Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Happens When I Travel For Work

I recently had an incredible opportunity to do a trainer exchange of sorts at a Popular Aquarium in San Diego.  I had been looking forward to this trip for several reasons:

1) It was a great Professional Development Opportunity (PDO)
2) It was in San Diego
3) It is always awesome to see how other facilities do their thang
4) It was in San Diego
5) It allowed me to see family I don't normally get to see
6) was in San Diego

If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me

So I guess you could say, I sort of like California.

Lots of people travel for work, and when they do, it never seems to result in strange happenings.  Wait, I take that back.  My dad has had some pretty insane stories (mostly traveling around the Middle East).  So perhaps I inherited the Misadventure Gene from my dad as it pertains to professional excursions.

While I'll briefly touch on the trainer exchange (because it inspired another Middle Flipper post I'll do next week!), I'd like to in full discretion share with you some of the experiences.  "Colorful" experiences.  Ones that show my bizarre luck and my hopeless space cadetedness.

I'd known about this trip for a month.  When I received the itinerary in my work email, I was excited that while it wasn't a very long trip, it was long enough for me to do my PDO and spend a little time with my aunt and uncle.  I immediately told them the dates I'd be in town and I planned to pack in as much wildlife viewing as I could the two day trip as I could.  When the work schedule came out for the upcoming weeks, I eagerly anticipated the week where it had my name and "San Diego" written next to it for Wednesday and Thursday.  My boss was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to come in late on Friday, since I wasn't getting in to Pensacola until late at night.  I was smitten and totally jazzed.


I arrived in San Diego late Tuesday night with minor drama.  I had the privilege and honor to eavesdrop on a very tense phone conversation a young woman was having with a nameless victim about how awful her traveling experience had been.  FIRST, she didn't know they didn't serve MEALS on planes.  SECOND, the plane she was about to get on didn't even have WIFI.  

"Can you &%*ing believe this?" she asked her phone.  Pause.  "It's like, I expect to have wifi.  I mean, with all that's going wrong on this plane, do you think that's like a sign it's going to crash?"

After I landed, I walked outside to wait for the shuttle bus to take me to the Rental Car Place.  It took a while to get there, but the evening was so nice and um, hello, I WAS IN SAN DIEGO, so I didn't care.  When the shuttle finally arrived, I was about third in line.  The woman who lead the way was struggling to get all of her bags consolidated, but the rest of us patiently waited for her to fix her stuff so she could get on the bus.  She was after all, first in line.

She turned to the man behind her. "Oh, you don't have to wait for me! This will take awhile.  Go ahead."

So he did.

And she was still dancing with her luggage when it was my turn to get on, so I walked onto the bus.

All of a sudden, I hear from behind me, "Okay I didn't mean EVERYONE*! But WHATEVER!"  

Starring...the woman at Rental Car Place

Afraid for my life, I bolted for the back of the bus and tried to hide in a corner as best as I could.  When we arrived at the Rental Car Place, the Luggage Grumpy Lady got off first and was first to be helped, which meant I got to listen to her say things like:

"What do you MEAN, do I have car insurance?  Of COURSE I don't, that's why I bought insurance through you guys!"

But somehow, I made it through the evening without making anyone else angry and I made it safely to my aunt and uncle's house (but not before setting off motion sensor lights and waking up people in a house I THOUGHT was my aunt and uncles but uh, wasn't).

The next morning, I got up really early so I could go to Del Mar Heights to enjoy the scenery and hopefully find some dolphins surfing the waves.  I spent about an hour there, enjoying the view and writing in my journal.  And I did these things while I consumed my Daily Caffeinated Beverages and a liter of water.  By the time I needed to leave to make sure I got to Popular Aquarium with plenty of time, I was really feeling the caffeine and sheer massive quantity of water I'd consumed.


"I'll drive to Popular Aquarium, then I'll find a place to stop," I told my bladder.

"Alright," it replied.  "But you better drive fast."

You know how it is when you have to be somewhere at a certain time, and you're nervous and excited, and it's for work, and you just have no clue how long it's going to take to get to a place so you leave really, really, early?  And you drive really fast?  That's basically what I did, so I rolled up to Popular Aquarium with lots of time to spare with a bladder that was now at critical mass.  

"DO SOMETHING!!!!!!" my bladder yelled.

"Okay okay! I'll find a gas station somewhere!" I said.


"I'm not going to show up and the first impression they have of me is me peeing my pants!"

So I zoomed towards Ocean Beach, the hippie capital of San Diego county, and ran into the first gas station I found. 

