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!



  1. I love this story. I'm not a marine animal trainer, but I work for a facility where I'm fortunate to be able to get to know the dolphins and sea lions. They are like family. We love them and, when one dies, we mourn. We also honor their lives with our memories. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Mary!

  2. Would you mind if I asked your professional opinion on a topic?

    1. If someone were to be in the process of working towards becoming a marine mammal trainer, if they wanted to get a strategically-placed tattoo, would that affect the chances of being admitted into the field? Let's say that they got a small tattoo on their shoulder or collarbone (nothing gruesome or morbid), and it could be covered up with a wetsuit, rash guard, bathing suit, etc., would it damage their chances? As an aside, I do not have a tattoo, but I am considering getting one, and as an aspiring trainer, I wanted to gain a professional's advice before proceeding.