flying aerials to no specific signal other than a dude waving his hands around in a cherry picker dangling above her pool.  She lived his life for 30+ years before the more modern methods of operant conditioning entered her life.  While she adjusted to this method, she was always a flashy showgirl with no patience for us young trainers half her age.  In fact, right in the middle of a behavior, she'd suddenly jump (sometimes right in front of your face) super high, then come back down, slapping her flukes on the surface of the water.  She'd emit this sloshy jump before most of her sessions, too.  While we had minor stretches of success curbing this superstitious behavior,  she'd always bring it back in full force and we'd start back at square one.

The old days!

Still another old dolphin was far less athetlic, but equally stubborn.  She spent her energy finding the path of least resistance with her behavioral criteria, which had been her MO for close to 40 years.  Again, some change stuck in her mind, but what had worked for her for the vast majority of her life remained deeply ingrained in her unique behavioral history. 

Another was an old male dolphin who didn't appear to give two hoots about his human caretakers, until one day we figured out what made this old guy tick.  He got excited learning new behaviors, and went nuts for pool noodles.  He was an old grumpy man, but earning his trust was one of the most incredible experiences.  He was one of my favorites. 

As trainers forging relationships with these aging animals, we develop a deep respect for them.  We learn lessons about ourselves as trainers, and even about ourselves as, well, people. 

This old girl is as sassy as sassy gets

First, we learn to be patient.  Patience with an older animal does not equate to constantly coddling them, although there are definitely times when that is appropriate.  But what I mean is we learn to respect the information and history stored int he brains of our senescent animal friends.  And by that, we become patient with slow progress or regression, or sometimes flat-out failure.   

The second lesson we learn is to be open-minded.  Not all dolphins/orangutans/bearded dragons are created equal.  They've all lived their own lives, and in the case of older animals (especially long-lived ones), their previous life experiences are virtually unknown to us as humans.  Because we can't ask them about their early lives, we have to take what comes to us.  We learn to avoid pigeon-holing and underestimation.  We allow the animal to show us what he or she is capable of in that moment, and use that information to carefully move forward.  If we're lucky enough to have any information about their younger lives and what they used to be capable of, or perhaps what caused a particular behavioral problem, we carefully use the information to build trust and progress.

This old dude is one of the cutest and most chill dolphins!

Third, we find balance.  We learn to accept the old habits that come with an old animal, but we don't limit them completely.  Yes, physical changes may limit what we do.  A blind, arthritic sea lion's behavioral repertoire looks completely different from that of a 2 year old's.  But we don't just forget about our senior animals: we enrich their lives in a way that continues to challenge them meaningfully, appropriately, and positively.

The most difficult and sometimes sad fact to accept is that for most of us, we do not grow old alongside our long-lived animal cohorts.  We enter their lives in spurts.  Most dolphins and pinnipeds have dealt with a teams after teams after teams of trainers in their 20s and 30s.  By the time the animals reach the end of their lives, their trainers still remain youthful.  Does this affect how we as trainers relate to them?

For me it does.  I don't know yet what it's like to lose mobility, hearing, eyesight.  I haven't been alive long enough to get used to a way of life so much so that I can't completely relate to changes in cultural perspectives (although that's quickly changing…what with those super short I-can-see-your-whole-butt-shorts that are so popular now, WTF?!)  Say what you will about the "anthropomorphic" parallels I'm drawing between non-numan animals and ourselves, but it's hard to deny that many of us don't know yet what our animals experience in their latter years.  

I saw this old guy go through a lot of old age related changes

So what happens when an old animal passes away, after we've spent all of this time trying to understand them and reach them?  

There is a profound and devastating sense of loss.  There is the moment you gaze upon your old friend, having just passed, and feel like your world is spinning out of control.   Even if the death is expected or unsurprising, it's not the FACT that most of us get old and pass away.  It's the shock that it happened TODAY and not SOMEDAY. 

For me, when I hear the news of an old animal I had a strong relationship with passing away, it feels like a shock.   The shock is that, like when our older human loved ones pass on, our connection with that being drastically changes.  While I was never able to exchange words with the animal, my relationship with them nonetheless is over.  I mourn the fact that I can't watch that animal learn, that I can't learn from that animal, that I can't experience their most joyful experiences, that I can't give them their favorite toy, or rub them down in their favorite spots.  I feel sad for their family or social mates left behind.

