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


  1. God I would have loved to circulate this when I worked for the federal government. It's like... hey I just started this job and I'm actually getting paid to be here so stop making me feel bad for my general existence and just give me some direction! Cubicle brutality at it's finest. Well said! Love reading your blogs!

  2. Would you possibly allow me to re-blog this post as a blog post on my blog, next week? Full credit would be given to you; it could be considered a "guest-post". I just feel as if the message you portrayed in this post is something everyone could glean from. Let me know what you think!
    By the way, my blog is if you would need to inspect it before I used some of your work, if you'd be willing :)

    1. Hi, thank you so much!!!! For some reason, the link you posted doesn't work. I'd love to check out your stuff! :)

  3. Cat!

    What exciting work you get to do EVERYDAY. You go, girl!

    And you're right. There's no "I" in team and we should all show up to help and learn together.

    Side note: Donuts are delicious and I will eat one on your behalf. :)


  4. Great blog!

    Myself was very lucky that ALL my internships but 1 : my very last, where very good to me. landed my last internship at one of our big national zoos.

    In the meanwhile , a year before that I already landed a job as Pinniped Keeper (for the weekends) during my education and combined that with my internships. So that for me was a small validation I wasn't completely useless. I actually got hired somewhere, so I went into this certain intership period with some confidence and excitement.

    I was used to heavy lifting, long workdays, got up at 5 in the morning , and got home at 7 or 8 in the evening. Depending on how hard I wanted to run uphill for 1K to catch my train home.
    I did everything they asked me to do, and I can say without lying : I did more work than the three other people working everyday, combined.

    It was a don't ask don't tell company, they actually dropped the bomb at me after about 3 weeks, that they didn't even want an intern on their "backs" ,
    Literally the most ungrateful people I've ever met in my life. I was scared shitless,
    they never said hello or goodbye in the beginning or end of the day.
    And I remember I went around the zoo to introduce myself on my first day.
    If looks could kill... Man.
    Still scared shitless, completely tired and really frustrated, and actually even sad/angry, I managed to complete the full internship.

    It remembers me to this day to never treat anyone like that EVER.
    Positive reinforcement makes interns grow a lot faster than butcher-labour.

    I now work fulltime with my beloved pinnipeds. I'm as chaotic as you, and will remember never to take keys near a dumpster.


  5. I'm a recent college graduate, and the despicable treatment of interns is a topic close to my heart. I won't even consider applying for non-paid positions at this point, as a principle. Work should be paid. Period.