Sunday, August 31, 2014

When Two Worlds Collide: Animal Lovers versus The Rest of the Planet

Us animal lovers are a different brand of people, aren't we?  I mean, no matter how we specifically define ourselves as an Animal Lover, we are definitely cut from the same cloth.  And we tend to stick together.  In fact, we become so wrapped up in our Animal Lover World that we often forget there are a lot of people out there who think we are crazy.

Are we really THAT crazy? 

Animal caretakers, especially ones in a setting where they are caring for the same individual animals on a daily basis, really become immersed in the Animal Lover Lifestyle.  Speaking for myself, I am surrounded with people who dedicate their lives to caring for, understanding, and sharing information about our non-human friends.  When I step out of that sphere, it's always at least a little disorienting.

Now, I realize there are far more Animal Lovers than animal trainers/caretakers.  As I've said, I feel there are many sub-categories (and you can belong to more than one of them): 

  • Veterinarians
  • Vet techs/assistants
  • Animal rescue staff and volunteers
  • Animal trainers of all taxa
  • Zookeepers
  • Pet owners
  • Wildlife rehabbers
  • Biologists/ethologists/ecologists
  • Conservationalists
  • Wildlife lovers
  • Etc. etc. etc.!
You said it best, Yule Brenner!

While all of those people are True Animal Lovers, they all experience this world in a slightly different way (although the main points are the same).  So this blog is from the perspective of my branch of this greater concept, which is of course the marine mammal training field.

When you first realize that you want to work with marine mammals, there is an initial acceptance of this idea, even from people who do not define themselves as Animal Lovers.  I think this is because marine mammals are pretty popular critters.  Also, most of us are like 7 years old when we decide we want to be trainers.  At this age, you can basically say you want to be anything and receive full support from adult influence because you Showed Early Career Initiative So You Are Probably A Child Genius.

Me, a clear example of prodigy.

At some point though, once your adult influences realize that you're actually serious about working for $8.00 an hour after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, the naysaying commences.  And that is when you really feel the difference between You and Them.  I won't go into this struggle too much (since that's another blog topic for another time), but I'm sure many of you zoo animal trainers can relate.  You've known since you were a little kid that you wanted to do something to help animals.  Many of you see something beyond just an organism who poops, breeds, and eats; you see an individual.  You see a reason to conserve and care.  And I'm willing to bet that for many of you, your opinion was not the prevailing one among your social circles when you were growing up*.

The moment you start your internship, it's like you've entered another universe.  Yeah yeah, internships are scary and intimidating.  But the fact that you're completely surrounded by Like Minded People, people who regularly dedicate their lives to animals, who (seemingly) effortlessly live this lifestyle you've wanted since you were a little's intoxicating.  You don't have to defend something that is so core to who you are as a person.  You see and experience firsthand the type of job that makes a positive difference in animals' lives.  It's validating and overwhelmingly wonderful.

So fast forward to being a marine mammal trainer for several years.  You know a number of animals very well.  You've established strong relationships with them; some of them know you better than others.  You've seen some really wonderful moments, and you've probably experienced some hard ones.  The nature of the job (including its low pay) basically guarantees that you spend more time with your human and non-human coworkers than it does with family members and outside-of-work friends.  It isn't easy to go out, or take trips back home.  You are now fully engaged in your Animal Lover lifestyle.

I don't mind living alongside this amazing dolphin, that's for sure!

When an animal you know and love passes away, it's a horrible time.  No true Animal Lover, no matter how you define it, can deny that.  In fact, for Animal Lovers, death is death: it doesn't necessarily feel "less" or "more" painful depending on the species.  True Animal Lovers know that each life is sacred and unique.  The loss is always profound.

But Animal Lovers, you know what I'm about to say next don't you?  How many people in your life who are NOT into animals understand how you deal with loss when it isn't a human being?  Not a whole lot.  That's a challenge, isn't it?  Because not only do you grieve for the animal's death, you have to defend WHY you're grieving.

"Oh.  Sorry to hear about that. Was the rest of your day good?"

"Why are you so upset?  It was just a cat/penguin/marmoset."

"You can always get another dog."

"It's not like your [insert relative here] died.  Get over it!"

Exactly, Kevin.

Those are things people have actually said to me or my friends and coworkers who have lost an animal (including pets).   I understand that some people just don't understand that non-human animals are not mindless machines, but they do care about how their friends and family members feel and may be sympathetic to them when a pet or an animal they care for passes away.  So this is not a criticism of people who are not Animal Lovers; it's just illustrating the point that well, there are a lot of people out there who don't care all that much or at all about animal welfare.

Animal trainers get so wrapped up in their Animal Lover world that it typically goes beyond that of someone who is a mom or dad to a companion animal.  Your best friends, coworkers, your bosses, subordinates, and in many cases your significant other are all just as passionate about animal welfare as you are.   It's such an amazing feeling to have network of people who understand and live your ethical principles and deep interests....especially considering the amount of flak we all took for wanting to get into this field.  It's like, "Finally!!! People who understand!"

One question: Why can't striped pants be part of my uniform?

And that is why it is extremely jarring once you enter the non-animal lover realm.  And let me tell you, there are a lot of people out there who don't care about (or...don't even LIKE) animals**!!!

Sometimes I find it hard to relate to people who aren't into animals.  I get along better with people who are totally against having animals in human care than I do with people who just don't really like animals.   Does anyone else have this issue?  I mean, I'm not a total jerk or anything to the Non Animal Lovers, I just sometimes don't know what to talk about sometimes because my whole life is animals.  At some point, I want to talk about something Animaly. 