"WHERE IS YOUR BATHROOM?" my bladder and I yelled in unison towards the attendant.

"Oh honey," she replied, clearly empathizing with my obvious urgency.  "They are out of order."

"YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!" my bladder said.

"Thank you haveanicedaybye," I said as I hobbled as quickly as I could to my car.



I pealed out of the parking lot and raced towards a public park I'd seen on my way in.  And public parks meant public bathrooms, which at the time sounded like a great idea.

At this point I couldn't even sit up in my seat correctly, so I parked the car in a way that would leave police officers confused and scuffled into the bathroom, tears welling in my eyes as I realized that Bladder and I had triumphed against nature and soon all would be well and good in the Universe.


The sound of gastrointestinal despair shook me out of my momentary bliss and delivered unto me a sight I could not unsee.  And to spare you the gruesome details dear readers, let's just say I shared this bathroom with another older patron who felt free enough in the world to deposit Mother Nature's gifts into the proper receptacle, but with the door wide open. 

I wanted to run away and find another bathroom.

"LIKE HELL YOU WILL!" Bladder declared, and took control of my nervous system and forced me to walk into a stall.

You know how the rest of this goes, because I'm sure you've experienced this sweet, sweet relief before.  And it erased the horror of the vision of my bathroom neighbor, and I could once again feel excited about my day meeting and working with new trainers.

The woman down the way began to make sounds, like maybe she could need medical attention for whatever ailed her.  

"Come on, bladder, let's hurry this up!" I said.  "I don't want to be in here anymore."
"You will leave when I'm good and ready," Bladder replied.

Groan, groan, groan, wailing, more wailing echoed through the dingy, cement public bathroom.  I began to feel bad for her when all of a sudden the groans became moans of passion. 

"No," I reasoned with myself.  "This woman could not possibly be doing what it sounds like she is now doing."

But the moans became louder and louder until it was clear my Potty Pal was not answering the call of nature but was

We interrupt this program to bring you a delightful scene of sea lion pups

Whoops, sorry, this is supposed to be PG.  And my intention was to never force you to experience all the delightful details.  Suffice it to say, the woman's lewd actions and sounds were enough to make my Bladder see reason and I was able to get out of there at warp speed.

After such a colorful experience early in my trip, I was very relieved to have a fantastic day working with many passionate and dedicated trainers.  Of course, I'm lucky because the team I work with is equally as wonderful, but there is something really special about going to a place unfamiliar and sharing a common love for animals and animal care.   But like I said, that wonderful, amazing part of my trip is the muse for next week's blog, so make sure you tune in then.

I met up with my aunt and uncle later in the evening, and we had a wonderful dinner right on the water in Cardiff.  I got to meet my uncle's hilarious Turkish friend, and we enjoyed amazing seafood and yummy wine.  It was a great end to a great day...even though it started with an unusual experience.

The next day, I got up even earlier because I had to leave for the airport midday, and I wanted to check out the seals and sea lions at La Jolla and I wanted to spend a couple more hours at Popular Aquarium before I absolutely had to leave.

Seal pups!!!!!!

I got to see a zillion sea lions and seals, and enjoy the majesty that is La Jolla Cove and Children's Pool.  Man, the people who live in that area are so lucky!  I watched with childlike awe as a couple of dudes did their morning laps in the cove with sea lions chasing their feet!  Right, right, I know what all of you pinniped trainers are thinking: That sounds like the most horrifying experience ever and sea lion bites are not like, the most fun thing ever.  But it hasn't deterred people from doing their regular workouts out there, and it seemed as though they left the animals alone (but due to a loophole in the federal law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act does not protect humans against harassment from marine mammals).

A person just you know, swimming laps while sea lions buzz around him

I spent the morning with the Popular Aquarium trainers, and around 11:15 it was time for me to get ready to head out.  I said my goodbyes, and texted a good friend of mine: "I wish I didn't have to leave!"  Even though I knew I was going back to an awesome place and a job I completely adore.

I realized though, that I had just enough time to check out one show.  The sea lion show was starting, so I headed over.  I found a spot high in the stands so I could see the entire stage, knowing I'd get inspired for our own sea lion show.  But all the while I was walking to the stadium, walking up the stairs to my seat, and while I waited for the show to start, I'd been trying to check in for my flight on my phone.

The internet connection was bad, so I thought that was the reason I could not find the "check-in" button on the website.  I changed my seat.  I looked at my itinerary.  But I couldn't check it.  That stressed me out a little, because I like getting that kind of thing done long in advance, but I knew I had plenty of time.  So I relaxed and enjoyed the sea lion show, which was hilarious and creative.

