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!"

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