Like, I don't even know socially how to handle myself in some of the more Intensely Non Animal conversations.  I can talk about world events, music, funny stories.  But I'm talking about those times when it's inevitable that something about your job or your life with animals comes up and it's met with a: blank stare, a confused question, or even a hostile and/or passive aggressive remark.

Here are a couple of examples of my ineptitude:

Example 1

Person A: So, want to hang out tomorrow night?
Me: I'd love to, but I'm busy tomorrow.
Person A: Oh yeah? What are you doing?
Me: Uh, a penguin transport.
Person A: Why would you transport a penguin?
Me: *Goes into explanation*
Person A: So...
Me: Yeah.
Person A: Have you seen Blackfish?


Example 2

Person B: You're so lucky you don't have a real job.
Me: Oh, ha ha! Yeah, it's a great job. 
Person B: No seriously, you don't actually impact anyone in a positive way.
Me: Uh, should we change the topic?
Person B: Sure, I mean, no offense or whatever, but it's not a real job.


Example 3

Person C: I think animals are here for our use.
Me: Um.  I think I have diarrhea. Bye.

Bring up poop, conversation OVER.  (This is sea lion poop by the way, not mine)

Most of the time, and maybe this is just one of my character flaws, I have a hard time being rude to people even though I think sometimes that's the correct response.  If I'm standing up for someone, or speaking up for an animal in need, that's different.  But to have someone tell me about why they think animals are "here" for "our" use, and what I want to say (involves lots of these kinds of symbols: *#%&(*#&%Q@) is not what I end up saying (usually something diplomatic and/or change-the-subjectish).

Non Animal Lovers abound, and it's not like they are bad people, they just don't understand.  It's weird interfacing with them at this point in my life, especially because so many of them seem to have a weird and dissenting opinion about animals in general.  I'm not talking about people who aren't for animals in zoos, because those people are Animal Lovers too.  I'm talking about people who think zoos are about as exciting as lima beans, or who are disgusted by animals.   I'm a complete social moron around those people!  

Surely I'm not alone in my problem, right?  What about you guys, do you have trouble dealing with the Non Animal Lovers?  Is it harder now than it was before you became a zookeeper/animal trainer/veterinarian?  

* If it was, lucky you! Go high-five and THANK your family and friends

** I know, right?!?!?!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Professional Failures: Aspiring Trainer Edition

Failure failure failure.

The saddest of endings is when a ghost with googly eyes eats you. 

This blog is a lot about failure and how to not let yourself get down by it.  I’ve said a lot about this, attenuated with semi-brief* anecdotes from yours truly.  But over the past several weeks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people both in this field and aspiring trainers who compliment my blog and then address me like I’m some kind of Big Name.  As an aside: I’m no Big Name, just some moron who writes and does whacky google image searches while showing my clumsy, Dolphin Huggery personality. But nonetheless, I’m still flattered and humbled by the positive feedback.

Anyways, when these kind people tell me they like my blog and that it helps them out, that means a lot to me.  But I hope everyone knows that I started out just like anyone else, I struggle with insecurity in my own job performance sometimes, and sometimes I get a little down.  I mean, all of that is normal.  In fact, if I didn’t go through that stuff, I’d never grow as a trainer, a supervisor, or a person.  You guys all know that is true about yourselves, too.

But let me remind you all that it took me almost a year to get a job as a trainer.  I know that isn’t going to win me any prizes of “Longest Time It Took To Get a Friggin’ Job”, but it wasn’t an easy ride for me either.  So I figured I’d write a blog about all of my failures (and yeah, some of the embarrassing ones) in trying to get a job as a marine mammal trainer.

Even though I mess up, I still have a job I LOVE!

When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to work with dolphins.  I knew a lot about the ethology and natural history of most of the species of dolphins known at that time. I just devoured information on dolphin species, and focused a lot of my efforts on my favorites: orcas, rough-toothed, bottlenose, and Pacific white-sided.  I spent so much time on the biology of the animals that by the time I met people like me on the great Internet, I thought I had it made.  Who wouldn’t want to hire someone with such an encyclopedic knowledge of delphinidae?

See? I STILL love rough-toothed dolphins

The group of people I’d met online who belonged to a forum dedicated to cetaceans and basically how to get a job as a trainer knew a lot of stuff I didn’t.  They knew all the individual bottlenose dolphins and orcas at a variety of facilities.  Some of them even knew trainers.  They knew behavioral terminology and how different facilities did things (how accurate this was, I have no idea, but it sure impressed me at the time).  They talked about internships, which hadn’t even crossed my mind.  It was obvious I knew nothing about the field I wanted to get into...and that freaked me out.

My 17 year old brain figured that the only way to start getting in front of the 8-ball was to go to my local aquariums (the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo) and start to identify the animals.  That’d really show how good of a trainer I’d be.  

The dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo wound up being pretty interactive at the underwater viewing window of the main habitat, so on weekends I’d drive down to the zoo and try to play with the dolphins.  This was great until eventually, one of the trainers told me to stop because it could disrupt training goals for their youngest dolphin.  Now that I’m a trainer, I understand where she was coming from, but at the time I thought it was career suicide.  

Especially when she asked my name, and I got all nervous and not only told her my name but added, “AND I’D LOVE TO DO AN INTERNSHIP HERE SOMEDAY!”



When it was time to apply for internships, I had a brilliant idea.  I’d apply for internships in the Chicago area, because that way I wouldn’t have to spend money to live away from home!  It’d be easy, and I mean, I heard how competitive these internships were, but surely they’d pick me, right?  I could identify their animals.  I knew a lot about dolphins.  And NO ONE on Earth or in any neighboring galaxies could possibly love dolphins more than I do.  I was a shoe-in.