I also wonder a lot of things.  Did the amount of time and emotional energy I shared with that animal matter to them?  Did he or she know I loved them?  That I thought about them all the time?  That I wanted every day to know them better?  I wonder too about how other animals feel when their conspecific dies.  

Love this lady!

In some ways, there are parallels with these questions when humans I love die.  We assume we know the pain others suffer when a mutual friend or relative passes away.  We can even ask them those questions, but we really don't know the extent of anyone else's suffering other than our own.   The benefit of being human is we can exchange comforting words to help answer some of the other questions.  We can't ask those questions with the animals, and in some ways, that makes the loss sadder.  The not knowing, I mean.  I can say, "I hope my grandmother knew how much I loved her and thought about her," and my family can tell me, "Oh yes, she said this and this about you."  They can reassure me.  But when a beloved animal dies, that reassurance is painfully absent.  

Some of us tell ourselves or fervently believe that animals do not have the capability to love or connect in the same way humans do.  That might be true, I just personally don't believe that.  It's a deeply personal opinion, so I don't mean to make anyone feel as though what I'm saying is scientific fact.  But because I feel that social animals can love, connect, and mourn, it sets me up for feeling pretty darn wrecked when an animal dies.   

Those of us who do share the opinion that the death of older animals we love is a major loss grieve differently.  Some of us cry in front of our coworkers, some of us cry privately, some of us don't cry at all.  Most of us compartmentalize our sadness because we need to make sure we are there for the other animals (and coworkers!) under our care.   And many people simply do not understand how we can feel as sad as we do when an old animal passes away.  So we celebrate the life of the animal in our own way, I suppose in much the same way we do with humans.  I like to write, sometimes I put photos up on my computer wallpaper in a memorial setting.  Some people scrapbook, or make photo albums, or write poems.   But many animal trainers are fiercely private about their mourning to the general public.

I wanted to have some kind of point to this blog, but I'm having trouble.  I'm still reeling from seeing my family oscillating between the pain of loss and the celebration of a life well-lived.  I want to comfort my parents and sister, my grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins and I think about all the fond memories I have with my grandma (many involve…DELICIOUS FOOD).  Even though death is tremendously sad, it reminds us that there is no guarantee of tomorrow, that life is precious, and that it is better to assume we all understand love than to heartlessly declare that some of us (our animal counterparts) can't.  

Maybe the point of all of us this, beyond sharing my thoughts and feelings, is that we all grieve in our own way.  I don't mean just HOW we grieve: how and for whom we mourn is how we mourn, it is not for anyone else to tell us that we are over-reacting, that our feelings are misplaced, or that we aren't reacting the correct way.   It's important to be sensitive and reverent to the relationships we and others build and lose in death.  And it's important to love fully, and fiercely every single day.

Give all your loved ones all you got! Every day!


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Have You Fallen On A Slideout And Played It Off? The Middle Flipper's Response

A few days ago, there was some Facebook discussion about trainers falling on slideouts in front of the public and making it seem like it was all part of the plan.   The question was of the "Have You Ever" ilk, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while I've fallen down/up/across/into/over a lot, I haven't done a single show where the habitat has a slideout.

Of course, that's because I've only worked at two show facilities.  Of the rare times I was in a show at one of those places (my first paid job), it was in a supportive role.   What's a supportive role for an apprentice trainer?  Well, for me it involved getting a gate in between really awful attempts at dancing in sync with the show trainers.  I do not dance.  I don't like it, because I am really, really bad at it.  Let me take this time to apologize to anyone visiting Miami between June 2006 and September 2007 who might have seen me "dance" in the dolphin show.  My dancing "skills" could potentially be used as a psychological weapon against major enemies such as Terrorists.

I'd never want to scare a baby orangutan!

Anyways, when it comes to the topic of falling on the job, I'd say I've reached the level of Master.  Whether or not I can make it look like part of the plan is open for interpretation.  Just the other day, I lost my footing during a sea lion show.   With some Matrix moves assisted by my arch nemesis Gravity, my flailing arms and pretzling legs were able to prevent what would've been a loud crash.   However, there was no way to play this off.  The noise of my boots desperately attempting to find purchase on the floor and the supernatural movement my arms and torso took on to remain head up/feet down attracted the attention of enough people in the audience that when they gasped, it was audible over "OH &#%*!" thoughts loudly playing in my head.