...but I'm still freaking out about my flight

By the time I'd reached my car, which I'd parked on the polar opposite end of where I exited, I was sweating and freaked out because Siri wasn't listening to me and giving me directions to the Rental Car Place and I was terrified of missing my flight.  I hit a little bit of traffic too, and had to wait in line to get gas for the car before I could return it.  By the time I got to the lot, I only had about 40 minutes before my flight was supposed to take off.  OH GOD.

I returned my car, trying to fend off the very friendly attendant who wanted to tell me about hey, he has a friend named Cat! But her name is Catherine.  Is my name Catherine?  Right on! That's crazy! He has a friend named Cat! But her name is Catherine! She is really nice!

I peeled away from my new friend and got on the bus, now totally dripping with sweat and convinced I was going to miss my flight.  More and more people piled on, NO! LET'S GO LET'S GO LET'S GO! I screamed in my head.

We pulled into the airport about 15 minutes later, and I ran off the bus not realizing I was in the wrong terminal.  Visions of the MacCallister family running desperately through the halls of O'Hare to get to their flight to France filled my brain as I tried to locate the American Airlines counter.  But, again not realizing I was in the wrong part of the airport, I hit a dead end and started swearing out loud.

There I am!

Then, I saw the ticket kiosks, glowing in the sunlight.  I quickly punched in my information, knowing that I could make this flight if only I just got my boarding pass NOW and not LATER.  The screen brought up my itinerary, then flashed off.

"WHAT???" I said out loud.  I hit the side of the computer.  "What happened?? WHAT IS HAPPENING?"

A little slip of paper shot at my hands.

I snatched it up.  It read:

"We like that you're early! But please check in no earlier than 24 hours before your flight! Thank you for choosing American Airlines."

I stared at the sassy message for an eternity.  WTF? I'd never gotten the message before.

Ain't nothin' sassier than a...bratwurst?

I looked back at the computer, which now displayed the home screen.  I looked back down at the paper and saw it.

The departure date.

It was for the next day.  

A wave of shame and embarrassment swept over me.  How could I have missed this?! For a month, I was convinced I was leaving on Tuesday night, and coming home Thursday night.  And this little sarcastic sheet of paper a computer tossed at me said, "No Cat, you hopeless blond.  You go home FRIDAY."

Point taken, good sir!

I called my boss and explained the situation, about how I'd clearly never learned to read properly, how I'd already returned the rental car, and how I just can't think of any way that he'd ever let me live this moment down unless he experienced some kind of major head trauma such as decapitation.  Luckily for me, my boss is awesome, so he thought it was hilarious and said, "Well, looks like you get a few extra hours to enjoy yourself!"

It took me a while to get a shuttle back to the Rental Car Place, and then I waited in line for about 40 minutes only to walk up to the clerk and (I'm not making this up) introduce myself as, "Hi, I'm probably the dumbest customer you're going to have all day."  

I explained the situation.

"Oh," he said, very seriously.  "Don't worry, you're definitely not the dumbest person I've had all day."

I am even dumber than these people

I eventually got a car.  I debated going back for more trainer exchange fun, but it was later in the day.  So I decided to pack my remaining evening and early morning with two whale-watching trips, where I saw long-beaked common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, gray whales, and more sea lions.  It was the only thing I could do to distract myself from my ridiculous oversight.  

A long-beaked common dolphin with her calf!! We saw over 1000 of these guys!! IT WAS AMAZING

Extra hours meant extra pup photos!

An hour before I had to drop of my car on the CORRECT date, I got to see a pod of these guys!

And luckily for me, the remaining hours of my trip did not involve strange people in bathrooms, and I did make my correct flights on Friday, and I connected and was inspired by an entire staff of trainers, so all in all I'd say it was a winning trip.  

And that's what happens when I travel for work.

* There were a few choice words here, but this blog is intended for PG audiences

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Birthday Special: Lily and the Palm Frond

Today (Sunday, April 20th) is a special day, and not just for those of you who celebrate Easter.

Today is Lily the dolphin's 11th birthday!  In fact, 11 years ago today was Easter on the day Lily was born, hence the Easter-y name.

It's my birthdaaaaayyyyy

So in light of this event, I'd like to share with you a recent experience I had with Lily and her mother, Delilah.  

I need to set this up for you, though.  A few days ago, three trainers from another marine mammal facility came to visit.  It just so happened that one of them was a dear friend of mine with whom I'd worked at another place.  The other two trainers I had seen or knew of via the Interweb, but I hadn't officially met.  