I looked at the applications for Brookfield Zoo and Shedd Aquarium.  Both of them said I’d be working pretty hard, lifting stuff, standing on my feet, cleaning a lot.  I started going to the gym to work out, so I’d be ready for the physical requirements.  That was probably the only smart, prudent step I took in getting ready for an internship.  

My application to Brookfield Zoo was denied, because my letter of recommendation didn’t arrive on time from my university’s registrar’s office.  It wound up being a clerical error on my school’s part, but that didn’t change the outcome.  Having so many intern applications come - many of which represent equally qualified candidates - means that often, intern coordinators need to have ways of paring their selection pool down to a few.  Strict application deadlines are one of those methods; it’s completely unbiased.

So I didn’t make that one.  And when I interviewed for the Shedd internship, it’s safe to say I bombed that one.  Again, having not really prepared myself for what the marine mammal training field was like, I figured the internship was like any ol’ summer job.

“Do you have any schedule conflicts within the dates you’d be interning at the Shedd?” the interviewer asked.

“Oh, yes,” I said confidently.  “I need a week off in August, and another weekend for a family event.” 


Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get that internship either after the interviewer kindly explained that taking a weekend off was one thing, but an entire week was not possible.  He gave me advice on how to present myself the next time I interviewed for an internship.  And while I was embarrassed and disappointed at the time, I appreciated the unsolicited advice because hey, maybe I would’ve made the same mistake.

The more research I did on internships, the more I realized I really needed to broaden my search.  I applied to every marine mammal internship, made overly certain everything got to where it needed to go on time, and made sure I had no schedule conflicts with the internship periods.  Eventually, I landed an internship at Clearwater Marine Aquarium and was there for six months....

...and rearing to get a job.  I didn’t want to go back to school, because I had finally had a taste of my dream job.   And right after I got back from my internship, I was diagnosed with melanoma.  Talk about a &#%(-y time.

I wallowed a little bit, not gonna lie.  I was really scared of the melanoma diagnosis not only for my own health, but also because I didn’t know how it’d affect my future in marine mammal training.  I knew I had to cast my net wide in the job search; I couldn’t just limit myself to the indoor facilities because I’d heard so much about how difficult it was to land an entry-level job ANYWHERE, much less at a place you think you want.  I felt defeated and scared before I even sent my first job application.

But then, I started applying.  Everywhere.  No entry-levelish job on AZA and IMATA was safe.  I applied for every animal training job (not just marine mammals) I could find.  I scoured the internet for zoo and aquarium websites to see if they had any additional job postings that weren’t up on IMATA or AZA’s websites, and found a good amount.  I sent out resume after resume after resume.  Over 80.

C'mon Apple, let's get on this.

And I heard back (this includes rejections) from about 8. 

Before I go any further, let me make something clear: the places I list below are amazing facilities.  Their decision not to interview or hire me is 100% okay. I have absolutely no bitter feelings towards them whatsoever.  Why didn’t I get an interview or get hired at these places?  Simple.  I wasn’t a good fit.  Nothing more to it!

Most of the applications I sent out went into the void.  Even places I knew people, thinking that maybe they’d be like, “Oh that kid, let’s look at her resume” they didn’t.  I don’t know what was harder to adjust to, accepting a rejection or never hearing back.  I struggled with sending follow-up emails or phone calls, because What If It Got Lost In The Mail?  What if they couldn’t Open The Attachment?

I acted on an emotional impulse, and made a mistake by initially following up with the mysterious black-hole applications.  I didn’t hear back from them either, which I took as a message loud and clear as: don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Yet again, I felt embarrassed and frustrated, mostly with myself.  I worried that they’d remember my name, like in a conversation like this:

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Oh my god, this Cat girl emailed us again.

Zoo Hiring Person 2: Really?!?! She is SO annoying

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Let’s forever remember this name

Zoo Hiring Person 2: Yes, let’s remember this name and BLACK BALL HER FROM THE
                                         FIELD FOREVER


Of course, that’s not at all how that goes.  You know how that situation probably went?  Something more like this:

Zoo Hiring Person 1: Oh, there’s another follow up email from an interested candidate.      Obviously passionate, but young.  Next!

And speaking for myself, because I am terrible with names (and details in general), if someone makes a little mistake or whatever, I’m not going to hold it against them or even remember them whenever they apply again.**

Eventually, because perseverance and time pay off, I got a swim test at SeaWorld San Diego.  I practiced my butt off for that thing, figuring the hardest part was going to obviously be the test.  If I could pass the test, then I knew I could ace the interview.  Why? Because I’d interviewed, failed, and learned so much from my internship search experience.  Plus, I had six months of marine mammal training under my belt, and felt confident in my basic knowledge.  I knew I could convey that while I understood the lingo, I was not a know-it-all and was eager to learn learn learn.   They’d be crazy not to hire me!

With this confidence, I took the swim test.  I passed the swim test.  And before I interviewed, I got tossed into an improv-type situation that totally took my by surprise.  I did my best, as I’ve written in a previous blog.  And then, the interview.

Well first, I had all the wrong clothes.  For anyone who knows me personally, this is not surprising.  I am actually The Worst Female in the Western hemisphere when it comes to fashion sense.  I hate dressing up, I never know what’s appropriate to wear.   What I think looks Interview Good is what most people might wear to an establishment such as Wal Mart, but like, at reasonable hours like from say 5:00pm to 7:00pm.   So give me some credit.


So I show up in this weird outfit I thought would be a perfect Marine Mammal Trainer Interview get up, green jeans (.....) with a silk button down shirt.  I looked atrocious.  I have no idea why I thought those two things go together.  I wish I had a photo, but if I did I’d probably have destroyed it because I don’t think some of you could survive the laughing fit that would ensue upon seeing it.

