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:
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.
|BEWARE THE SINGLE BEEP|
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!
* 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).