I'm always psyched to meet new trainers from other places, because I love expanding my network.  Not just to be like, "Hey I have 3 more Facebook friends", but because it's awesome to share ideas and experiences.  It's one thing to have a great team of trainers on your staff, but it's also a good idea to respect and admire trainers at other places.  

However, it is a little intimidating, no matter how wonderful they are, to have visiting trainers watch you in session.   Why? For me, it's because I don't want to look like an animal training idiot.  And like this particular situation I'm talking about, the visiting trainers were not at all judgmental.  So it was nothing they did that make me nervous.  It was just the fact that people from another place were there, watching me to some extent.  And when that happens, I act like I'm being watched by the Grand Supreme Trainer On High.   

I'm sure the animals sense it when I'm like this.  They are like, "WTF is wrong with Cat? Why does she have that look in her eye?"  Or with animals who can probably hear my heart racing, they are probably like, "WHY DOES THIS APE LOOK LIKE SHE'S HAVING A CORONARY?  SOMETHING IS ABOUT TO EAT US, ISN'T IT???"


I'm exaggerating a little bit, but you know what I'm getting at.  So the very last session these particular trainers watched was our afternoon dolphin show with Lily and Delilah.   I had Lily, and was ready for a great show.  

Let me tell you about our birthday girl.  She is adorable, and very bright.  And while I'd argue most animals have minds of their own*, there are different levels of this.  On the continuum of Animal Mindedness, Lily falls here:

Steady Eddy                                                  Half 'n Half                                             Einstein

Yeah, she's pretty sharp

Lily also is sensitive to change, which occasionally creates challenging training scenarios.  For example, when I first started working with her, I got in the water knowing that she hadn't really had much exposure to people swimming with her if they didn't have dive gear on.  So I took it slow, doing everything I knew was considered effective active desensitization while trying to build a relationship with her.  I read her behavior to make sure I wasn't pushing her too fast, nor coddling her too much.  And the session was going really, really well with a lot of progress.

And then my watched beeped underwater.

Oh, that was it.  Lily couldn't handle it, this Temporarily Terrifying Thing (or Triple T).  She raced around the habitat; one tiny little beep the trigger of so much anxiety.  Of course, it didn't take her long to realize this beep wasn't a harbinger of bad tidings, but simply symbolic of: 1) the elapsed hour and 2) my inability to figure out how to turn the sound off of my Wal-Mart watch.


Anyways, you get the picture.  So back to the story.  I was standing on our floating docks, ready for a great show with one of the best dolphins I've known.  She was really attentive, had perfect control and bright eyes.  The show started off really great, actually.  My nervousness of being observed by Other Trainers quickly dissipated and I found myself lost in my session with Lily, which of course is exactly what you ought to do when working with animals.  She was playing with her football, she was emitting her behaviors to great criteria, and she was really tactile-motivated.  These were all the makings for a great Lily show.

Suddenly, Lily's attention faltered.  She began sitting off to the side; a sign that you're losing your animal's attention.  Instead of begging her to focus on me, I just let her choose her path.  If she wanted to leave to check something out (or race around the habitat in protest of a Triple T like a watch beep), then she could do that.  If she wanted to continue with the show, she could return to criteria control.  But she did neither of these things.  She remained in Lily Limbo, one eye on me, her mouth slightly open, and the other eye on some mysterious and as yet unseen Thing.  

What Thing have you detected?

I heard one of our underwater platforms make some noise that I hadn't heard before.  Thinking back to the watch, you can deduce that new and sudden sounds were not Lily's cup of tea.  "Oh," I thought.  "It's the platform.  I'll just do some active desense and she'll be fine in a few minutes."  

As I am deep in thought and training, I see one of our new trainers in the A-B position we have for each show (acting as a safety spotter and to provide variability for the dolphins) signaling to get my attention.  She was stationed across the habitat, and with the noise from the crowd and the show narrator's microphone, it was difficult for me to hear her.

I looked up.  She pointed at the sunglasses on top of her head, then pointed in the water.

Oh NO! I thought.  My sunglasses fell in.  I felt for them on my head, and didn't feel them.  My panic was only interrupted by the logical thought that of course I wouldn't feel them on my head, they were currently in use on my face.

I looked back at the A-B trainer and shook my head.

She pointed again at her sunglasses, then in the water.  

Oh NO! I thought.  My sunglasses croakies fell in the water!!!

No! The A-B trainer signaled to me.  She pointed more dramatically at HER head, then back down to the water below where she was standing.

