Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Middle Flipper is....(Part 11)

....a sea lion who helps herself to her own snacks.

Tina the Wonder Sea Lion

You know, as a trainer you're always learning.  I think that's a really amazing and important thing to embrace, that you never really know everything.  You've never seen EVERY situation.   It's really nice to have people on your staff who can teach you about experiences and concepts that you've never encountered.  But let's face it, many of our important lessons are taught to us by the animals.

Such a lesson was bestowed upon me by a California sea lion named Tina.  Maybe wasn't so much of a lesson as it was an exercise in humility, which we can all use once in a while.


Let's first talk about Tina.  She's 19 and high-octane.  She has crazy eyes, like one eye is lookin' west and the other is lookin' east.  But she sees everything.  Everything about her (appearance and personality) is intense.

 I'm pretty sure this is because her mother was a movie star.  No really, her mom was in Andre (you know, the movie about the orphaned harbor seal pup that a little girl finds in Maine, but Hollywood can't fathom how a harbor seal pup could possibly be a movie star considering the camera adds five pounds and seals look like giant oceanic blobdogs so let's just completely use a different taxa?).  

Tina Majorino with Torey, Tina's mom!

Tina came to the facility I'm currently at in the early 2000s and has been causing trouble and stealing hearts ever since.  She is one of those animals who can look at a situation in about 0.0003 seconds and know exactly how to cause complete chaos.  She is also an insanely fast learner with a steel trap memory.  She is smart like a velociraptor* in Jurassic Park.  You know that scene where all the dinosaurs are running around eating lawyers and flipping cars and the survivors are smugly sitting in the control room sarcastically stating, "Pshaw, velociraptors* can't open doors" and then uh, they DO open doors?  That's Tina.  Except the analogy ends at the point where the raptors enter the kitchen and try to eat the kids.  Tina would enter the kitchen and throw around all the kitchen equipment, then find the kids and smile at them.

Tina's great great great great great great great great great second cousin twice removed

Tina has this smile, which I automatically chalked up to superstitious behavior when I first started.  And in some cases, it is.  But I'm not talking about a classic superstitious scenario in which the animal is asked for a behavior and emits a bonus one.  She used to do that, but we've more or less extinguished it.  I'm talking about when there is something novel that's just happened, like a training approximation or she destroys a basketball (more on this in a later blog), or you do something so variable it's just the best thing in the world, she makes this face:


Those of you who work with pinnipeds might be all like "UHHHHH CAT THAT FACE IS AN AGGRESSIVE PRECURSOR!!!!!" and if I didn't know Tina I'd probably be like, "OMG YOU'RE RIGHT!!!"  But we have not seen any correlation between her Crazy Face and aggressive behavior; it appears as though at some point in her life, it was reinforced and so that is now how she rolls.   And to be honest, we got bigger things to accomplish than to worry about extinguishing a 19 year old Crazy Smile Habit.  So we just enjoy it when it happens.

I don't know if Tina's smile is cuter, or our assistant supervisor's polar bear sweater (I think it's a tie)

Here's another example of Tina's insane cleverness.  Because of Tina's tendency to destroy all objects on a Godzilla level (and then smile about it afterwards), she was not allowed to have any toys that she could pop, like basketballs or soccer balls.   So several years ago, her trainers chose to give her a bowling ball.   

In the time that followed, another sea lion in an adjacent habitat was learning a ball-balance behavior.  Tina, instead of doing normal sea lion things like smearing poop everywhere and/or sleeping, observed these ball-balance approximations with her next door neighbor.

So does it surprise any of you that one day, on her own time, a trainer saw Tina attempting to balance the bowling ball on her face?  No, no it shouldn't.  Because in fact, that's what she did.  It was as if she thought, "What?! Why does SHE get to learn that?  I can do that *&#(!"  and then upped her level of Awesome by doing it with a giant bowling ball.**  She quickly learned how to do the behavior with a more appropriate prop, but that required a lot of desense training as you can imagine.

Level 20 of Sea Lion Ball Balancing

Another thing Tina tends to do, and this isn't very uncommon, is help herself to snacks.  Some facilities (including us) call this behavior Bucket Diving, and it sounds just about as dramatic as it is. Now let's just get out of the way the fact that Bucket Diving is not good for a few reasons.  First, there's a safety situation; a giant sea creature is rooting around in your bucket and it's usually a pretty sudden and powerful burst of GIVE ME.  If you are attached to your bucket, you could get injured.  if you are in the way of the bucket, you're set up for potential aggression.  Even if your animal is the most laid back animal in the entire universe, Bucket Diving is a dreaded Self-Reinforcing Behavior, meaning no matter what you do, that animal got reinforced.   

Deep philosophical question: Would Tina (sea lion) dive her namesake's (Tina Majorino) bucket of boondoggle keychains? Discuss.

