Sunday, May 4, 2014

Things I Learned from Nellie

Nellie, a 61-year old bottle-nosed dolphin resident of Marineland Florida, passed away a few days ago. In light of this recent event, I don't know if anyone will be surprised that the topic of this blog covers an animal known well by many.  

I can't get the photo I based this painting on off of my hard drive because I lost the cable, so here's a photo of a painting of a photo I took of Nellie.  Womp womp.

I had the honor of working with and getting to know Nellie for a period of about five years.  I've written about Nellie's 58th birthday, which gives you a little insight into what it was like to work with her while I was actually still at Marineland.  That post was written over three years ago.  Since learning of Nellie's passing, I had time to really reflect on what it was that she really did as an individual and as an icon.

Obviously, there are lessons to be learned from someone like Nellie. I normally like to organize my blog in a better way. I decided I was just going to write down what I've been thinking about over the past few days, and serve it up to you, this tribute to a very special dolphin.

For those of you who do not know, 61 is really old for this particular species of dolphin.  It's essentially equivalent to a human reaching 120, which I plan on doing because I figure there are a lot of perks to getting really, really old.  For example, you can act senile and put your car in reverse on the highway but you don't have to BE senile, but everyone just assumes that's the case and just gets out of your way.  

You can also get away with just about anything when you're old and really sweet; a fact that did not seem to miss Nellie.  

Another photo of a painting of a photo I took (and I'm confused).

Of course, there are some differences when it comes to old human ladies versus old dolphin ladies.  Luckily, I have real life examples to illustrate this point.

Human example:

It's okay! She's 100!

I was driving home from work one day and decided to stop by Publix (you know, the best grocery store ever).  So I'm in there, buying afternoon donuts, and I literally remember thinking "This place is packed! Everyone is busy.  And everyone is cranky!"  People (the customers, not the staff) were just being snappy and rude.  I wanted to get the heck out of there, so I put my head down, bought my sugary goodness, and made a beeline for my car.   There were a few people behind me; three middle-aged women who were complaining about something.  I kept a brisk pace so I could make it to my car and avoid the weird, snarky tension in the area.


I noticed a car pulling out in reverse from its parking spot.  It became clear quickly that the driver had no idea that I was behind said vehicle, so I ran backwards to avoid the black Cadillac sedan as it steadily backed into another car. 

CRASH! Tinkle tinkle tinkle.*  I stood motionless, mouth agape, as I watched the old woman driver of the vehicle continue to look straight forwards, totally not reacting to what just happened.  Then, she put the car in drive and drove at the same steady speed back into her parking space.

"ARE YOU OKAY?" one of the middle-aged women asked me.

I assured them I was, and then I heard it.

The man whose car had been crunched ran out of Publix, unintentionally ('though uncannily) doing his best impression of a lowland gorilla who had enough command of the English language to create colorful expletives AND wear a nice tie. 

"WHAT THE %*#%!!!!!!!" he exclaimed, tie flapping as he ran towards his car.

I looked over at the old woman in the car, terrified for her.  Not that the man didn't have the right to be upset that his car was hit, but the woman inside appeared to be so ancient and small, I didn't feel it was right to be aggressively cruel to her.


As the man approached her car, I winced, bracing for what I was sure to be a really awful interaction. 

The door of the Cadillac opened slowly, and the old lady struggled to get out of the car.  She was about five foot tall and looked to be about 9 zillion years old.  Her coke bottle classes made her eyes look huge and she was majorly hunched over.  She turned to face her would-be verbal assailant, placed her hands in a dramatic, sweeping gesture on her hips and said,

"Allllllllright! What'd I hit?"

The man actually stopped in his tracks.  Oh, this old woman had swiftly disarmed any Angriness ready to explode all over her and turned the man into a kind, thoughtful person.  He gently approached her and said, "Oh, you hit my car, but it isn't that bad.  Are you okay?"

"I hit your CAR? Well, that explains the awful sound!" she said.  "How about you call my son, he can take care of this.  I'm not supposed to even be here, ya know."

