Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Middle Flipper Is… (Part 9)

…a dolphin who throws fish in your face.

Herring-to-the-face sounds like a great Native American name

My first paid marine mammal training job was as an Apprentice Trainer in Miami, where I experienced the first Middle Flipper event as a paid employee.   As you can imagine, I had a lot to prove at my job in those first few months.  First of all, the job required a series of written exams I had to pass with at least an 80%.  Second, another swim test was required, otherwise I would not pass my probationary period and I'd have to go back to New York City, work a job I hated, and worse, to buy really small boxes Cinnamon Toast Crunch for exorbitant prices in excess of $8.00.

NYC, get your %&#( together with the cereal prices!

I had a 6 month marine mammal training internship under my belt, where I had earned the right to work with resident dolphins and otters by myself in public presentations.  I was even helping desensitize a young male dolphin to a tape measure.  When I left, I went back to school and got a job working with Clark's nutcrackers.  Not only did I get to work with them, I was left to my own devices on how to train them (which wasn't very complicated because I was using a Skinner box, but more on that at another time).   The point is, I felt I'd accomplished a lot by the time I'd landed my first paid job.

However, as it goes with entry level positions and learning a new facility, I realized quickly in Miami that I knew virtually nothing about training.  There were way more animals, many different training goals, and I had way less experience than most anyone else on staff.  While I expected to learn a lot, I was very intimidated as a new person. 

So I did what I think any entry level trainer should do, which is learn the grunt work and get good at it. Prove your work ethic and reliability, and learn about training when you can.  I scrubbed more buckets than I ever did in my internship.  Going from fish prep with 3 dolphins to over 20 was a change, to say the least.  For example, my math skills* were called into question on a routine basis as I tried to figure out how many pounds of which fish went into which bucket, depending on the dolphin group.   That may sound easy to you, but it is a medical fact that the part of my brain responsible for mathematical understanding does not exist and the space is filled with an equal volume of gummy bears.


It wasn't common in the first few months to work with many of the animals beyond a supportive role, which again made sense for my novice experience level.   The dolphins' training time wasn't to be wasted on newbies like me working hand targets, staring mouth agape because OMG there's a dolphin in front of me looking at me wondering WTF I am doing.  But every so often, I'd get to help with a session.

On one such occasion, I was asked to help "feed out" at the end of the day.  For those of you who don't know this expression, "feed out" means give the animals the rest of their base diet.  Depending on a lot of different factors, the last session could be a training session, a show, an interaction, or just a quick "hey here's your food, bye!".  In my case, and I don't remember why this happened, we were short-staffed at the end of the day and I was asked to feed out a dolphin named Noel.  Because there weren't enough experienced staff to do a full-on training session, and the dolphins had eaten most of their food for the day, I was told to just feed Noel but I wouldn't have direct supervision.

Poor Noel had to deal with this 

That was rare, indeed.  Noel was (he may still be) one of the head hanchos of the dolphin group.  He was also the most reliable animal in terms of his relationship with humans, which meant he was a great dolphin for new trainers like me to learn.  The information I knew about him was he was just one of those animals that was good at everything, and all the lady dolphins loved him.  Noel was a dolphin baller.

I took his enormous cooler and peered inside.  He had a few capelin and several large herring left.  

"You don't have that much fish," one of the senior trainers told me.  "But that's okay, we don't either.  Just feed Noel the rest of that and let us know when you get low."  Noel had to have the last fish in that particular social setting.

"Okay," I said, trying to sound confident.  I took his bucket down to the wooden catwalk and knelt down on the dock in my brand new blue polo shirt, khakis, visor, and white tennis shoes.  Noel popped up in front of me.  My heart raced.  This is where my superiors would see my training skills, I thought.  I'd go from Bucket Washing Apprentice to Bucket Washing Apprentice Worthy of Dolphin Training.  

I fed Noel a couple of herring for his stationing, since I petrified to ask him for any behaviors (I don't even think I was allowed to at that point).  "I have less than a pound," I said nervously.  The other trainers acknowledged this fact.

I turned back to Noel, who sat there with his mouth agape in the way that they do, looking adorable.  I fed him another capelin.  I watched it disappear down his gullet, and then the Middle Flipper Event began.