Oh! I got it, I thought.  The A-B trainer dropped HER croakies in the water.  No problem.  Lily and Delilah will both bring us random things from their habitat in return for a reward of some kid.   I asked Lily for the retrieval behavior, which she responded to zealously.  She swam directly to where the A-B trainer had signaled the fallen croakies had gone.

The subject of our problem

And then, Lily was gone.

She circled around and around the object, coming up only for a breath.  

It's worth mentioning at this point that because these dolphins have a long history of bringing back objects to their trainers (like park maps, palm fronds, their own toys, and the occasional random item dropped by a person or a sea bird), I wasn't worried about Lily's safety with the croakies.  While I tried to get her attention back so that she could leave the item alone AND we could finish the rest of the show AND so I could eventually get in and get whatever was down there, Lily was too fixated on the newest toy in her habitat.

The A-B trainer looked at me.  I was able to hear her say something like, "Is Lily cruising**?"

I was initially perplexed at this question, because I thought what was going on was clear.  The trainer dropped her croakies, I asked Lily to go get it, and Lily opted to examine the croakies from every angle possible instead of bringing them back to me.

I replied, "Yes, I sent her on retrieval to get your croakies!"

"No," the trainer replied.  "Croakies didn't fall in."

Now I was thoroughly confused.  It wasn't easy to have an in-depth conversation without trying to shout over the narrator and look like a panhandler yelling to passing cars, but I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on.

"What fell in?" I said loudly.

"A guest's sunglasses!" she said.    And then I saw a guest waving sheepishly right above the trainer's head.  "Sorry!" the guest mouthed.

I think he dropped his sunglasses, too

At this point, the show was almost over, but Lily did decide to come join the fun for the last few behaviors.  She was still very distracted, but when you have two dolphins in a show and you actually have, well, two dolphins present with their trainers the show when there's a fun fun play thing they'd rather have because they can trade it for prizes later, you take that as a win.


Regardless, I knew I needed to get the sunglasses out since Lily was just content to stare at them instead of bring them back.   Getting the sunglasses out meant I needed to get in the water, dive down and get them.   That part was going to be fun, because who doesn't like swimming with dolphins?  I had these great ideas about how to make it a fun session.  Someone would have Lily at station while I got the glasses, but then once that was done, I could work on her footpush! I could dive underwater with her! I could work on her mimic sequence!

And then the reality of the situation struck me.

That day was pretty cold for this time of the year, so I was wearing a rash guard and wind pants.  I had a bathing suit on underneath, but that was it.  It's been fuh-reezing here, so I've been bundled up for the past several months.  What does that mean?  Ladies and gentlemen, that means my the only part of my legs that has seen sunlight is the top of my feet.  The rest of me is as white as the driven snow.  You can measure the brightness of my white legs in candlepower.  You could go cave-spelunking by the sun's reflection on my tanless gams.

This song was actually written about my skin color

And now I was in a position where I needed to take off my pants.  In front of a Spring Break-sized crowd.  And....

...the visiting trainers.

Oh, if this was a safety scenario (trust me, it wasn't), I wouldn't have given a hoot about my Edward Cullen legs.  I would've gone in with whatever I had to get whatever out.  But in this case, it was just making sure we got the glasses out in a timely fashion.  And so I had time to think about ruining 300 people's vacation by dropping trousers.

The other trainer and I briefly ended our session after the show ended while the A-B trainer stood and watched the fallen glasses to make sure they didn't get swept away in the current.   I had to get a mask to make sure I could quickly find the glasses and see the dolphins, but the mask wasn't far away.  As I made my way towards the mask, I saw the visiting trainers and was about to warn them to cover their eyes before I took my pants off.  But out of the corner of my eye, I see Delilah.  And she's pushing something through the water.

The sunglasses!  Good ol' Delilah, always ready to bring something over.  She'll find ANYTHING to swap out for a snack.  The tiniest leaf could fall in her habitat, and I swear she stores that stuff somewhere and pulls it out for a rainy day.  This time though, she had a legit item.   Maybe in her eternal dolphin wisdom, she figured the guest who lost the sunglasses was in a real bind.  If I had to bare my blinding white legs to the world, she'd be better off wearing sunglasses.  Unfortunately for her, the reason I'd have to get down to my bathing suit was because her sunglasses were, um, inaccessible.  I'd like to think Delilah put that all together, but I know it was more likely that she saw it as a business transaction.