When I walked into the room, I saw a bunch of very Important People sitting at a table waiting to do my interview.  All of these people where very kind and did a great job putting me at ease.  Then, they began the worst interview of my career.

They asked me questions like, “Tell us about a time you were put in charge of a project, and it failed.”  

“Tell us about a time you dealt with an aggressive incident.”

These were questions I had never encountered in my internship journey.  Had I done a little research about interviews, I would’ve been more prepared for that particular brand of questioning.  But because I thought I’d already gone through that learning process, I didn’t bother.  What a mistake.  

Uh oh

I’m not sure what the interviewers would tell you about the caliber of my answers, but from my perspective I definitely did not do well.  I tried to answer confidently, but I was so shaken and so frustrated with myself for being so complacent that it was hard to really focus.  What was the point of answering so many seemingly-negative questions? To see how you work under pressure.  To see how you are when you’re thrown off.  And maybe, to see how you deal with inevitable failure, because there is no one who avoids making mistakes.

At the end of the interview, they asked me if I had any questions.  This was yet another major fail on my part: I’d never thought about what questions I’d ask a prospective employer for a paid job.  The internship interview questions I asked where logistic, but would it look cocky if I asked those same kinds of questions for a job?  Would it look like I assumed I got the position?  I have no idea how SeaWorld runs their departments, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell them no, I had NO questions.   And so, in my wisest, proudest moments, the best Look At Me, I’m Hireable question was:

“Do you guys like, sometimes get animals from the navy?”

And it just came out of my mouth and was hanging in the air in front of all of those really  Important Sea World people and I wanted to die.  What a stupid question.   

They answered the question politely, and asked if I had any more.

Me: Uh, no, I'm going to go die now. 

The Monster At The End Of This Interview

Okay, I didn't really say that.  I tried to save face as best I could by saying no, thanks so much for the opportunity, I had fun (and really, up until that point, I had).

All of the mistakes I've talked about really shook my confidence.  It make me question not only IF I'd ever get a job, but if I SHOULD.  "Does anyone else make a fool out of themselves?" I'd ask myself.  "The field is so competitive, can I afford to make these mistakes??"

The voice inside every aspiring animal trainer's head

Take a deep breath and let it out in pure relief, because YES.  You can.  As long as you keep a positive attitude, and force yourself to get out of your head so you can learn from your mistakes, you will be fine.  The people interviewing you were brand new at this job once.  They were scared and fumbled around with their words, their technique, and their image.  They can empathize with you, even if they don't think you're the right fit.  They won't hold it against you for future job opportunities.  Just keep yourself positive (and stay off of Facebook!).

Guess what? The job I have now came from failure.  That's right.  One of the resumes I handed out was to the director and general manager of Marineland back when it was still privately owned.  Marineland had a table at the IMATA conference job fair in 2005.  I gave my resume to the director and introduced myself.  He laughed when he saw my name on my resume and said, "That's an interesting name.  Right now we don't have any openings for entry-level trainers, but keep us in mind when you get some more experience." 

I remembered that, and applied after I'd had experience at Miami Seaquarium.  Guess what? The director at Marineland remembered me, I got an interview, and landed the job.  That director is now in charge at the place I'm at now, and he brought me over.  We both joke all the time about our first encounter at the job fair; and remind aspiring trainers how important it is to network, to get outside of your comfort zone, and learn from your mistakes.  You will benefit in ways you can't even predict.

Great success!

I could go on and on about my failures.  I made so many mistakes in my job.  So maybe later I'll write about mistakes at different parts of my career later.  Yeah, that would certainly break up your reading experience instead of what is turning into a blog of Russian novelist proportions.

So any of you out there struggling to get your foot in the door, terrified that you made decisions or said some things that "for sure" have sealed your fate against getting a job, please don't worry.  Take this blog as a reminder that we've all been in your shoes.  Just keep the following things in mind, no matter how much you think you've messed up:

1) Be confident, even if you blew the interview and you have to fake it to the last moment.  It's better to be confident and professional even when you know you've "lost".  Not just for your future job prospects, but out of respect for yourself and your development

2) Stay positive; never trash-talk the facility or anyone who interviewed you.  Why? Because you're the one who messed up, not them...and that's okay.  It's okay if you're not the right fit for that job.  Maybe you will be later, but only if you take it in stride.  And maybe you'll never be, which is great too because who wants to work at a place where they wouldn't be a good fit?  Let the people interviewing you worry about that; you just stay positive.

3) LEARN.  Learn learn learn learn learn.  A mistake is an utter waste if you use it to tell yourself you suck, if you use it to tell others they suck, or if you just let it sit and fester in your head.  A mistake is a gold mine if you learn from it.

4) Know you'll fall, over and over and over.  You'll get ahead, think you've "made it", and then you'll fail.  It's normal, it means you're pushing yourself and you're growing.  It doesn't mean you aren't worth it.  So pick yourself up and keep going.

We're cheering for you!

Yeah you do!

* I’d be lying if I said anything I ever write is “brief”

** ...unless someone chooses to publicly decry their woe or disrespect for the facility (facilities) they’ve applied to and from which never heard back and/or got rejected.  We remember those people.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What I Did This Summer

You know that George Gershwin song, “Summertime”?  The one with the opening line, “Summer time, and the living is easy.”

What did you know about summer, George?!