Sea Lion: You almost fell right down there
Me: I am so embarrassed you had to see that.

But there was a time I had a pretty bad wipe-out on a slideout and continued on with the session.  It happened at my first job.

On the first dolphin interaction of the day, I was scheduled to be the A-B point.  For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, the A-B person in an interactive setting is usually an extra trainer who can provide a place for the dolphins to go that is away from the guests as well as serve as a sort of lifeguard role: you can see everything happening in the interaction.  For example, f you have a guest who isn't following the rules, you can ask your dolphin to swim to the A-B point so that he/she doesn't need to sit there and listen to you do the Mom Voice thing to your unruly participant. 

My inner mom voice

In addition, the A-B station is another way to provide variability for the animals via toys, fish, rub-downs, and learning new behaviors.   And also, the A-B person Keeps Time.  

When this story took place, I had about a year of paid training experience under my belt.  I wasn't as frantically trying to prove myself as a brand new trainer, but I still took my job very seriously (well, I still do).   What I mean to say is I was comfortable with my assigned responsibilities, but I still wanted to prove myself so, you know, I could gain more responsibilities.  I wanted to show how dedicated I was.

As the guests were getting their educational/safety briefing before the interaction began, I was hanging out with some of the trainers by the medical pool which is adjacent to the habitat in which the interaction was scheduled to happen.  For some unknown reason, I decided to pretend I was some kind of Olympian gymnast and chose to walk around a raised (albeit flattened) lip around the edge of the med pool's slideout area.  This was an extremely dumb idea.  Why? Let us circle back to the whole topic of dancing in shows wherein I could barely do the basic moves in a graceful manner with both of my feet planted on a flat, secure surface.  I'm not sure why I thought walking on a ledge was going to end in success.

Here I am on a balance beam.  I've grown my hair out since.   

I carefully put one foot in front of the other and walked along the edge, back and forth, as we made small talk (our training plan had already been discussed at length).  I even remember thinking, "See? You're not that clumsy."  Oh, the cosmic joke that is my pathological denial.

Eventually, the trainers actually doing the interaction made their way over to the small group of guests waiting eagerly to do their program.  I stayed back, waiting for the opportune time to go to my A-B station and ask all of the dolphins to hang out with me until the trainers and guests got into the water.   

I balance-beam-walked a few steps, looked up to the habitat to see if it was time for me to head out there, then balance-beam-walked a few steps more.  I repeated this pattern countless times, carefully finding my footing.  All the while thinking, "I am SO GOOD AT BALANCE!!!!!"


I placed my left foot in front of the right, transferring the weight to my left leg.  In that small moment, some kind of conversation must've occurred between my feet and gravity, although I was never part of the discussion.  I'm relatively positive that my left foot said, "I CAN'T TAKE THIS ANYMORE" and gravity said, "You've put up a good fight, it's time to let it go" and my foot said, "I try so hard to dance but I'm too uncoordinated, and now this endless balance beam crap!" and gravity said, "Just give in, you'll feel much better".

So my left foot shifted my body weight to its inner edge, where my forward momentum took over and buckled the ankle at roughly 90 degrees on the med pool lip.  The ligaments found themselves stretching beyond their (and my!) comfort zone.   And I began to fall.  You'd think I would've fallen towards the left, since it was my left foot rolling to the left.  But I fell to the right, while my ankle turned supernaturally in the opposite direction.  I was felled like a giant monster, plummeting at 9.8 m/s2** onto the watery slideout.  

I'd love to have the MST3K crew watch my next wipeout.

Despite the throbbing in my ankle, the pain of a destroyed ego was greater and I prioritized my next set of actions:

1) Look around to make sure no one saw WTF just happened

2) Look to see if I need to be A-Bs yet 

3) Try to stand up 

4) Look at my ankle and wonder why I can't stand up

No one else had heard the splash or seen my fall.   I was in a wetsuit, so it wasn't really that weird that I was wet because it was a hot day, and we often jumped into the med pool to cool off before doing any dry aspect of a dolphin interaction.   

I eventually made it to my feet.  There wasn't any swelling that I could see.  And I figured since I could stand, I could limp over to the A-B station, do the program, then get some ice.  