Noel finished swallowing his fish, ducked his jaw below the water, and began splashing me.  Not sloppy little splashlets, flinging willy-nilly from his closed mouth.  No.  This was mouthfuls of water that were ejected into a perfect trajectory into my face.   WHOOSH.  The water sloshed my noggin.


I could've used a drink

Noel paused for precisely 0.5 seconds between each watery projection, as if to give me time to think it was over, only to find myself yet again getting drenched.  

The inner voice in my head screamed, "DO NOT REACT! They are watching you, they are watching to see your training knowledge!  And it says in the Manual of All Animal Training to never react to undesired behavior! So you sit there and take it!"

So I sat there, my brand new white shoes soaked through.  Water streamed from my spotless visor down onto my face.  My khaki pants were now see-through, yet the water kept coming.  Over and over and over.    If the rush of the water wasn't so deafening at that point, I would've sworn I heard Noel laughing.

Other dolphins: What's going on?

I turned my head to look at the other trainers for help, but they were laughing.  It didn't bother me, because I knew it was hilarious.  I was also relieved they weren't reacting as though I was the worst trainer in the Universe.

"Is this normal?" I asked, my mouth filling with water.

"BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!!" they said.
"BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!!" Noel reiterated.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.  This was getting boring, almost.  And just when the senior trainer began to give me instructions, Noel stopped.

I looked at him during the LRS.  His mouth was closed now, his eyes fixed on mine.  I wanted (still want) so badly to know what was going on in his mind at that point.  

"Now what?!" he might've said, or:

"Tee hee, only teasing newbie.  Welcome to the club."  Or:

"You looked like you were in need of serious emergency thermoregulation."

An elephant performing emergency thermoregulation on a bunch of tourists.

I don't know.  All I know is that when the LRS was done, I used my whopping 0 months of training experience to make the most intelligent decision I could think of.  Since Noel had stopped drenching me, and he was sitting calmly after the LRS, I thought it merited the last giant herring in his bucket.  I picked up the 3/4lb behemoth of a fish and slopped it into Noel's now wide open mouth.

He caught it sideways, with the head and tail sticking out each end of his mouth.  At first, this didn't alarm me, because sometimes dolphins catch their fish at this angle.  They simply turn it around head first and swallow it, c'est tout.  But Noel did not do this.  He sat there, the fish in his mouth like a dog holding onto a bone, and stared at me.  

Whaaaaaaaaaat is going on, I thought.  

There was a twinkle in his eye as he slowly turned his head away.  "Oh great," I thought.  "He's going to swim away.  I really am the worst trainer ever if I can't feed out Noel, the easiest dolphin to learn."

But he did not swim away.  No.  He flicked his head forward, sending the gigantic herring hurdling through the air and into my face.  He watched it slap my cheek, fall to my fully-soaked shorts and slide off onto the wooden dock.  And THEN he swam away.


"It's okay," the senior trainer said between peals of laughter.  "It's okay, that's just Noel."  

So obviously, I have no idea what Noel's intention was of throwing his fish back at me (after my nice shower).   But it taught me a couple of great lessons.  First, fish ain't all there is to it, nor should it be in many cases.  I had no relationship with Noel.  The only thing I had to offer was a blank (and nervous) canvas for an experienced dolphin to use for his amusement.   Splashing me 75,000 times is arguably more fun that just eating from a human vending machine.   

Second, I assumed that the "easy" dolphin meant there'd never be challenges.  That of course, is very incorrect thinking.  Learning with an animal who is reliable does not mean they are easy, or that they are any less thoughtful than an animal with whom it is challenging to work.   Noel might throw less curve balls, but that doesn't mean he never throws them.  He saved his for an opportune moment.  And just when I thought we'd come to a point of truce, he launches back the only means I had at the time of forging a relationship with him.  What was the message from Noel? I don't know.  What was the message I received?  There is a LOT more involved in working with animals via training, and shame on me for thinking it could be in any way simplified or bastardized by food alone.

This guy would've never thrown a herring back at me

I think about this story all the time.  Now that I'm in a position where I am teaching new trainers how to forge relationships with animals, I remember these lessons and try to relay that information to the people I'm lucky enough to teach.    Because if I don't teach them, the animals will.  

Thanks, Noel.

* I use this term loosely, as in I can spell the word "math" and once in a while, add numbers up to 7

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