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


  1. I can contain my laughter when the seals slobber, but when they dramatically log roll from land back into the water - not so much.

    - Kari

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  3. Hiện tượng quỷ nhập tràng là gì Hay chỉ là những lời đồn trong nhân gian là điều mà rất nhiều bạn đọc đang muốn biết đến.
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    Cá cảnh chết báo hiệu điều gì loại cá cảnh thì sao, chúng có những dấu hiệu của điềm báo nào không?
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    Dưới 40 triệu nên mua xe tay ga – xe số nào Khả năng tài chính là yếu tốt rất quan trọng để bạn có thể lựa chọn cho mình một chiếc xe phù hợp.