Delilah, the business woman, is on top

The other trainer and I ran back down onto the docks to receive Delilah.  We briefly discussed the exchange rate for a pair of sunglasses and decided it was a luxury item.  As Delilah swam at the surface towards us, the avian sunglasses perched carefully on her rostrum, Lily saddling up along side of her....with an item for barter.  As if she could not come to us empty-handed, Lily arrived at the docks at the same time Delilah did.  But instead of handing me a pair of sunglasses, Lily instead gave me a dried-out palm frond.  I laughed.  The second I took the leaf out of her mouth, she popped up to a perfect station, as if to say, "It's no sunglasses, but I did good, right??" 

Lily's contribution to the debacle

After the session was over, I talked about it with the visiting trainers.  They laughed along side of me, reminding me that no matter what facility you work at, everyone understands situations like this.  We all share in the funny and unplanned moments; we don't need to worry about being judged by others.  We should take comfort in knowing that other people out there know exactly what you're experiencing.  So we laughed and opined on what might've been going through Lily's head.  One of the trainers mentioned she thought she'd seen Lily go down and touch the sunglasses as if she was going to retrieve them, but then freaked herself out.  

I admired Lily's tenacity in that situation.  While she apparently was too skeeved to touch the glasses (perhaps another Triple T in Lily's world), she couldn't let her mother show her up when she saved the day (or at least, people's vision).  Seeing both mother and daughter cruise into station with their own little item, perfect fits for their personalities, made me so happy.  And we all laughed a lot, too.

Good job, Lil.  Way to not give up, and at least try to do something similar to what you couldn't quite bring yourself to do.  Your mom has thirty more years of experience than you do at these kinds of things, but one day I'm sure you'll be as fearless and steady as she.  But in the meantime, keep your spark and sass.  And have a great 11th birthday!

Delilah and Lily, the dynamic duo!

* This does not include my dog

** Our term for when an animal has left station, not when they're in a Porsche driving down the highway listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the wind blowing through their hair (or barren hair follicles, for dolphins).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From Experienced to Newbie: Learning a New Animal Species Later In Your Career

I've touted the benefits of learning different training methodologies and/or working at other facilities.  I've briefly touched on the differences between working with dolphins and sea lions.   But what I haven't really covered is about what it's like learning to work with new species of animals, especially when you're an experienced trainer with a different type of animal.   

Some of us marine mammal trainers get a little picky.  Don't hang your head in shame, it's okay.  So many of us start our our heads, at the age of like, six.  And at six, we think one of the following three things will happen to us one day:

1) We will speak with dolphins (this of course includes orcas)

Blah blah blah, I actually do talk to dolphins 

2) We will have nice show hair and do dolphin shows, too

No image found of me with nice show hair

3) We will have a shiny whistle we wear around our neck 88% of our waking lives, but we're not really sure what they do except for maybe it's magic

The stuff of dreams, until you actually get one and realize it's another thing to keep track of in life, like sunglasses or taxes

Unfortunately, many of tend to get stuck on the dolphin thing.  We forget there are exactly a gadrillion other species of animals out there who can captivate us just as much as our favorites.  Or maybe, we never gave another set of animals the chance to be our favorite.  Maybe we'd have a lot of favorites if we weren't so darn picky!

Nonetheless, one of the most challenging (and ultimately rewarding) things I've experienced in my job is learning to work with new species of animals.  Not only that, I had to learn it in my first management position which I felt made it a little more difficult to adjust.  I spent most of my career working with bottlenose dolphins, mostly the Atlantic coastal type.  I'd had some experience working with nurse sharks, North American river otters, one cute cow-nosed ray, and briefly with Pacific white-sided dolphins.  But I had zero pinniped experience.  Zero.  I mean, I think I fed a sea lion one time at my first job.  So if I were to put that on my resume, it'd look like this:

Miami Seaquarium, 2006-2007
Assistant Marine Mammal Trainer
* Ascertained the properly placement of one (1) capelin in one (1) California sea lion near the anterior region

It wasn't that I was picky.  If I got started in the sea lion department at Miami Seaquarium, I would've discovered how awesome seals and sea lions are long before I eventually did.   But I didn't know nearly as much about pinnipeds as I did dolphins, because I was one of the kids obsessed with the sleeker, snarkier creatures of the sea.  The ones with the blowholes, I mean.

I do love dolphins!

My first paid job was exclusively with dolphins.  I felt curious about the prospect of working with pinnipeds, but I felt happy that I got started with my "choice" animal.  I'd always wanted to work with dolphins, and here I was, working with dolphins.  