In fact, the first stanza of that song goes something like this:

Summer time, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping
And the cotton is high
Oh your daddy’s rich
And your ma is good lookin’
So hush, little baby
Don’t cry

For most of us animal trainers/keepers in the zoo field, this song is completely foreign to us.  Easy living in the summer*? I don’t think so.  In fact, I submit that we change the song entirely to fit the needs of us trainers whose summer season is nothing but easy.

I’m not a songwriter, but please see below for suggested changes:

Summer time, and the hours are crazy
Attendance’s insane
And the temperature’s high
Oh your guests are rich
And your trainers impoverished
But there’s always OT
Don’t cry

Oh god, please don't ever let us have to see you cry.  Ever. Again.

So maybe I should just stick to marine mammal training and blog writing, but you get the idea.

Remember when you were in elementary school and you had to write essays and reports all the G-D time?  Like book reports?  Those things were so annoying, mostly because they were filled with spoilers but no alerts to be had.  Why should I read White Fang if I know what’s going to happen (i.e. I will bawl my eyes out, why does every animal story end like that?!)?  But of course, one thing that unites many of us is that we had one point in our lives had to write the What I DId This Summer essay.

I liked hearing what people did during the summer.  For me, I always wrote about going to Rhinelander, Wisconsin (which is where I happen to be as I write this) which is this awesome town in the northern part of the state.  It was the only thing I looked forward to all summer, because the rest of the time I was doing one of the following things (sometimes at the same time):

  1. Hating summer camp
  2. Dreading the start of school
Okay, I'd go to this camp and I'd love it.

Anyways, the What I Did This Summer essays were a great way to learn about people’s lives outside of school, even the kids with whom you weren’t really friends.  It was the one time you could get a glimpse into what they liked. 

I’ve been thinking about those essays back in the days of yore for a while now, and figured you know what?  I want to write another one.  What I Did This Summer.  And then I want to hear all about yours.

This summer was pretty busy, which was great for my little family-owned facility.  Our summers amount to essentially a giant bake sale (without the baked goods, which makes me very sad), so we raise money so we can spend it on the animals.  We, like so many of you, take our job very seriously not only with keeping the animals healthy and happy, but with making sure we reach as many guests as possible.  While yes, the money from admission and programs pay the bills (for the sake of the animals), there is a much greater purpose to our job as educators.  We get to know people from many walks of life.  People of all ages leave with an appreciation for animal welfare and conservation, in part because they have someone to talk to about it.  Sometimes, that someone introduces them to an animal face-to-face.  

This summer was a great one for our facility.  I'm saying great from my and my team's perspective.  I am no bean counter, but the animal training staff saw a lot of people walk through our doors.  More importantly, we met a lot of those people and got to brag about how awesome our animals are.  And I'm not just talking about the dolphins.  So here are a few highlights from my summer :)

1. Our Amazing Dolphins Are Amazing

"Hey!! You guys rock!"

Okay, you might think I'm some kind of dolphin trainer snob.  I swear, I'm not.  It's not that our other animals aren't amazing, but let me tell you what I mean in this context.  

We have five incredible dolphins, three boys and two girls.  We are a small facility and offer a handful of dolphin interactive programs, in addition to three educational presentation-type shows a day.  When I first started at this place, I thought it would be challenging to have the same dolphins do all of the things I just mentioned.  Most facilities have more dolphins, so it's easier to have one group do one thing, while another does something else later.  

Well guess what.  Our amazing dolphins taught our animal training staff the importance of not relying on food, because we wound up with highly motivated animals through much of the summer** who chose to play with toys and get tactile reinforcement over eating fish.  They got their allotted food amount each day of course, but it was in more of a "hey, eat this so we can play" versus "Nice bow, here's a herring."  I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the latter, but what I am saying is a hot summer paired with normal seasonal decreases in appetite in bottlenose dolphin makes for a challenging program if all you're doing is relying on primary.  We had a blast finding which toys each dolphin found reinforcing.  Sometimes we'd wind up with the boys playing with us for 20 minutes after the show, and we'd step back before they lost interest.  

Did I mention that we found out they went nuts for the monkey-in-the-middle game?  One trainer threw a toy to another across the habitat, and the dolphin zoomed back and forth, back and forth, coming back to each trainer with fantastic attention.  No matter how busy our day was, we (the dolphins and humans) never forgot to have a really, really fun time...without sacrificing behavioral principles.  They carried us through a very busy summer with almost no problems.

2. Our Old Male Sea Lion Found His Show Shoes

What a gentleman.

We have a very geriatric California sea lion named Kyle who used to be a big star in shows.  He was retired a few years ago due to failing eyesight, a common situation in most older pinnipeds.  The past few years we've focused on helping Kyle adjust to this big life change.  One of the most difficult parts of this was getting him comfortable gating from one habitat to the other.  He just wasn't having it.  I suppose an old man is an old man, be you sea lion or man.  

Like, we'd get him almost through a habitat and into another, and he'd suddenly just peace out.  His lumbering self would stumble back towards his comfort zone.  We spent a lot of training time working on his comfort in new habitats.  I don't know how much of this was our training, but at some point Kyle came out into the show habitat.  A couple of attractive ladies (of the sea lion variety) may or may not have had something to do with this.  But since those passionate flings have since cooled, Kyle started right back up with his gating training and is now gating into two habitats without any problems. This is of course, great for us as trainers.  But more importantly, this is great for Kyle.  He is confidently parading in and out of whatever habitat he pleases, he gets a variety of sessions now because he has the option of doing portions of shows, hanging out with the ladies, and is just so much calmer in sessions.  It was a big accomplishment for him that significantly increased the quality of his life.  How can you not be happy about that?

3. Missy The Penguin May Remember She's A Penguin

"I'm a penguin? That explains the flippers."