Of course, this story would've had a different income had the old woman been a 23 year old hipster kid with a confused mohawk thing (like, you know how they are like shaving the sides of their head? Is that still a mohawk? I am so unhip) or a 40 year old stock broker.   It's even possible that the old woman was just out to cause trouble, and chose to back into an expensive car and then act like she had no clue thank you very much.  If she did, her age let her get away with it.  Tee hee. :)

This is but a facade of innocence

Dolphin example:

Nellie was a very healthy animal for the entire time I worked with her (ages 54 to two months before her 60th birthday).  But none of us are spared ALL of the effects of getting really old, and the only hint anyone would have that Nellie was way over the hill was her eyesight.  She developed vision problems related to old age, but that didn't slow her down at all (more on this later).  And of course, she was able to navigate just find because she could use her echolocation.  With a few small adjustments in our training, Nellie's day was very much like all of the other dolphins'.  And that included how many new behaviors she was learning, and what kinds of sessions she had the opportunity to participate in.

Nellie and her son, chillin'

So one day, I was scheduled to do a program with a group of dolphins that included Nellie.  The program involved allowing a small group of guests to go into the water up to their waist for their interaction.  I chose to hang out with Nellie.

Her interactive programs were pretty solid.  She didn't do as many as the younger dolphins, but she seemed to have no problems with the shallow-water and dry guest sessions (and she'd let you know when she didn't want to participate because....she wouldn't participate).   I was excited to get some in-water time with Nellie, and thought if she was up for it, it'd be great to introduce her to some guests, because everyone who met her remembered her.

However, a few minutes into the program it was clear Nellie was not going to meet any guests.  I brought a pool noodle out with me with the intention of using it as enrichment with Nellie, but I didn't really know how much she'd play with it.  Luckily for me, Nellie solved this mystery.  The second I put the noodle into the water, she grabbed on to it and started very, very slowly swimming up and down the underwater ledge.  And she essentially walked me like a dog.

Pool noodles: not just for older lady humans anymore.

Of course, there are behavioral decisions to make in situations like this, mostly involving waiting until the animal stops doing what you don't want him or her to do, and then moving on.  But Nellie was over 500 pounds, and she was 56 years old at the time.  By gosh by golly, that noodle was the focus of her attention and it was certainly better than her swimming off and not participating at all in the session.   

So I decided to let her walk me up and down the ledge.  She never once pulled or jerked the noodle, either.  If I stopped, she'd stop, but wouldn't let go.  Then she'd slowly start to swim, and if she felt any tension on the noodle, she'd stop for a few seconds, then try to go again.

Eventually, she let go of the noodle and re-focused.  We were able to do a full session, although she didn't really seem into the fish.  She was clearly really into the noodle.  So I fed her what I could, and then used the noodle as reinforcement for desirable behavior, including allowing the guests to play with her using the object of her affection.

The entire time this session is going on I'm thinking, "Nellie totally knows what she's doing.  She knows she can get away with this, because she's so old."

I'm pretty sure Nellie thought my mom was one of many personal massage therapists in her life

But then I realized what I was saying.  I was really saying that...I was "letting" Nellie choose her reinforcement in a session because she was old.  Wait, wait, wait, something seems wrong with that, doesn't it?  It should have little to nothing to do with age; this technique ought to be applied to everyone.  

And hence, a lesson from Nellie was learned: you can't assume you know what's motivating to an animal just because they "need" it (like food, for example).  You SHOULD let the animal show you what is more motivating.  If Nellie was super into the noodle, it was irrelevant that she was so old; I should read the signs and use whatever they're into to reinforce and motivate.  That session with Nellie opened my eyes to my sessions with other dolphins; no more broad assumptions.  And even if Nellie was using her charming senescence to get her way, who cares?  The bigger lesson was what was important.

One can always count on a cat to scold one. 

Another lesson I learned was how the power of one can reach an exponentially larger group of people in a way you wouldn't believe.  You might roll your eyes at me being kind of sappy, but I'm totally serious.  People knew Nellie.  She wasn't the only dolphin there who had a big fan club, but everyone at least knew of her.  People involved in the animal training field knew her.  Guests dating back from her BIRTH in 1953 (Nellie was older than my parents, by the way) remembered her.  Jacksonville University made Nellie their mascot, for crying out loud.  That dolphin made a huge impact on people.