It'd be like if you were like, "Hey Cat, here is a jar full of Keebler Rainbow cookies.  All the cookies are for you.  But I will remove them one by one and give them to you as you do your job.  All you have to do is-"

BAM! I double fist the cookie jar and rip it form your hands and pour the cookies directly into my mouth because like, isn't that how everyone eats?

"CAT!!!!!!! STOP!!!!!!!! NO!!!!!!" you scream.  You might even try to pull the cookie jar away from me, which makes me just hold onto it tighter.  Nothing you say to me, no matter how severe, can make me part with the jar until all the cookies are ingested.  

"Don't you ever do that again!" you say.

"Ha!" I think.  "All those cookies were well worth getting in trouble.  I'm going to do that again real soon."

See what I'm saying?  


So back to sweet Tina and her Bucket Diving tendency.  She is a big girl and did I mention she's a sea lion?  An animal like that Bucket Diving is not good.  But nonetheless, it happens and so as a trainer all you can do is reduce the possibility of a Bucket Dive, and reinforce her for not taking opportunities to do so.  A plan like that can significantly reduce the incidents, but it is virtually impossible to eliminate a behavior like that once it's happened a few times.  I mean, unless you have buckets that are totally impervious to Diving (they exist), and/or are manipulating different dimensions in space and time.

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.  It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.  It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears, and a giant bucket of capelin with no cover.

Well, the other day I happened to have Tina during the last show.  I am usually very careful with my bucket placement.  I also have great fun with this extremely bright animal.   

Not that there's an excuse for what I'm about to tell you (you see where this is going, right?), but the major difference for me during this show was our geriatric male sea lion Kyle was there.  It's been several years since he's been in the show, and at the time of this event he had only been in show for about three days.  Kyle is a big baby, but he's still an uncut male who had just spent a day uh, "cuddling" with Tina a couple of days before.    So I wanted to make sure I was careful around him.

Okay, I'll just stop avoiding the issue at hand here.

So I was at a part of the show where the sea lions are pretending like they can't swim in the water because there's a "shark" in there (which is actually THEM pretending to be a shark).  They haul out of the water and convince the narrator that they were all bitten by the big brown fuzzy sharks terrorizing our facility.  One by one, and very dramatically, the narrator leads the audience down a path of deception and lies as each sea lion show cases where they were bitten in comedic places (e.g., the butt).  And in many shows, the final animal to disclose her injury is Tina, because she just sticks out her tongue.   And when she sticks out her tongue, she really throws it out there, and squints her eyes, and sort of rocks on the seat.   And the entire audience laughs and laughs.

"Pssst...Cat, I'm going to dive your bucket in three weeks."

So I moved to Tina's side, bucket in hand.  My first mistake? The bucket was on the same side as Tina.  It was held up high and not right in her face, but it was definitely in a CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION zone.  But she looked great and wasn't even looking at the bucket, so I reinforced her and waited for our cue.

Kyle's debut was up.  

"Where did you get bitten Kyle?" the narrator asked.

And then this thing in my brain happens where the blond hair momentarily (like so fast you can't even see it) suddenly disappears from my head because it's shot back into my skull cavity and completely fills my brain with stupidity, and then it shoots back out like nothing every happened but it wipes my brain clean of all reasonable thought.  

k bye!

The last time this really happened in a severe situation was when I was 18.  I was babysitting for a family for the first time after they'd gotten a great recommendation for me.  Their youngest daughter wanted to make soap, which I'd made a lot before, and her mom said it was okay.  So there we are, making soap.  You know, putting a flammable substance such as glycerin into the microwave, heating it up to melt it, then adding scents and pouring it into a mold.  

"Let's put the soap in for 15 minutes," the little girl said.

"Uh, no, we only need to put it in for 15 seconds," I replied.  I took the bowl with the glycerin cubes from her.

"No," she grabbed the bowl back, shoved it into the micro hearth (the Really Expensive Microwave) and punched in 15 minutes.

An example of a microhearth (upper left).  You'd think since it cost so much it'd be like oh, I don't know, fireproof.

As is the usual pattern when I make a terrible decision, I make a first stupid one.  Alright, I reasoned with myself.  I'll let this kid get what she wants with punching in 15 minutes, but I'll take the glycerin out after 15 seconds when it's melted.

"Do you want to do some Mad Libs in my room?" the little girl asked.

POOF.  The blond hair did its mind-erasing thing and I suddenly forget everything ever and was like, "MAD LIBS?? I LOVE MAD LIBS! YES LET'S GO!"


...and left the glycerin.  In the microwave.  For 15 minutes.

As I sat up in the little girl's room, tossing out adjectives and nouns, I smelled something pleasant.  Like a barbecue. 