Then, I moved to a facility with a bunch of bottlenose dolphins in an interactive setting.  We had a couple of sharks and the stingray, but my day was mostly dolphins dolphins dolphins.  But I had only a couple of years of experience, so learning to work with the elasmobranchs was definitely challenging, but it felt "right" because I was still new to the field.  

But then, I stuck with my group of animals.  Even when I went to my next job, it was still with dolphins, and otters, and two sharks.  Then I went back to the place with just the dolphins. So I kept recycling animals I'd already learned about, and continued to gain experience in training with and caring for those guys.

Sharks are awesome!  

While animal training is the same across the board*, the way you ARE with your animal makes a big difference in your relationship, your sessions, and how you accomplish your training goals.  Body posture and body language are critical, and I'm not just talking about reading the animal.  I'm talking about how YOU physically move around and with the animal.   You need to know the animal's natural history and individual behavior, and they need to understand what you're all about too.  How you walk with a heeling sea lion is different than how you walk along a dockside with a dolphin following you.

You can also know a lot about them as a species, but still not really have a clue on how to be another conspecific in their lives.  It is critical to understand the natural behavior and physiology of the animals under your care,  but when you first have that animal right in front of you, that stuff doesn't carry you through a session; experience does.  If you're rolling your eyes at that statement, here's some other examples of this concept in other jobs if we take out the critical experiential education part:

1) Doctors who receive their MD after only having their first year of medical school.  If they can know about it on paper, they should be able to apply that to actual patients, right?


2) Firefighters receive PhDs in physics and chemistry as it pertains to all things fire, from creation to extinguishing, but they never actually practice how to deal with fires and all of the other important factors to consider and deal with.

This guy doesn't know *%)!

3) One time I tried to cook, because I thought it'd be easy to just follow a recipe (that's what everyone told me), but I basically set my frying pan on fire because I had never learned about even heat.   I read all about cooking, but never actually did it.

No, no, not this kind of cooking!

Learning how to be with an animal on a species level is one of the first things you learn.  Eventually, you start to feel really comfortable and forget that it was ever challenging.  So when you're faced with a new species of animal, especially if it's one that's not even in the same biological order, it's really jarring.

When I did a working interview at a zoo with African elephants who was developing a 100% positive reinforcement style training program with their animals, my biggest concern was learning HOW to work with the elephants.  The training concepts were identical and totally familiar to me, but understanding the elephants' body mechanics, social behavior, and natural history were critical to me being an effective animal trainer for them.  I'd spend five years of my career up until that point working with animals in the water, and now I was faced with the possibility of working with an animal equally impressive but in an element totally foreign to my in my professional career.

So when I was offered my current job, I knew I was in for major learning curves.  Yes, I'd be working with dolphins, but I'd also have to learn to work with penguins, seals, and sea lions.  The Asian small-clawed otters were at least kind of familiar to me, because I'd work with North Americans before.  But as I learned, there was more to them than I realized initially.

What's it like to be an experienced trainer learning a brand new animal species? 

Eternally Rewarding

Having an otter check out your ink is pretty rewarding (because the dolphins have never inspected it!)

When I got accepted to my current job, I was psyched to work with animals I had no previous experience with.  Yes, I love dolphins, but I'm no dolphin snob.  As I've gotten older I don't put any one species on a pedestal, because they are all uniquely wonderful and have the capacity for amazing things.  

But I was still terrified.  What if I was dolphin-wired that I had a really hard time adjusting or learning what it was like to work with sea lions?   On top of that, it was a management position, so I was obviously going to be expected to teach other people how to work with these animals at some point.  What if I became the Dolphin Trainer Stereotype all pinniped trainers have about us and the sea lions pick it up and talk about me behind their back? Would I forever be pigeon-holded like Molly Ringwald or Macaulay Culkin?

Wahhhhh what happened????

I followed great advice: be open-minded, and don't ever stop being open-minded.  So I showed up for work on my first day, fully admitting that while I knew a thing or two about animal training, I was a baby when it came to many of the taxa I'd be getting to know.  And luckily for me, there were several people there with a lot of experience with penguins and pinnipeds, and had especially long histories with those animals.  They took me under their wing and told me everything they knew, and I drank it all up, grateful for every nugget of information they gave me.   I acted like I was a brand new trainer, setting aside my management hat for a while.  I couldn't be an effective leader or teacher if I acted like I knew everything when I so very clearly did NOT (by the way, I still don't know everything, just don't tell my boss).

I can't pick a favorite animal! They are all so amazing!