Why can't real cake be like that?

Why?  I don't know for sure, but she got a lot of media exposure because of her age.  She was the oldest dolphin in human care for around 30 years.   She was a beautiful dolphin, and easily recognizable.  And one of the sweetest things about her was her friendship to Lilly Champagne.

This chick has great trainer hair.  Sigh.  

Lilly was an Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, but with a rare skin color.  She was a blonde (hence the name " Champagne").  She came to Marineland when she was 6 years old with massive shark bite wounds to her eye and her side; scars that she still bore almost 50 years later when I first met her.    

You can see the shark bite over her eye, but she was still gorgeous

Lilly deserves a Middle Flipper post all to herself, so I'll just say that she was Nellie's closest companion for decades.  Decades.  And people knew about the friendship; they commented on it constantly.   When Lilly passed away (she was in her 50s), Marineland received condolences for Nellie.  People wanted to know, would Nellie be okay now that her best friend had gone?

Blond jokes do not apply to blond dolphins, that I know.

Their friendship (I can feel all the purists ethologists bristling at my diction, but give me a break) was another major lesson to a broad audience: it made people care about dolphins.  While I can go off on a 67,000 page tangent on why this is unfortunate, people tend to only care about animals if they can relate to them.  That isn't me saying that there aren't a lot of similarities between humans and other animals, but that's not the topic of this particular blog.   

For all of the varied opinions out there on the matter, it is an undeniable fact that the laymen really, really opens their hearts to animals they previously cared NOTHING for if they can see a little of themselves in them.  Nellie and Lilly's bond was a strong example of a way human beings could relate to them.  Sure, the bond between mother and calf made sense.  Maybe even between family members, or really young dolphins hanging out with other young dolphins.  

Nellie and Lilly, human edition

But two little old ladies (okay, they were like 500 pounds)? Who've been friends since they were young, and now spent their twilight years together?  That really got people's attention.  It presented opportunities for a dialogue with our guests: yes, old lady dolphins are documented having decades-long friendships (just check out Randy Wells' research off the coast of Sarasota, FL).  The bond was so special that Marineland for a while had Nellie and Lilly as their logo.  

Isn't that awesome?

Nellie's long life set the bar for our industry.  She didn't reach 61 because she was poorly taken care of, or because she'd been suffering for years and years.  Of course, we can't all live to be 100.  But certainly poor quality of life is not an ingredient to reaching an extreme age.  Nonetheless, Nellie's title as "oldest dolphin in human care" helped set the standards for dolphin care starting in the 1980s.  Now, dolphins are reaching their life expectancy and beyond with consistency.   

And we turn our attention to the healthy wild populations....and the unhealthy ones, the ones whose average life expectancy is 12.  Twelve years old.  What is happening out there?  Disease, direct and indirect results of human pollution via the waterways.   We know bottle-nosed dolphins are capable of living into their 40s, 50s, and 60s if their bodies let them paired with a good quality of life.  We've set the standard for dolphins in human care, now let's set that standard BACK to where it ought to be out in the wild.  

There are countless people (and I'm sure some dolphins) mourning the loss of Nellie.  It's not to say it came as a surprise, in the same way we are not "surprised" when an elderly family member or friend passes away.  But at the same time, with people or animals who get to extremely old ages, you know in your head the end is inevitable.  But it never seems around the corner, either.  Nellie lived a long, strong life and influenced more lives than - well let's be honest with ourselves - most of us ever will.   And we ought to be very grateful to her for that.  

And to all of the other geriatric animals out there, teaching the same lessons and touching the same hearts, this post is for you, too.  Nellie was one of an elite group of elder animals who awe and inspire their caretakers, guests, and the general public.  For those of you who have or had the privilege of knowing animals like Nellie, never take that for granted.

In loving memory.

Nellie's birth

* The sound of glass breaking, not someone peeing


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