"Do you smell that?" I said.

"What?" she asked.

"Oh, someone's having a cookout."  Then I paused.  I smelled something different, like a fruit smell.  "That's weird, it smells kind of like fruit."

OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!! I realized.  I tore down the stairs into the kitchen, where black smoke was pouring out of the microwave and oh, should I mention that the bowl was on fire?  Also, there may or may not have been flames coming out of the microwave door.

Fire. Fire everywhere

Don't worry, everything ended up being fine.  I paid for a new micro hearth via babysitting for the family for enough times for them to afford a new one (they were a very, very, very forgiving family...and apparently they trusted me to not set fire to their property a second time).  But do you see this issue I have?

A mini version of this happened to me in the sea lion show.  As Kyle was called out to show his behavior, POOF.

OMG! I thought to myself.  I wonder what behavior Kyle will do for this!!! I haven't seen him in show yet!!!

Unfortunately, I'd missed his behavior (we're still working on the old guy's duration of show behaviors).  So I just looked at the narrator as she called the audience's attention to Tina.  And I swear, she waited until every last head turned to look at her before

I felt her jump up and aim her head into my bucket, which had been placed conveniently in direct line of fire when I'd turned slightly to look at Kyle and the narrator.  

There was an explosion of ice cubes, like fireworks launching out of the bucket and falling onto the floor.  Tina had only stuck her head in for a split second, grabbed a mouthful of ice, then left me to stand ashamed of my ridiculously rookie mistake.  And as I watched Tina grab all 89,000 ice cubes she'd spilled on the ground, the audience collectively laughed at my situation.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" one dude said.  The kind of "ohhhhhhhhhh" you say when a waiter drops a tray full of breakable things.

No comment necessary

You might think I'm lucky that a) I wasn't hurt (you'd be right) and b) at least Tina didn't get a single fish out of the Bucket Dive.  But I'll have to burst your bubble, thanks for trying to make me feel better, but unfortunately Tina appears to enjoy ice cubes arguably more than fish.  She goes nuts for it.  So I'm sad to report that Tina had a very self-reinforcing experience, and I am just here to enjoy the humiliation of being complacent.

Ice. Ice everywhere.

I've since had Tina in shows and training sessions, and can tell you with absolutely certainty I will never make the same mistake again, nor has she attempted to go after any more buckets.  I also had to take a giant slice of Humble Pie.  Okay no, more like I ate Thanksgiving Portions of Humble Pie which might have added up to two or three entire pies.   Because you know what? I did make a really stupid mistake.  But that happens, and you have to learn from it and take your medicine.  Not only that, it's important to admit your fumble to your team if only to make sure everyone knows what happened, so that they pay extra close attention.  But let's be honest, it also sets a good example right?  Better to be like, "oh man, I am so dumb, listen to what I did and never do what I did" than it is to try to talk your way out of something (or worse, pretend it never happened).

The infamous smile

But it also calls into the light the fact that the animals are equally important teachers as are our human counterparts.  Sometimes, the lessons they teach are only detectable by the open-minded and observant trainer.  Other times, the lessons are as No SH** as the one Tina taught me.  But clearly, I needed to be schooled.

So is Tina's action truly a Middle Flipper Event?  Eh.....I guess not.  The only way I could've made it easier for her to help herself to a good helping of ice cubes was if I had literally handed her the bucket and said, "Here you go!"  But still, she showed me that things happen on her terms.  

Ohhhh I adore you, T.

What are some of the NO DUH! lessons you've learned from your animals?  

* Not actually velociraptors....and I can barely pronounce what they really are, which is sad because they're definitely my favorite animal-that-is-no-more

** Of course the trainers removed the bowling ball after seeing this happen so she couldn't accidentally drop it on herself.


  1. Cat, I truly appreciate your situation. I am a teacher/trainer of a rare and amazing group of students with autism. Although I do not use ice cubes or fish in my classroom, if you visit you may see the occasional use of M&Ms, marshmallows, or Skittles (only when I am desperate/exhausted). Truth be told though, I have a young student who would prefer that I have them available for regular consumption every time she gives me even the smallest bit of compliance. Well, I really thought I had her redirected from this obsession. For 6 months she knew exactly where I kept my stash and managed, with support, to completely control her impulse to indulge. That is until the VERY last day of the school year when my focus was turned to the parents and family members of my graduating 5th grade students. On that day I became painfully aware of the true level of prompting I had been providing my kiddo and that her behavior was not replaced or even close to being extinguished, but was lying in wait for that opportune moment.
    I really enjoy reading your posts. I taught a teacher professional development class yesterday and quoted you several times. I thought you might want to know that your inspiration is reaching beyond the pool.

    1. Wow!! What a great story, thank you for sharing!! I really appreciate it :)