So I just tried to get to know the animals as a whole and as individuals. I spent a lot of my free time reading as much as I could about their natural history and talking to other pinniped trainers.  I watched a lot of sessions.  I had many different people watch and critique me.  It didn't matter if they were "above" me or "below" me in job title, they all knew more than I did about the animals I was working with.  If I was going to ever learn a new species of animals, I'd have to make sure I kept an open mind and learned as much as I could.

But I had a lot of insecure moments.  The first time I fed a sea lion, my hand was shaking.  The sea lion I was feeding was 31 years old and the sweetest girl ever.  But as she sat on her seat, looking at me and waiting for me to feed her, this thought looped endlessly in my head:


I'm sure the sea lion's thought was something more like, "What is WRONG with this person?"

I had to get used to the animals being super close to me, even when walking.  I had to be aware of where my bucket was at all times, which was something I'd never really had to worry about with dolphins.  Okay wait, that's a lie.  There were a few dolphins who would help themselves to my bucket if I left it close enough to the edge of their habitat for them to reach it.   But it's different having a dolphin knock your bucket away from you into the water, versus a sea lion plunging their head into your bucket that is still attached to your hand.

And Don't even get me started on the penguins!  I have had experience working with and caring for birds for the past 8 years, both in my own home and as an animal trainer.  I've always loved birds and know a fair bit about them.  But these flightless seabirds were completely new to me.  

My first day, one of the senior trainers took me to learn how to feed the penguins.  

How hard could that be? I thought.  Uh, hard.  I had to obviously first learn how to tell the difference between the birds, which at first was about as easy as telling two cashews apart.  They (the penguins, not the cashews) had an order they ate in, too.  And they were terrified of me.  They loved the trainers who had worked with them for years, but something about me sent them into an anorexic tizzy.  I'd hand them a fish, and they'd look at me with this like, "Whooooooaaaaaaaa blond giant, ain't no way I'm eating from you" look, and then they ran to the trainers they actually had a rapport with and eat like 10 fish in a two second period.  

One penguin, who was hand-raised by people, showed an initial interest in me.  

"Ohhh look!" I'd say.  "She likes me, I think!"  She arched her head and partially dropped her third eyelid over her eyes.  "Is that a good thing?" I'd ask.  And then she'd stab me with her beak.

I had a lot to learn about penguins.

Deep in pontification with an African penguin.

Every time I felt overwhelmed, I reminded myself that it would get better.  But it'd only get better if I kept showing up to each session, and learned something.  I had to build relationships with the animals, but the only way I could do that was to learn how to work with them....which meant making some mistakes and feeling insecure until one day, I could tell all the penguins apart, they ate from me, I knew how to walk around with a sea lion by my side, and I didn't laugh uncontrollably every time a seal drooled on himself.**  I tried to find appropriate places to use my experience, but also find the times when I admitted I didn't know what I was doing or what exactly was going on.

Now, a year and a half later, I feel really confident with those animals. I still have a lot to learn, too.  Not just with the pinnipeds and penguins,  but the otters and dolphins as well.  Yes, I have more years of experience under my belt with the latter group of animals, but there's never a point where I feel like I know it all.  And never will there be a point where I think that.  I guess if I'm wrong about that, it'll be time for me to leave the field and open a donut shop or win the lottery or something.  But I really don't want to ever leave this field.   There is so much to learn, so many animals to get to know and love!

Tee hee!

If any of you are in a similar situation, ENJOY it.  EMBRACE it.  It is such a wonderful experience to feel like a newbie again, it is.  Don't let your ego worry you.  It's okay, even if you're in a position of power, to act like a baby if you are a baby.   It might feel ironic to be a senior trainer or supervisor or manager or whatever, and say, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing with this particular task."  But believe it or not, you're being a stronger leader than you think.  You're not only opening yourself up to deepening your knowledge base, you're also setting a tremendous example for the people working with you.  

If you've never had the opportunity to work with another species of animal, try it out.  If you're already looking to move on from your current job, get out of your comfort zone.  If you love where you're at, then consider a trainer/keeper exchange at another facility and really get immersed in another world.  I mean, go crazy.  If you work with marine mammals, go shadow someone who works with great apes.  Your mind will be blown.  If you work with big cats, check out what it's like to work with elephants.  If you train alligators, might as well check out some marine mammal peeps.  Shake it up, share information, broaden your horizons.  The deeper your experience, the better your perspective...and ultimately, the better you can care for and understand your animals. 

* Except with this one sea lion I know who is like, an enigma that cannot yet be explained by science

** I'm still pretty bad at the last thing