Okay so we have this adorable little African penguin named Missy.  She was born at the Gulfarium and was hand-reared, but at some point in her early life she decided she'd rather be a human.  We don't know why for sure, I mean, being a human isn't all that great compared to a penguin.  For example, we can't swallow massive portions of food completely whole.  I mean have you ever watched a penguin eat?!  A piece of food longer than their head and neck is just swallowed down whole, over and over again.

That'd be like me eating 7 slices of pizza 18 inches long without chewing, four times a day.  I WISH!!!!!!!  I'd be willing to attempt it, as long as someone is ready to take me to the emergency room when the time comes.

Also, humans are about as proficient a swimmer compared to a penguin as a shoelace is at writing a semi-best selling novel.  We also are not anyone's favorite animal (are we?).  I'm still confused about Missy's motive for Species Envy, but nonetheless...

For the past few years, we've tried to pair Missy up with a man.  Let me clarify, not a human man.  A penguin.  In fact, if anyone knows anyone at, could you let them know we'd be interested in Missy beta-testing a version made specifically for unpaired birds.  

Every attempt to pair up Missy failed.  She wouldn't have anything to do with the boys we introduced her to, or had her live exclusively with.  But this year, this was the first year we saw her actually STAND NEXT TO A PENGUIN.  Multiple times.  Not accidental, at least by our calculations.  They even call to each other, which is really big.  She is still a person-watcher, but it was such a great thing to see her actually care that another penguin existed (and that maybe, she too is a penguin).

4. Great Husbandry Goals!


Among a lot of great ones, my favorites:  

We had a dolphin and a sea lion give voluntary blood for the first time.  And we are ready to do voluntary x-rays with one of our otters (I'll let you guess if it was harder to desense them to the x-ray machine or the lead aprons the operators have to wear).  

5. I Got To Watch A Few Alligator Training Sessions


Our reptile keepers invited me to watch their gator sessions with our three resident American alligators: Floyd, Seminole, and Gracie.  All three are incredible animals with very different personalities, but my favorite is Gracie.  She seems very eager to learn for the sake of learning, versus for her food reinforcement.  She rests her head on her little station area and watches you for a while, until she just starts sampling like crazy.  It was really, really fun to watch how their caretakers interact with them, not to mention how the guests react when they realize that alligators are not mindless eating machines.  I'd say those three gators made a bigger impact than some of the "favorite" marine mammals in the park.

6.  Publix Had The Best Ice Cream BOGOs Ever...


....let's just say Frutarre Bars and Klondike Bars are medically responsible for our training staff making it through days that were hotter than the surface of the sun.  And we didn't go broke buying them.  

Were there more great things that happened this summer?  Of course there were.  I just know you probably don't want to read a 20 page essay on every awesome event.  

What about not-so-good things?  Oh sure.  We had a handful of cranky guests, which were a very very small amount (yay!) but those always get you down.  We had some really, really hot days where we all thought we'd probably shrivel up and die, but remember, Publix BOGO Ice Cream Solution.

There were a few moments towards the end of the summer where we all felt tired, mostly mentally.  And the animals had their days where they were like, "Hey, we're going to take this show off, because we need to engage on adult activity.  Have fun standing on stage by yourself!!!!!!!!"

But what we always talked about, especially as we the trainers felt tired, was that we couldn't let it affect how we worked with the animals.  Those fun dolphin play sessions?  We had to make sure those were still fun, and not starting to be status quo.  Are we lower energy during sea lion sessions because we are tired of doing the same thing? Snap out of it! The sea lions don't deserve that.  If the seals don't want to do an interactive program, figure out how to make it worth their while again.  And so on and so forth. 


It's so easy to get wiped out and just try to go on auto-pilot for the rest of the summer.  It's also easy for some of us, especially those of us in leadership roles, to try to incorporate big new changes without realizing we're taxing the staff and animals beyond a point that makes sense for the time.  We have to find a balance.  We don't need to reinvent the wheel during our busy season, but we have to give it our all.  The animals deserve that.  And you won't get through your summer otherwise.

So you know what, I think I have one more highlight from What I Did This Summer.

7. Working With My Team!

I'll never get sick of this photo.

I know a lot of you leaders out there feel the same way about your team, but don't you just want to high five them for being great?  For balancing their animal care jobs with training, guest interaction, shows, and doing it in challenging conditions, dealing with challenging or rude guests, and putting on their best face no matter how they felt?  

I feel so proud of my team members at all levels.  There's no way that the management team alone could've motivated the animals to do the great things they did this summer.  It was everyone pitching in and giving it their all.  Each person brings something unique and important to the table, and I can't find enough ways to show them how proud I am.  I tell them in person of course, but I feel they need a little bloggerific shout out.  So PB, AM, DD, SD, CS, KS, RC, MM, SA, NS, SF, SY, ZC, SW, ET, CB, MG, CZ, KG, JM, KM, SO, JD, KR, AC, AK, SM, KH and all the people whose initials I don't know (but you guys in the snack bar, gift shop, reservations, and photo) thank you for a great summer.  Can't wait to do it all again next year!

* Sorry to the southern hemisphere readers; is your winter as insane as our summer? 
** Hey, they aren't robots!

*** "Oh My Fruttares're Good!"

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Penguins Are Cool (Unless They're Hot)

Very rarely will I ever make a sweeping statement for reasons other than humor and hyperbole.  But what I'm about to say (write?) is one of the exceptions, because uh, it's true.

At every zoo, there is a group of Elite Animals.  You know what I'm talking about.  Elite Animal Groups (EAGs) consist of species which every guest wants to see, every keeper/trainer wants to care for/train.  EAGs typically make an appearance in the Top 5 Favorite Animal List in approximately 99.0024% of the human population.  