The senior person on site looked at me then, indicating that they were ready for me to ask the dolphins to station so the program could begin.  I grabbed my cooler and tucked a basketball under my arm and began the limp.   Pain seared through my ankle and leg.  My ankle yelled to me, "THE LIMP IS IMPOSSIBLE AND I REFUSE TO COOPERATE."  So I resorted to a  sort of Igor/Zombie dead leg where I dragged my foot behind me.  

This is not the Igor to whom I am referring.  But this one's nicer to look at.

"Are you okay?" one of the trainers mouthed to me as I Igored my way down the catwalk to my station.

"Yeah, I just twisted my ankle a little," I said.  The trainer probably thought the contorted look on my face was a smile* and nodded in understanding.  

This will go away, I told myself.  Just focus on the program.  

But I couldn't stand.   I didn't need to stand for that particular A-B spot as I could see everything very well from where I was.  So I tried to kneel on the catwalk, but the moment my left foot tried to tuck underneath me, the incredible pain returned.  I reset back to the Igor position, wondering how I was going to be comfortable enough to get through the program.  So I did what any normal person with such an injury would do.  I sat on the basketball I'd brought out and experienced sweet, sweet relief.

What? What's that you say? That a normal person would've told the senior trainer he/she was injured and could he/she please be excused?  Never.  I had to prove my work ethic.  As long as I could perform my duties to criteria (and I could), I would perform them.  Besides, it was just a rolled ankle.

The trainer who expressed concern looked at me with a questioning expression.  I thought she was puzzled by my bizarre seating arrangement.  I smiled and mouthed to her, "It's comfortable."

She did not smile back.  Her eyes widened and she pointed at my foot.  My eyes followed her gaze down my calf towards my ankle, which had disappeared behind a softball-sized swollen area turning angry reddish purple. 

OH MY GOD, my brain said.  YOUR ANKLE IS BROKEN.
YES, my racing heart agreed. YES IT IS SURELY BROKEN.
My ankle provided no comment beyond unintelligible sounds of pain.

I had several minutes left to continue A-Bs.  I had to do something.  I had to get the swelling down.  But how?  All I knew to do was ice and elevate.  I couldn't elevate, but ice! I had plenty of that!  I opened the cooler and took out a few ice cubes.  I touched them to my ankle, thinking perhaps it would miraculously alleviate the pain and/or the problem.  But in the 100 degree Miami heat, the ice cubes melted or shot out from my fingers, then melted in the warm water.

By the time the program was done, the swelling had doubled in size.  I Igored my way back to the place where I had fallen and sat down.  The trainers knew at this point something wasn't right.

"Why didn't you tell us?!" they said.

I wanted to say, "Because I have Great Work Ethic."  But instead I told the truth and said, "Because I am really stupid and now I think I need to go to the doctor."

I was driven to the doctor by my boyfriend at the time (he gave in and married me later) who was a trainer at the same place.  And I found out that luckily, my ankle hadn't broken.  But I had significantly increase the length of the ligaments and tore a little bit of muscle, just to be awesome.   And luckily, all I need was time to heal and not surgery.   The doc put me on crutches, which was really annoying because those things are hard and I felt at any moment I'd fall down again and be right back to the walk-in clinic.  The good news was it got me to the front of the line later that night at PF Changs, which far out-weighed the cons of arm-pit chafing and other fun things that crutches do while in use.

Where you can eat all your woes away.

For several weeks, I had to stay out of the water and had to do a lot of cleaning and office work.  But most of my time was spent scrubbing buckets.  Some people might say that sounds bad, but I liked it.  I got to know the interns and newer trainers better, and it really made me appreciate what it's like to be able to walk pain free which hey, let's face it, not every one is that lucky.

In time, my ankle was healed enough for me to do all of my job responsibilities.  And since then, I haven't had any falls that really hurt anything other than my pride (which at this point, in terms of maintaining a meaningful and upward posture while in motion, is almost nonexistent).  I take all the falls in stride, but perhaps next time I actually hurt myself, I should cut my losses and get to a medical professional right away.   

"...And so now I get in the front of the line at PF Changs."

I want to hear from all of you zookeepers/animal trainers!  My wipe-out story is relatively vanilla to others I've heard.  What are your greatest comedic falls?

* If you know me at all, you know I don't have a normal smile

I was really trying!

** The speed of gravity.  I know my enemy well.