EAG membership depends on the facility you go to, and what sorts of critters they have.  If you're a blue-billed duck at SeaWorld....let's just say your likeness will never be in ice-cream form.  

However, if you are a blue-billed duck at a smaller facility, like maybe a wildlife park or a small zoo focusing on birds, reptiles, and amphibians, you stand a pretty good chance at being a member in good standing of the EAG.

Some animals trump others, and that doesn't mean they are better, it's just that we know the public (and admit it, many keepers and trainers) are drawn to certain animals.  Here's a short list:

Dolphins (of all species)
Really giant alligators
Polar Bears
Big sharks

BABY elephants are just born into EAG fame!

As I mentioned, people's EAG priorities change when they go to a place specializing in certain types of taxa.  The Saint Augustine Alligator Farm (one of the most amazing zoos...not an actual farm!) houses every species of crocodilian found in the world.  They have a collection of exotic birds, small mammals, and other reptiles.  But their main attraction are their crocodilians.  So when guests come into the park, even if their favorite animal of all time is a beluga whale, you can bet that they'll find the EAG members appropriate to said zoo.  Who do they flock to?  The American alligators, the giant saltwater crocodiles, maybe the toucans.  So as you can see, the EAG is very specific to each zoo.

But what of the non-members?  The animal species that, no matter how awesome they are, just don't have what it takes according to public opinion to get membership into such a prestigious club?  How do they get their faces on merchandise?  What will it take for a guest to properly identify them, or know even a little about them?

This poor little dude is probably not in many EAG clubs.

Well, for one thing, we as keepers and trainers can advocate for them.  And so, today's post is about one of the coolest species of animals I've ever known who just can't quite make it onto the list....the African penguin.

A Frickin' Penguin!

"Whaaaaat!" you say.  "Penguins are SO cool!!! They are big and Morgan Freeman even talked about them.  They live in the cold and are really beautiful and huge and did I mention there was a documentary made about them?"

I know, right?  Penguins are usually on that universal EAG list, but unfortunately not the species I'm talking about.  Let's focus on the species of penguin at my facility: the African [black-footed] penguin.  

Everyone wants to see Emperor penguins, or chinstraps.  But when you get the little weird-looking penguins who live outside in the Florida heat, people get disillusioned.  Sometimes they even get mad.  They watch the penguins for about nine seconds, then go off to the EAG animals, who they'll stare at for a long time and will probably make some of them Instagram famous.

True story: This is the first image that came up when I googled "penguin".  And....the first warm weather penguin photo that came up was #27.  Let's just say there's a lot more Cold Weather Penguin Interest, clearly.

But African penguins are awesome.  They are just as penguiny as any other species.  In fact, I'm relatively certain that any Audubon avian publication would agree that the following characteristics define a penguin:

1) Flipper wings

Look at those flippys!

2) Teeny tiny little feathers that look shiny and sort of like fish scales up close, but all
     together look like fur

Seemless feathers!

3) They have tuxedo plumage

Sometimes they're even named Tux, like this handsome old fellow

4) They have little stump legs...

Stick legs

5) ...which end in adorable, fat webbed feet

Look at those cute feet!

6) Their primary locomotive movement on terra firma is waddling (secondary is hopping)

Chris Waddle.  Epic mullet, bro.

If you have a bird who has all of the above 6 characteristics, it's a penguin, even if it doesn't live on a glacier.

African penguins are indigenous to South African coasts, the climate of which is pretty similar to that of where I live.  The only exception to this rule is in the winter, when it gets really ridiculously cold for Florida and it actually becomes too cold for the penguins.  I am always extremely envious of our little penguinos in the winter time because during the day, they get heat lamps.  Trainers don't get heat lamps.  And during the evening, they all merrily hop into crates for a short transport to an indoor facility where they are placed to spend a nice, warm evening.   "SUCKAAAAS!!" they seem to say, as we frozen animal caregivers go back into the 30 degree weather to feed out the rest of the animals.

Here's another cool fact about African penguins: they make some seriously interesting sounds.  Their other common name is the Jackass penguin, because one vocalization in particular sounds like a braying donkey and/or Bob Dylan on his latest Christmas album.   Pound for pound, these little water birds can create some serious volume.  

Best review I read about his latest Christmas album: " 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' sounds more like a threat."

But that's not their coolest vocal.  In fact, the one I like best is simple, and it also scared the crap out of me when I first started working with them.

For those of you who work with birds who can talk, you know what I'm talking about.  When I adopted my yellow-naped amazon Sprite, he had two previous homes and had learned a bunch of different words and phrases.  I'd heard a couple of them, but they sounded very "birdy", like it was obvious a parrot was talking.  

One day, when I was doing laundry in my apartment, I heard:

"Hi.  How're you?" in a perfectly human voice.  "Sprite?" It continued on.  "Spriiiite?  Spriiiiiiiiiiite!"


I'm already pretty high strung when it comes to home invasions, in that I'm pretty sure any noise occurring in another room after 8:30pm is probably a violent criminal coming in to attack me.  Quick quiz: Which of the following reactions to this situation did I have?

a)  "Oh, that Sprite! Ha ha! What a good talker!"

b) "WTF? Oh, that's just Sprite!"

c) ........*poops pants and doesn't move for several minutes until Sprite starts making normal amazon parrot sounds*

Just to prove to you how nervous I am about this whole Deranged Serial Killer In My House phobia I have, let me now admit that this was not the last time Sprite terrified me.  He convinced me on another occasion that a man was in the house, when he decided to say, "OH MY GOD" really loudly. He has only said it that one time, and has never said it since.   That may have something to do with my immediate reaction of Almost Cardiac Arrest.

I'd be okay with this serial killer.

I started at my current work in January of 2013.  You know, winter time.  The time when penguins would be sleeping more nights than not inside.  And at this time, their makeshift night habitat was happily situated in a common room between the male and female animal care employee locker rooms.  On my second day, I went to work early for a meeting with my bosses.  I walked straight into the locker area after saying hello to the penguins, and started to get dressed.

This locker room does not have a lot of privacy.  Where I had just come from had a really beautiful, abnormally nice locker room with a real door and many bathroom stalls.  The one I have now is nice, but there is only one bathroom, and the locker area is blocked off from the common area by a shower curtain.  I figured that well, it was very early, and it wasn't like the girl's locker room faced any windows, so I didn't bother to close the shower curtain and began to change into my bathing suit.  I'll assume that you, dear reader, know what one must do with clothes before getting into a bathing suit.  

As I made the transition from "clothed" to "not", I heard a voice.


"SOMEONE IS IN HERE!!!" I yelled, and dove into the bathroom, freaking out.  SOMEONE HAD SEEN ME!


I was mortified.  Here I was, a brand new assistant supervisor on day 2, and I'd just shown more of myself to someone whose name I probably didn't even know yet.  

"Sorry!" I said.  "I didn't know anyone was in here!"


That's rude, I thought.  I got myself together and pulled up my bathing suit.  I peered out of the bathroom and saw no one.

"Hello?" I asked.  


I walked out into the common area, only to be met by all of our penguins staring at me. 

"Oh!" one of them said.

I laughed, amused and sort of embarrassed that yet again, I'd been foiled by a bird. 

Fools all, those humans!

Another cool fact about African penguins?  They totally decorate their homes.  They naturally live in burrows and caves, so we provide them (as do most facilities with these guys) with huts.  Mated pairs and swingin' singles alike find their own hut and make it their own.  During breeding season, they'll build a nest out of whatever material they can find/is provided for them.   Sometimes, they'll steal material right out of other birds' huts, which makes for an interesting drama.

I really like to look at them like they are a soap opera.  Stealing home wares aside,  their lives are very much like that of other bird species: Eternal melodramas. For example, despite the fact that African penguins are classified as "monogamous", they don't always act that way.*  Humans love a simple, quick classification and get very uncomfortable when we see ourselves in animals.   A mated pair may be happily together for many years, but one day, the female leaves her man and shacks up with another.  

You ain't seen drama until you watch a bunch of these guys get up in each other's business

They are also very much exhibitionists.  When one pair starts Adult Activity, the others get amped up and start their own fun.  It's not a stretch to say that African penguin fertility success rates increase in larger colonies...because the more reproductive activity happening around them, the more "inspired" the penguins are to consummate their own penguin-wedded bliss.

So no, they don't have harrowing journeys through crazy winter storms for weeks and weeks just to get to sea to stuff their faces with enough food to feed themselves and their tiny chick, who was left with dad to stand for an equally long amount of time (don't they get bored)?  But African penguins could easily have their own reality TV show.

I wonder if the reason people are just so like, blah about African penguins is because they look a lot like birds.  And the EAG penguin species (kings, emperors) aren't really...that bird like.   They are statuesque and the side of them that is often shown on TV is not very birdlike behavior (at least to the laymen).

Think about it.  It really takes a special person to love birds.  Most people I talk to (and this includes devoted animal lovers) are lukewarm, deathly afraid of, or just really don't like birds.   Maybe it's because they have a beak that hurts when they bite, or perhaps it's the fact that birds are just weird looking.  They are living descendants of dinosaurs (it's official!), so maybe that's the disconnect.

I...obviously love birds.

Do African penguins bite?  Oh, yes.  They are such typical birds about it, too.  You'll go in there all excited to feed them and interact with them, especially the ones with whom you have a good relationship.  And they'll make their little "OH!" sounds when they see you, and dip their heads and give you the Lovey Eyes.  And as they waddle over to you you think, "This is so great, I have a penguin friend," and they come over to you and start soliciting attention.  Everything is going great and then out of no where BAM! The skin on your elbow is in between their sharp beak and they're just twisting that *#&% back and forth back and forth.   Owowowowow.


But like any birds, you learn to deal with it.  It doesn't ever stop hurting, but that's the deal when you work with birds.  For those of you Emperor penguin snobs out there, they bite too.  Ask anyone who works with them.  Birds is birds!

I have had the pleasure of working with one particular penguin who I don't think has a biting bone in her body.  She'd rather play with her toys, sit in your lap and look at you.  In fact, when she's scared, she'll run right over to you and be as close to you as she possibly can (and if you're sitting down, she'll be in your lap right away).  But that just goes to show that penguins are:

1) As individually unique as any animal with a brain
2) Plain ol' birds!  

The sweetest penguin in all the land

If I had my way, there'd never be any EAG animals.  All guests would appreciate each animal equally despite the species, and all trainers would want to work with them.  But I know that's not possible, so I'll make an official motion to add Penguins of All Species to any EAG list at any zoo.  I'll tell you that most trainers who start at my place of employment probably start out with Dolphin Fever, but once they get to know the penguins, they fall in love.  Why? Because African penguins are awesome.  They are intelligent, hilarious, beautiful, and perplexing animals, worthy of awe and admiration.

So what about you, fellow keepers and trainers?  Which animal species at your zoo or aquarium get looked over by guests the most?  Maybe if we bring awareness to how awesome these animals are, we can start to increase their popularity!


* True in so many birds we think "mate for life"